I’ve been re-watching Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing.
It’s Christmas Eve and The White House is elegantly stuffed with giant baubles, tinsel and carol singers, and President Bartlett is preparing to give a speech about forgiveness, tolerance and generosity at this time of year. But true to this series’ interest in the painful personal stuff as well as the idealised intricacies of good governance, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress after having been shot by a loon gunmen a couple of episodes back.
I cannot stop watching this series. I am more interested in this series with its fast and brilliant walk-and-talk than anything else in the world. But this ep. gets me thinking about Christmas, about celebration in the face of trauma and how we grapple with grief at this time of year.
My friend told me this week that she doesn’t ‘do’ Christmas. What does that mean? I just don’t do it, she said. I haven’t done it in years. It’s just too hard you know, with the family stuff, the money, all the bullshit.
My friend does not ‘do’ Christmas anymore because it’s too painful. So what do you do on the day? I asked her. She laughed and said, what do you mean what do I do? I don’t have to do anything, that’s the point.
I get it.
I reckon I’d prefer to sit in front of the next 4 seasons of The West Wing until Christmas was done and dusted for the year. I’d eat and drink nice things while doing it, make some calls maybe, and I’m sure the odd family member or friend would join me at some stage during this, my day of the slaughter of the sacred cow of Christmas.
But I will do Christmas lunch at my place again this year for the sake of the kids and because it’s going to be a more open door affair this year. The more the merrier and diverse, the less the lonely and curmudgeon I say. As long as I promise not to get drunk and cry before 11am, like last year.
Plenty of people dread this time of year because it shines a light on the hard stuff and puts a high flame under what’s absent.
This Christmas we will again light a candle for my sister and set an empty chair at the table for the miserable, persecuted, neglected, absent or sick. You know, kind of like how they do at writers festivals when there is always that empty chair on the stage symbolizing the universal incarcerated writer in some repressive regime.
If you have a job you are real busy trying to get everything done at this time of year. If you have a job that goes on paying you during the Christmas holiday you are probably looking forward to taking some time out, having a well-earned break, winding down, doing nothing except sprout idiomatic chill-out clichés whilst lying prostate on a lilo in a pool somewhere. You will probably get bored after a week.
Plenty of us don’t have a permanent income though, and plenty others no income at all. Plenty don’t have family they want to be with or who’ll have them.
This time of year can really suck when you are caught up in the orgy of expectation and hype.
For the last few weeks I have been teaching Homer’s ‘The Iliad’ to my Classics class and Phillip K. Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ in Literature. I asked my students what they thought of Christmas: did they look forward to it, what did it mean to them etc. The Classicists said that this time of year was cool because there were so many ancient myths all colliding with their contemporary incarnations it’s fun to try and make sense of it all.
The Dystopians said that Christmas is a desperate clinging to an anachronistic convention and that that no amount of cranberry jelly or gift giving can wrap up this increasingly warm and messed up planet of ours and make it look pretty.
Sorrow, personal or global, is particularly hard at Christmas.
Every Christmas since my sister’s death has felt kind of wrong. It is the fifth one without her this year. We will light a candle for her; we will lay a plate for her. We will pay extra attention to her little boy.
And after the day, and after the friends and the family all leave, I will watch Season 5 of The West Wing and eat all the leftovers. It doesn’t feel right to keep the party going for too long.
When a terrorist bomb wipes out a number of lives, in The West Wing, Martin Sheen, who plays the American President gives another one of his brilliantly written speeches and he says that ‘The streets of heaven are too full of angels tonight’.
It’s a nice line. Comforting. Even if you don’t really believe in angels.
(This piece was first published on ABC Radio National in Dec 2015)