Canberra, Australia’s capital city, is a little like London or Dublin in only one respect. The city comprises what you might consider suburbs but which are really sort of like villages.
Unlike the older, more compact urban spaces we have at home, where village centres and even city streets were historically small and cities bloomed and burst their boundaries slowly over consecutive generations, Canberra is a planned city of just under half a million residents. Here in this largely temperate part of Australia, away from the coast, space is plentiful. As a result, the city’s proportions are vaster than anything I’m used to at home. Roads, buildings and suburbs are larger. I asked Chat GPT for a comparison in area between Dublin and Canberra and it told me that you could fit “7.08 Dublins into a Canberra”. I don’t know if we can precisely trust that arithmetic, but I love the phrasing, nonetheless.
All this is to say that I’m well aware I’m not at home anymore and that emigrants harbour an expectation that their new country reflects their old one at their peril. This part of Australia is its own unique cultural setting, but given our shared history, especially of British interest and influence, there are familiar elements. We share foods and ideas, not to mention a language and a love of expressing affection by affably insulting people. Suburban life bears much resemblance to life at home — most people don’t come into the centre of the city to do their grocery shopping or go to their gym class. They conduct their everyday lives locally. Occasionally, though, cultural elements of home do present themselves here in ways that will take me some getting used to.
As every November, George Michael was indulging at length in the tale of his misplaced romantic trust and plans for a more conscientious year to come
Undoubtedly, the Christmas music has already begun in Irish shops, pitching retail workers to the brink of insanity as they listen to the same playlist on a loop for six weeks straight in what has, in certain military contexts, long been considered an effective form of torture.
Things are no different here. I went for a browse in a local department store near where I live. As every November, George Michael was indulging at length in the tale of his misplaced romantic trust and plans for a more conscientious year to come. The problem for me (beyond the music itself) is that it absolutely does not feel like Christmas right now. Even the annual curmudgeonly “it’s too soon how dare they, I mean really” soliloquy feels off, as you secretly wonder if it actually is too soon to buy a Christmas tree ornament of a Santa hat-clad tortoise drinking a cosmopolitan.
Really, it isn’t too soon. It’s the end of November when the utter melts among us generally begin to boast that “sure I’ve everything done but the wrapping”. It’s the time when Irish parents across the nation begin emotional and financial preparations for the season. Everything from figuring out how to get this year’s coveted educational toy (the Yoto, apparently) to girding their loins for Christmas dinner prep while small children, drunk on sleep deprivation, sugar and capitalism, reel in every seven minutes to demand refreshment, to ask when dinner is going to be ready (”in seven hours. Have some toast”) or to insist that a lecture on rudimentary property law be delivered to a thieving sibling this instant.
The iconography of the festive season is the same as at home. The music. The fir trees and fairy lights. The decorative swags and garlands in shops and cafes
So here is where I’m struggling. With shared culture and history, it makes sense that Australia’s Christmas festivities — even the secular ones — have much in common with our own. If you’re raised over here, where December is the height of a hot summer, then Christmas in the sun is standard. Nothing to see here.
However, the iconography of the festive season is the same as at home. The music. The fir trees and fairy lights. The decorative swags and garlands in shops and cafes. The Christmas markets with little wooden cabins and hot chocolate. The trappings of a European or Nordic cold-weather Christmas are all around me. One day I sat outside a cafe drinking iced coffee in my sunglasses (lest my retinas be burned out of my head) and noted, according to my watch, that it was 31 degrees at 11am.
In Ireland, the twinkling lights, reflective baubles and mulled apple juice or wine are pinpoints of curative light in what feels like the endless darkness of the weeks approaching the winter solstice. They are artefacts of a people who treasure an ancient tradition of creating light and beauty when, for a time in the depths of winter, it can almost begin to feel as though the world won’t wake up this time as you try to recall Springs past and worry you may have imagined them. Here, those same artefacts feel intensely strange to me, emerging as they do from a similar tradition but having grown, in another climate among other people, to mean something else.
It will not feel the same as it did at home because I am not at home. So I try to inhabit the vast space Canberra has given me and endeavour to embrace this new openness that lies between Canberra and home
Our first Christmas in Australia will undoubtedly be an odd one. As temperatures rise and the natural world thrums and booms with life and raw energy, Christmas feels more like a form of performance art than the usual lacuna in the deepest pocket of a grim winter. That, of course, is my failing and not Australia’s — with some time, like everything else, Christmas will take on new meaning and I will learn new ways of celebrating and appreciating it.
It will not feel the same as it did at home because I am not at home. So I try to inhabit the vast space Canberra has given me and endeavour to embrace this new openness that lies between Canberra and home. To fill it with new experiences.
I buy the Christmas ornament. Meanwhile, respected festive philosopher George Michael monkishly intones, “Tell me baby, do you recognise me? Well, it’s been a year, it doesn’t surprise me.”