Four reasons to be merry
Christmas ... a festival of exhaustion. Photo: Glen McCurtayne
This year, my family didn't properly ''do'' Christmas. Not because we're renegade pagans. Or because we took the advice of the Lakemba Mosque (which issued a fatwa against the holiday) to heart. We did Christmas Eve and Christmas Eve Eve Eve, due to the not unusual competing demands of siblings having other bits of family to attend to on the actual day. It was plenty of fun, although it meant that on the 25th, my parents had an empty nest and an empty dance card.
Yet, as my dad dropped me off at the airport on Christmas Day, instead of expressing parental angst that the real Yule would be a more lonesome, less festive celebration, he beamed his widest smile.
''This is great!'' he said, as he dumped my wheelie bag on the footpath outside the terminal. ''Christmas is over before it's begun. We've got it all out of the way!'' Then, instead of making me promise that in 2013, we'd all be back for an ''on'' year at the parental homestead, he instructed me to tell my partner's parents that they could have next Christmas as well.
''Your mum and I are very happy with this arrangement!'' he observed, with a final wave. At first, I was a tad outraged at his cavalier 'tude. Christmas is Christmas! You can't genuinely do it on a different day. It's not the same! I'm sure somewhere Santa has us on a non-compliance list.
But on second thoughts, Christmas may anchor the holiday season, but it is no holiday. It is a festival of exhaustion. The stakes are too high and the pressure is out of proportion. No wonder dad was keen to escape it.
Each year, we rev ourselves up for Christmas with weeks and weeks of work and social functions. Even if you're only going away for a couple of weeks, you try and see everyone in your life for a festive farewell. ''When I see you next, it'll be a new year. Things will be completely different! So take your last look at the old me…'' Then there are the Christmas Day celebrations themselves, and the intense - almost political - bargaining about which part of the family you see on the 25th.
For our family, this question is a zero-sum one because the various options are too far apart. But in so many other families, it can become a dizzying gauntlet of brunch, lunch, pre-dinner drinks, dinner and dessert all in differing relations' homes.
A straw poll I conducted of friends and colleagues found seven out eight people had some sort of ''robust'' family run-in over the holiday period. The eighth person didn't want to talk about it.
Then there's the shopping. Some people see it as a sport at the best of times but around Christmas it becomes like a cross between orienteering and a marathon as you traipse around the shops trying to find something, anything, that your 60-year-old aunt and five-year-old nephew won't totally hate.
And don't get me started on the ham. Or the pudding. And who gets to cook it. Or whether we should do an Asian-style turkey instead.
This week, many Australians have returned to work, fatter, grumpier and more strung out than they were last year. In other words, feeling like they desperately need a holiday.
So what's the solution? It may sound hare-brained, but I think we should have Christmas more times a year.
We can't make Christmas go away but we can take the pressure off by spreading the load across the twelve months. The holiday has seasonal roots anyway, so it wouldn't be much of a leap to tie it in with the other three. So, if you can't make Christmas at your uncle Ron's - no worries! - you can see him for the autumn show. If cousin Mary is desperate to do that Asian-style turkey, let her do it and brother Harry can do his smoked trout thing for spring Christmas.
Instead of having to give an account of yourself to relatives and friends you see once a year, you will have to give only quarterly updates, where surely it's OK not to have some big-ticket item of news or personal achievement.
And if you're in more regular touch with your relations, you may have a better idea about what to give them at summer Christmas (I'm not for a second suggesting we gift on all Christmas occasions). If the sting is taken out of the big event - and expectations are lowered - perhaps we wouldn't work ourselves up so much before it, overindulge so much during it and feel so weathered after it.
Most importantly, if we had four Christmases a year, we'd have to have four holidays to go with them. How merry is that?
Judith Ireland is a Canberra Times journalist.