A couple of summers ago I went to the carols concert at Sidmouth, here on the lawns outside the ‘auld kirk’, a restored building that the locals are rightfully proud of. I’d gone with my housemate at the time, who was playing trombone for the occasion. There I sat solitary amongst the parishioners, murmuring along to a few of the songs. The elderly gentleman in front of me fumbled ahead in his songbook to see what songs were coming up next, like a cheating student; another fellow by my side was in costume. “I don’t know why I’m here, there’s no Roman centurion in the biblical story,” he quipped – then tried the joke again, correcting himself: “...in the nativity story.”
Stars, silence, sleep, and sheep: what fine themes to sing about. These are lovely old narratives. There are a few better yarns than that of the first noel being proclaimed to a cohort of dozing shepherds.
Funny, though, to sing of David’s royal city whilst the shadows were lengthening the paperbarks’ silhouettes along the Tamar River. The quiet placid waters of the Tamar took in the angular light of this end of the hemisphere, a sharp southern summer sunset. Tamar, of course, is a biblical reference, but if we let that river have a name with an older lineage, kanamaluka, then the stories of the Middle East settle awkwardly on this place.
Christmas is full of borrowed stories; many are naturalistic, but none of them are rooted in Tasmania. The birth of Christ is a kind of epic that has a broad human appeal, of course, but as the years pass I yearn for motifs that make sense in my surrounds, and connect me to the seasons. I want stories that make me consider country, and how I might care for it. What am I supposed to do with reindeer in the snow, or the King of Bohemia? What has Jerusalem to do with Hobart? What is a Roman centurion doing in Sidmouth?
So what are the marks of seasonal change at this time of year? An obvious one is the flowering of a certain Correa shrub, which has the common name ‘Christmas bells’. It pops out a nice flower – tubular, yellow and red – at about this time of year, joining the colourful scattering of summer blooms which brighten up our land.
But there’s also the cherry ballart, or native cherry, Exocarpos cupressiformis, which at this time spurts out its edible, slightly sweet, red oval berries amidst the tree’s shaggy light-green leaves. The appearance of this fruit is a happy time, and must have been well cherished by traditional Tasmanians making their summer travels around the island. It ought to be considered as delicious my grandmother’s cloying creamy desserts, which normally sit poorly on a stomach full with potato and beer, in the thirty-degree heat that is common for our Christmas afternoons (although I’m yet to turn them down).
The snow, of course, is a usually irrelevant Yuletide reference here. But in the mountains it might snow anyway. I recall taking German honeymooners for a hike one December; presuming summer weather, they’d not wanted to bring a beanie or gloves. We had a minor blizzard over the Cradle Mountain plateau. In the evening we made Glühwein in the hut, as if it was a Christmas market. So nowadays I can live with the occasional reference to snow at Christmastime.
Only once have I spent a Christmas abroad. I was in Maharashtra, India; I passed the day, I think, at a Catholic orphanage. Children danced, and sang on a stage, through loudspeakers that screeched in protest at frequent intervals. Santa Claus strode through the dusty yard, sweating his suit of red felt. The season’s greeting was strung up for the occasion. It read, “Happy Birthday Jesus, We Love You.”
So ideas flow between all lands now. The symbols are confusing, but most people don’t seem to mind. Perhaps I needn’t overthink it. Living at this latitude offers many gifts, and the long hours of twilight are not the least of these. I suspect I will enjoy a beer with old friends, with the maddest of my family members. This, now, is the tradition of these dates. At other times of the year, in the spirit of the age, I’ll make my own festivals that fit my private intentions to live well in the landscape: a pilgrimage to that old pencil pine on the Plateau, an annual expedition looking for a certain liverwort, the first swim of spring, an occasion of departure, a return.
And if at Christmas I find myself feeling like a centurion in the wrong time and place – in the wrong narrative altogether – I won’t be too put out. I will embrace the germ of the Christmas idea. In the words of Albert Camus (and to borrow from him is of course another incongruity), “All great ideas have ridiculous beginnings.”
The jarring symbols of cultural clash were even more obvious come Christmas Day, 1831, on the Ouse River.