Australians, including many Canberra public servants, head to the beach with their families for three or four weeks.

Australians, including many Canberra public servants, head to the beach with their families for three or four weeks.

There are two sides to the impact of the Christmas break on politics. The conventional wisdom is that the holiday break is a politics-free zone. That is why commentators such as myself may declare that this summer period is a time for the Abbott government to take a breather and to regroup.

What the conventional wisdom is trying to say is that Christmas is a time when the heat of normal public politics is turned off, or at least turned right down. There is some sense in this view by a number of measures.

The most obvious is that Parliament is closed down over this period, from mid-December to the end of January, and most, if not all, parliamentarians take extended holidays. We now know, for instance, that the Prime Minister, Mrs Abbott and their two Australia-based daughters will combine a week's holiday in France with the family's eldest daughter with their traditional new year holiday at Berrara on the NSW south coast. During this period there will be an acting prime minister.

The Opposition Leader says his Christmas will be all about his family's three children and will be spent first in Melbourne and then in either Gippsland or on the Mornington Peninsula.

Both Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott will probably be guests at one of the two Test matches in Melbourne and Sydney as well as the Australian Tennis Open in Melbourne. Other politicians and celebrities will join them.

Many political staff, including media advisers, will also take holidays, as will many political journalists. This is another sense in which the political heat is turned down. Public commentary on politics lessens and the daily newspapers not only become thinner and less substantial but are filled with typical summer-reading fare. Many of the usual current affairs radio programs also take a break and the high-profile hosts slip away for a well-earned rest.

Australians, including many Canberra public servants, head to the beach with their families for three or four weeks.

So do those political activists whose job for most of the year is either insider lobbying or organising public demonstrations. Do not expect much social movement momentum over the summer break.

All of this makes the case for a lukewarm public politics. Politicians can let down their guard, while keeping a skeleton staff on the alert.

But there is another side to the break which challenges this view of politics. It is the alternative politics of community reflection and discussion which never stops and, indeed, has a special flavour to it. In this view there is no guarantee that public politics is safe at first base over the Christmas break.

Whether or not Christmas acts as a religious or secular festival for the individual or community concerned, public life goes on. I know of no academic research into what happens politically over this period. In other words we can only guess whether the Christmas break is good for the government or the opposition. But my hunch is that public opinion is not necessarily static.

Let's look at the Christian segment of the population first. We know that church attendance swells over Christmas. The ''Christmas and Easter Christians'' turn out in their droves. Some are older adults. Others are younger people whose trip home to their family for Christmas includes attending church out of respect for their parents and grandparents.

That is why the one professional group who are not resting over Christmas are pastors and priests, because they have services to run.

Christmas is also a time when social services are stretched to the limit. Christmas puts on show the gap between richer and poorer, comfortable and insecure, and happy and depressed.

So Christmas for Christians is not content-free politically. This is true of the Christmas story itself as well as the surrounding pastoral activities.

This is not to say one or the other side of politics will be automatically favoured by that story. The Christian right and the Christian left interpret the story differently.

It does mean there will be plenty of occasions over Christmas when pastors and priests will have a larger audience for their message.

That general message will usually be one of reflecting on Australia as a lucky country and on the theology of giving to those less fortunate, often through charitable organisations.

This is a challenge to overly-consumer focus of commercially driven Christmas festivities.

Some pastors and priests will also take the chance to reflect on contemporary themes, such as child sexual abuse by church institutions, Australia’s gambling culture, cuts to foreign aid, the future of same-sex marriage or how Christians should treat strangers in their midst.

Many secular Australians will be touched in one way or another by these Christian themes. Either they will be incorporated into popular culture or social networks of friends and relatives will spread the messages to them.

The Christmas break, secular or religious, also has characteristics which unsettle established ways of thinking about social and political issues. Family holidays and meals together on Christmas Day bring together unusual bedfellows: inner-urban meets rural, old meets young, Christian meets secular, both meet other faiths and cultures.

All of these once-a-year situations make for a combustible mix. Even if extended families try to shy away from religion, sex and politics they cannot be avoided. As the afternoon wears on, generally fuelled by alcohol, many a closed topic is broken open.  That is what makes the Christmas break unpredictable. It is not all politics-free torpor. That’s why political opinions can often be disturbed over December and January.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.