It’s a quarter past one on Christmas Day as I write this. The sky is grey and the rain is coming down in a slow drizzle, spoiling everyone’s barbecues and outdoor festivities.
While others are no doubt gathered around oversized hams and in the process of splitting apart their Christmas turkeys, I am sitting on my couch digesting my late brunch of a pancake, a fried egg, and two strips of bacon. My bird is perched quietly in a dark corner of her cage a few metres away, grooming herself.
This is how the rest of my day is looking. I will probably try to finish Max Brooks’ World War Z, which a friend at work lent to me. I will probably have some of the duck and pineapple fried rice I made a few days ago for dinner. And to close, I’m contemplating watching an episode of The West Wing (Season 2) followed by The Gatekeeper (2012). I will probably have some of the Connoisseur coconut and red bean ice cream I bought a while ago for dessert.
How I got here is reminiscent of the equation tragedy + time = comedy. Last Saturday I was at the National Library boning up on an upcoming interview when I noticed a missed call on my phone. I listened to the voicemail message; it was a friend extending two invitations involving her mother and sister. The first came out a little awkwardly. She was asking me to join them for Christmas lunch if I didn’t already have plans. The second was for dinner, the following night, at a place in Kingston.
I replied by text message. I told her I’d be delighted to join them for dinner, and asked what time I should meet them. As for the other invitation, I gave my sincere thanks, but said I had already accepted an invitation from someone else we both knew. On the latter count, I had lied. I was grateful, certainly, but I hadn’t already filled that midday Christmas timeslot – thought I expected to, soon.
The next day, my septuagenarian friend was going to come over so I could co-sign a document with him pertaining to the writers group. I had expected that while he was over, he would ask me to join him, his wife and their daughter for Christmas lunch as he had last year.
Although the act of expecting to receive anything usually reeks of entitlement, at worst I felt I was being presumptuous – and even then, not terribly so. My septuagenarian friend and I are extremely close – we do brunch semi-regularly, exchange texts and emails, and see each other fortnightly at the writers group meetings, often cycling back together to the suburb where we separately live. I edited his memoir; he siliconed a cracked tile on my roof. We care about each other and share an easy intimacy.
He came over that Sunday and I dutifully signed the document he brought over. When that was done, I let him steer the conversation towards the logistics of patching a small, water-damaged part of my ceiling. We settled on a date when he would return to do the patching and confirmed what materials I would buy. Then he gave a brief update on the activities that were occupying his time. Throughout, I waited patiently for the subject of Christmas Day to come up. It never did.
A few minutes later he had stepped out through the screen doors. His parting words: ‘Okay, I’ll see you on the 26th.’ And away he went on his bike.
When I recounted this by email to a friend who lives in the US, she said that I should go back to the other friend and see if I could still join them. I said no, mainly because I felt it would be rude. But also, the reason why I declined in the first place still stood. I think my friend is a good person with great compassion, but, truth be told, we’re not really that close. It may come with time, but at the moment it’s not there. There hasn’t been the longitude of friendship, of shared experience, adversity, and kinship yet that builds those kinds of bonds. What’s more, I had only met her mother once, a long time ago, and my memories were coloured by a sharper remembrance of the sister who had been with us whom I hadn’t much warmed to. I just couldn’t see myself being comfortable spending Christmas with them. So that’s why I had said no.
If I could go back though to that day in the library, I would have said yes. Because when I went out to dinner with them, I was reminded that my friend had another sister, whom I had thought thoroughly lovely when we first/last met, and that their mother was also equally delightful. It was a fun, light outing free of the pressures I thought would await me not only that evening but Christmas too had I accepted her offer.
I had experienced these sorts of pressures with my former boyfriend’s family. Wonderful people though they were, I just couldn’t manage to fit in. They had their common history, in-jokes and familial warmth and I was the interloper. Pressure was abound; on them to make me feel included and welcomed, and on me to make myself worthy of their kindness.
I didn’t feel this kind of pressure with my septuagenarian friend. Last Christmas I showed up at his house, as I’d done many times before, feeling a little awkward but otherwise okay. I’d met his wife a few times and she was mostly just quiet, unjudgemental. I was a little nervous about meeting their daughter, wondering how she would feel about me, this friend of her father’s who was about a decade younger than her. But she was fine. She and I and her father found topics to talk about for a couple of hours, in and around the modest but tasty Christmas meal her mother had prepared. Like so many other kids on Christmas Day we unwrapped our presents; my friend had given me a spanner – yes, truly – and a Picasso-themed scarf. And when lunch was over, I went home and life went on.
Hundreds of movies about Christmas have created a portrait of the occasion that millions of secular families and individuals model their Christmases on. There are the symbols and the trappings – Santa Claus, stockings, presents and, less commonly, nativity scenes and Christ – the traditional foods that are customised to different tastes and cooking ability. And there is the intangible, the stuff that makes up what we call the Christmas spirit: the collective effort to put aside differences to come together, the promotion of generosity, the feeling of the importance of family.
Despite being Asian and having grown up with a rather different experience of family, I’m rather fond of all these ideas and aspirations. I don’t aspire to ever owning an ugly Christmas sweater, but I think the rest of it is quite nice. Which is why I have traditionally felt embittered over the gulf between aspiration and actuality – even paying Christmas prices to spend the holidays in New Zealand a couple of years ago, just to get away. This year, I don’t feel that same sense of conflict. It’s required a bit of rationalisation to sort out how I should feel, but the fact remains that I have it pretty good. I am not one of the public servants or others around the country who were laid off recently. I have stability and relative security. I have ice cream in my freezer. And I had a perfectly good offer to be with a friend and enjoy a normal Christmas. I simply cannot justify being mad or upset.
On this day, there is no Christmas tree at my house with twinkling lights. There are no Christmas carols playing softly on a stereo or people milling about with disposable plates and flutes of champagne. But there is a family of magpies outside, the baby one whining incessantly. They are eating the birdseed I left on the deck table for them – my small Christmas gesture.