The Christmas decorations in our village here in Tasmania are barely visible under the glare of the Australian sun. And the synthetic white Christmas tree outside Fr Michael's presbytery looks like it could've come from an Ikea catalogue.
By Christmas, we’ll have edged past our longest day and the heat will be hard to escape. Despite what the Healy-Raes and their fellow sceptics would have us believe, the evidence of climate change is indisputable. The Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble as a direct consequence of global warming. This has been Australia’s warmest year on record.
Christmas in Australia is a decidedly secular affair. The bloke who was born in Bethlehem, and whose birthday we are supposedly celebrating, doesn't get much airplay Down Under. Even the Christmas jingles on the radio sound odd and out of sync at this time of year.
There is no Late Late Toy Show on the telly, though there are lots of ads for toys, and our department stores are heaving with Christmas "essentials". Australia's main festive event is the televised carols by candlelight on Christmas Eve, which for the most part is a carefully-choreographed and predictable spectacle.
Australians embrace the time-honoured tradition of extended family get-togethers for a meal or barbecue. Many people travel long distances to be with their loved ones on Christmas Day. Despite the likelihood of scorching temperatures, the long shadow of European influence still prevails and a surprising number of hot meals will faithfully be prepared and served up on the 25th.
But it's summer that's the real celebration; the season that's so embedded in the Australian psyche. After all, Christmas in Australia marks the start of the long school summer holidays. Summer often equals sunburn. Summer means kicking back to watch the cricket and the Australian Tennis Open. Summer is all about languid days at the beach and, of course, being alert to the threat of bushfires and snakes. Boxing Day also sees the start of the sales, the Sydney to Hobart yacht race and the Boxing Day test cricket.
Christmas is a reminder that yet another year abroad has slipped past, and that my time Down Under now well and truly surpasses my time spent in Ireland. This, without wishing to sound melancholic, is always a sombre reminder of my migrant status.
Perhaps my diminishing enthusiasm for Christmas is because it’s chiefly a time for children to savour. There was always something incredibly exciting about my childhood Christmases in Ireland. I liked to think I could play my part in the preparations. One year, as a young lad, I stole an immature pine tree from a nearby forestry plantation and proudly half-carried, half-dragged it home, where it was decorated with all the trimmings.
Growing up, my sense of expectation probably sprang from all those long, dark December evenings. Everyone, it seemed, had Christmas lights flashing in their windows at night. The sheer joy of waking up early to discover a toy or two at the end of the bed was really something; even if those same toys were looking a little ragged by the end of the day after bouts of over-exuberant play with my brothers.
It’s hard to convey just how special those Christmas Days were. From the luxury of a cooked breakfast against the background of the aroma of turkey cooking which our mother would have slid into the oven the previous evening, to the serious quantities of turkey and roast vegetables, followed by her Christmas pudding in the mid-afternoon. The atmosphere of those Christmases seldom disappointed. I suspect my teenage daughter doesn’t share that same sense of anticipation. Not having any siblings, Christmas represents an opportunity for her to catch up with friends, and to spend time at the beach.
Distant family members
Over my years in Australia, Christmas Day has retained a poignancy that I’m at a loss to fully understand or explain. During the first few years I felt an enormous sense of relief to “get through” to Boxing Day. No doubt this relief has its origins in all those emotionally-laden Christmases back in the day. And perhaps the memories of now distant family members, at some level, serve as a constant reminder of all I’ve lost along the journey. I think our Ma was hard-wired to rise to the occasion. Being an unashamed doer, I’m sure she relished Christmas. My only regret is never really telling her how much I appreciated all the trouble she took.
After three decades abroad, all those Irish Christmases are now a distant memory. It’s time I turned my attention to my own modest preparations. There are presents to be bought. Our barbecue is looking a tad neglected and the deck area could do with a good sweep. I’ll see to it.
Philip Lynch is a regular contributor to Irish Times Abroad.