Merry Christmas! It’s that time of the year again when the best and worst of human behaviours can be observed, en masse in shopping centres everywhere, and watching evening TV has a certain sense of déjà vu as programmers re-run the same “holiday” movies and series Christmas Specials as they have for the last however many years. For many it’s also a time of great Christian religious significance, a fact that my friend Holy Hel – an Anglican vicar – reminds me of with great regularity. She’s not trying to convert me, in fact she appreciates my singular and determined rejection of organised religion of any sort as it might pertain to me personally. She says it’s part of my charm and I think it’s some of the glue that cements our friendship. She reminds me constantly of the religiosity of Christmas due to her constant buzzing about, whipping up a storm with her “Jesus this” and “Advent that” and being already tired from thinking about the fifty-two services she has to fit in to 48hours in a couple of different locations from Christmas Eve on because that’s what you do when you follow the bible like she does. It’s the tradition of the whole event.
About as far as my family ever got into religion at Christmas when I was growing up was when my mother would tilt her head slightly to the side as we all sat down to a meal that we called ‘Christmas lunch’ but was normally eaten sometime around afternoon tea o’clock, and ask in pious tones that I only ever heard her use on this one occasion each year, “who is going to say grace?” I dreaded this moment. I dreaded it because I knew that someone would always immediately nominate me, and the rest of the gathered assembly would breathe out in a monsoon of relief and instant muttering of collective approval at the suggestion. It was a case of singling out weakest in the herd, youngest being the equivalent of weakest in this case.
What did I know about grace? Bloody nothing outside what I’d gleaned from an education of nostalgic early black and white American movies on Sunday afternoon ABC TV. Poignant filmic narratives, where stereotypically traditional but bland families seemed to bless every meal in their lives. That was the total extent of it. (And I have to say that it was the mother or father, or the crusty old grandfather or spinster aunt at the very least, who said grace in these depictions. Not the children. Never the children.)
It wasn’t that none of us were religious. My mother’s German heritage was deeply rooted in the Lutheran church and while, to my knowledge, she never attended church outside hatches, matches and dispatches, she has always had a very quiet but solid faith. My father on the other hand was a self confessed atheist. This didn’t stop him from being Mum’s biggest advocate on the Christmas grace issue. As far as I was concerned it was a complete betrayal, and ruined the three hours of Christmas Day leading up to the meal for me. “Righto Tupp…” he would say, not daring to make eye contact, hands clasped and head bowed as if he was the most holy of all pissed blokes that ever drew a festive breath. Every year from the time I could talk, and that was early, we did the same dance.
“I don’t know how to say grace”, I would petulantly mutter.
“You just say, ‘Thank the Lord for the food we’re about to receive’”, my mother would helpfully suggest.
“Well you say it then!” I’d retort.
“No, I’d like you to say it.”
“I don’t know why I have to say grace. Why can’t someone else say grace? I said grace last year.”
No-one else spoke. It was a bit like those moments in school when the teacher asked for a volunteer to escort the kid who’d just vomited all over the front of their uniform to the sick bay. Fear of drawing attention to oneself with any movement, utterance or random bodily tic created an eerie, deathly still silence.
“I’d like you to say it”, my mother would go on in ever increasingly agitated tones, “because it’s the right thing to do.”
“Well why don’t you say it!”
“Tupp!” By this stage my father’s patience had usually run out. His turkey was going cold and he was always worried the gravy was going to touch his pork crackling and impact on its quality before he got to rate it – a Robertson family Christmas tradition that was never spoken of but somehow always expected. Dad’s crackling window was closing fast. Usually this one word was enough and I regurgitated mum’s instructed line immediately at lightning speed, with an elevated tone of resentment, far removed from the sentiment I’m certain my mother was hoping for. Every year was the same and every year I hoped the next year would be different. It never was. So in our house one of our Christmas traditions was that lunch usually started with tension over a religious observance that was resolved, religiously, by an atheist.
Another of our traditions was Dad giving a running commentary on the Christmas leg of ham. This commentary usually started about mid November when he’d be organising the ordering of the ham from one of the local butchers. New year, new butcher. This was inevitably due to the fact that the previous year’s ham had fallen short in some key regard (moisture level, texture, correct colour level of pinkness, saltiness, lack of saltiness, sweetness, smoking technique or duration, tenderness etc). Around October, before the real organising began, there were general rumblings after boozy discussions at the local watering hole with his mates – all ham connoisseurs – of “having to think about this year’s ham”. My mother’s anxiety levels began to rise exponentially from here.
One particular year is infamous in family folklore as the year dad decided to bake the ham. “What about the year the old man decided to bake the ham!” someone will say. There is a family eruption of collected anecdotes and my mother’s pitch raises an octave and phrases such as ‘he would never listen to me’ and ‘no, no NO, there were THREE hams that year’ are tossed from her end of the kitchen table. The abridged version of the story is that the family business put dad in contact with a baker. After several collegial ales one night talking hams, the baker had convinced dad that cooking a full leg of prime ham, encased in bread dough and run through his industrial ovens would deliver a culinary Christmas delight, nowhere before witnessed. A ham that would go down in
Robertson family history for its magnificence. The holy grail of hams if you like.
What was produced instead, was a concrete encased nightmare that was brought home by attempted stealth at night and deposited in the laundry. Here my father shut himself in and tried to free the ham from its tomb with several knives at first. Eventually he resorted to a hammer to break it open. It took a long while. Mum and I sat in the kitchen and listened to the activity. Every now and again she’d quietly mention that my father never listened to her… that nobody ever listened to her, and sigh. When dad eventually emerged, he declared that the ham was “Bloody dry! It’s bloody dry. You can’t eat it! I don’t know what Johnny was thinking – bake the thing in bread dough my arse. We’ll have to get another ham”, and went to bed. He was right. The ham was inedible.
My sad confession about Christmas traditions is that even though I perpetuate many of the lovely sane ones like Nana’s German potato salad and Christmas pudding and Mum’s wonderful stodgy, rum laced Christmas cake, as well as building a bank of my own, my father lives through me with the Christmas ham. I start thinking about the leg of ham around about October. Then I get a bit serious about who’s got a good quality product in November. I like to look over the Christmas hams and check for colour and smokiness. I don’t like them too fatty or not fatty enough. The rind has to be exactly right. I can’t help it. It’s not until the first slice that you can be sure if you’ve picked a winner, and I feel truly judged by the ham. That’s my father’s Christmas legacy to me… ham anxiety. I guess I can live with that.
Merry Christmas everyone.