On Christmas

I remember Christmases, scattered across the globe: childhood Christmas in Yemen with the tiniest sprig of a tree, wrapped gently in a single layer of tinsel and hand-carved ornaments. Presents built from backyard scraps, nailed together into the shape of boat or a bow and arrow or a bedside table. Presents burnt from friend’s CD collections and repackaged with hand-written labels. Presents bought in Australia and carried thousands of kilometres, hidden in luggage, stored away for nine months in cupboards waiting for the holiday season.

I compare my childhood Christmases with the consumerist bunkum of the Western world in the 21st century. Yemen hadn’t embraced consumerism at the time, although there was an abundance of cheap plastic trinkets shipped in via shipping container from China. Similar to your Kmarts and Targets of Australia, although without the advertising budget and weekly specials. This is not to say that the Arab world wasn’t fully in the grip of rampant aspirationalism. The land of high-end luxury cars and watches and fashion (think Dubai) lives neatly entwined with the land of crippling poverty and subsistence wages. Even from a young age I was somehow aware of which cars were in high demand. Yemeni men had a habit of nicknaming car models after famously beautiful women, and the Laila Elwi was considered a prize across the Arab world. Imagine the uproar if Elon Musk named the new model Tesla after the body shape of a Hollywood celebrity….

We were blissfully free of Christmas decorations on the high streets and in the shopping malls of Yemen although hilariously misplaced shop displays did occasionally turn up, (side-note: I’ve never understood the inclusion of snow in Australian Christmas displays. Sure sure, I understand the source material context, and I know there’s the whole ‘Santa at the beach BBQ trope’, but hey, if we’re going to do it, why don’t we commit to really doing it? Can we reimagine Santa as Barry Humphries equipped with John Howard’s eyebrows and Paul Keating’s acerbic wit, spilling out VBs to the thonged and singleted masses?). The expat community got together for Christmas, while the local Arab community were presumably aware that Christmas was going on (thanks Hollywood), but there wasn’t a broad acknowledgement of it. Childhood Christmas was a small family affair, followed by a broader community celebration.

As a kid, the presents were the important thing. I’d lie awake all night thinking about what was in those little packages. My brother would invariably wrap all his presents in newspaper. I would buy everyone some misguided shite, ie a walking cane for my fifty-year old father, but how is a teenage boy meant to be aware of the wider world around him amidst the inner turmoil of teenage-hood? My parents would provide the good presents, plus a surprise most years, something that wouldn’t fit under the tree, or was intangible, un-wrappable or simply held up by international shipping. Over time the presents became less important and the cards that were on the front became the focus. I started reaping less joy from physical things and more joy from other’s thoughts of me, their feelings about the past year, their hopes for the year ahead. I started to enjoy the first half of the meal, the BBQ’d tuna and salad and roast potatoes more than the dessert, the pavlova.

Somewhere along the line we started a holiday tradition of going away for New Years Eve. By ‘going away’ my family meant really going away, driving six hours from the capital city of Sana’a (a two thousand year old fortressed city in the mountains) to the coastal city of Hodeidah, via winding single lane roads and hairpin bends through a mountain range un-matched in beauty anywhere in the world. We would then drive another couple of hours along the coast, to a beach only accessible by 4WD or camel. There we would camp, a handful of white expat families on a beach, hundreds of kilometres away from everything.

We spent the 99-00 New Years there. Whilst the world was lost in the midst of Y2K bugs and the impending collapse of civilisation, we built a bonfire on the beach and set off our own fireworks display, procured from a dusty little shop in the heart of the old city of Sana’a. I remember discussing the various fireworks with the shopkeeper, speaking in broken Arabic and hand gestures. Each new box of fireworks would be accompanied with a visual demonstration of just how big the explosion would be, accompanied by mimicked sound effects. The pinnacle of the night was to be a rocket that stood almost the height of my head. The shopkeeper assured me with sputtered bangs and arms stretched as wide as the shopfront that he would be able to see this rocket from his home if we launched it from the beach, in spite of the fact that there was some six hundred kilometres in between. As a good will gesture he set off a handful of little crackers in the street outside his shop to demonstrate that his wares were good quality, ‘the best from China’. Bemused onlookers walk past as two white twelve year old boys and an elderly Arab man light fireworks in the middle of the day.

These memories draw in to focus the things I realised I missed this year, and a wider musing on the passing of time. I realise that each year moves faster than the one before, and this passage of time is tied to the memories that we created as we went. The years with big vivid memories move languorously, they drift and dream their way along. I have these big sign posts of those years, things that I can tie physical time to, and in the tying the year takes presence, billows out in shapes that have tangible heft.

This year that has been lacks this substance. It has neat little book-ends: a trip to India in January, my birthday dinner at the start of February, and then a big gasping space of nothing, where the world was internal and time moved less in a gliding arc and more in a serpentine slide, surreptitious and subterranean. There are some small spots where time and my conscious met each other this year, but they are few and far between.

This year ends with all the things I needed it to end with: a hike with friends, cooked breakfast and hearty conversation and vulnerability. A Christmas lunch with the family and celebrating young new lives who spark joy and demand attention and herald the new generation of beings who laugh and love and feel all the feelings. A return to music and the realisation that most of my emotion is tied into the movement of airwaves in interlocking rhythms. A time to create and contemplate and think about the past and the future and the present. I wonder what I will remember of this time when I am twenty years farther in to the future, and my suspicion is that the fear and uncertainty and doubt and boredom that took up most of the year will all have disappeared, leaving behind only the rosy glow of friendship and family.

FWF Ep. 16 with the dearest of friends Phoebe Lindner. This is a cute little ditty about the most over-hyped evening of the year. This is the second last FWF for a while, stayed tuned for next weeks, it’s a good one!

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