I knew someone once who hated photographs. He didn’t like having his picture taken – even though he was, by all accounts, a great looking guy. But he also didn’t like having photographs of other people. In fact, he didn’t like the whole idea of photos, because regardless of what it is that’s in frame, it’s capturing a moment that you can’t ever have back.
That was the way that he saw it, anyway. To him, happiness existed in those moments he couldn’t have again. Happiness was fleeting, and photographs just epitomised that.
I’m sure that in the years that have passed, he’s changed his mind about this. I bet he takes lots of pictures now. Because even though he still can’t return to the past, there are some events he will want crystallised. And he will want a way to remember them, and relive them.
If you’ve seen the Pixar film Inside Out (2015), you will be familiar with the idea of memories being contained in individual orbs, coloured by a particular emotion: joy, sadness, anger, fear or disgust. My memories have a particular emotional use-by date. The direction of this emotion only runs one way. It’s all contextual, but about present context. I see the past through the lens of the present.
People, pets have died. Bridges have been burnt. And I can only see what is rather than what was.
I remember when he used to put the Christmas tree up. I would take care of decorations; old tinsel in old plastic bags, same old coloured lights that changed maybe four different colours. Previous years’ baubles. Some hollow, disco ball-like. Paper baubles made in class with a bell and an angel printed onto them, that I’d coloured in. Threaded with a bit of flimsy string.
One time I pooled the tinsel beneath the tree, to create a soft, slightly itchy nest, and laid my head on it, staring up through the plastic branches. It was a fun idea though the novelty didn’t last very long.
We kept presents under the tree for only a brief period of my life. Then we got lazy. We let our lack of tradition get the better of us and the new tradition was established of us going shopping and me picking out something I wanted and getting to own it from the moment we left the store. I didn’t know anyone else who did this, but I didn’t mind the practice. Other things I had to wait for.
When I was big enough, the duty of setting up the tree fell to me. I did this a couple of times, then there came a year when I simply could not be stuffed packing the tree away and it stayed in the corner of the living room until the next Christmas. My father was rather indifferent. We both just ignored its presence.
The next Christmas, I don’t think I bothered with the tree at all.
Christmastime was the only time my father had off from work. It was always a standard two-odd weeks. Later, I’d learn that the employees of a supplier of his were forced to take January off as their annual leave, as this was when the company was also shut. They had no say in the matter, could not choose to take their leave at any other time. I thought this was incredibly unfair.
For a few years in my early to mid- teens, my father and I would travel up to Brisbane for several days. We always stayed in caravan parks, slept in a tent. I remember squatting in the grass nearby, in the dark, doing dishes underneath a tap, contending with the various Christmas beetles and ghoulish insects. But we also went to theme parks – I wound up going to Movie World something like three times in as many years.
When we weren’t going to theme parks or exploring the city, I visited my mother. Really, it was the other way around – the days when my mother was too busy to see me, my father would find ways to occupy my time.
Eventually, in my mid- teens, I told my father that I wanted to stop going to Brisbane. After that, we mostly spent Christmas at home. Sometimes, rode our bikes around the ever-shrinking Lake Gwelup.
There was a Christmas when I was a kid that we spent in Hong Kong, with his family. We had a family portrait taken, forever memorialising behind laminate the godawful outfit I wore that was bought for the occasion. Nothing good can ever come out of a matching top and skirt done in red velour and a teddy bear print.
It was either that time or another when I noticed Christmas decorations up around the great metropolis, flashing outlines of candy canes and signs reading ‘Seasons greetings’, and I thought how unusual this was, because I didn’t think that a country like Hong Kong observed Christmas.
Strangely, I don’t have too many memories of how we spent Christmas during my university days and beyond. They are the more recent occasions, of course, but somehow it’s the more distant ones that I have these impressions of.
It’s been a perennial tradition of mine to write a blog post about Christmas each time it rolls around. It’s funny how even though it happens every year, there’s always something new to write, even though one is always just plumbing events of the past.
Since I’ve been in Canberra, Christmas has always involved one or more of the following permutations: being somewhere else, being alone, being with someone else’s family. Last year’s was a solitary affair. This year, I find myself with two sets of plans: Christmas lunch with a friend and her family, and Christmas dinner with another friend. We’re having a barbecue and watching Die Hard. Overall, I think it’s going to be a good day.
There are many yesterdays and Christmases of the past that have become tainted by what has come since. But tomorrow? Tomorrow is wide open.