What the Dickens – From Listless Christmas Past to Glorious Present

Charles Dickens is a bona fide nitwit.  In his book, ‘A Christmas Carol’, not only did he forget to include a character named ‘Carol’, he victimized a man of advanced years just because he was thrifty.  Granted, ‘A Christmas Scrooge’ sounds somewhat unsavoury, but in less judgmental times Ebenezer Scrooge would have been lauded as a fiscally conservative hero.  Worse still, Dickens needlessly uses ghosts to transport our misunderstood protagonist to the past, present and future.  It’s totally pointless – Christmas has always been about time travel. 

There’s no other day of the year that can move you so effortlessly from one point in your life to another.  No matter what age you are, you can feel like a child again, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.  Charles Dickens knew that.  But I don’t need a ghost to help me see Christmases past, present and future.  For me, seeing the past, present and future is what the day is all about.  Christmas is a signpost, a crossroad and gigantic roundabout with a tramline running through it (possibly) all at once.  It’s a day that tells you where you’ve been, where you are and where you’re going.  It’s glorious.

The sense of nostalgia is especially potent at my father’s house.  That’s partly because he still uses the same artificial tree and decorations he did when we were kids.  I realize that the very notion of an artificial tree can be controversial to some, but their allure lies in the promise that you’ll never have to buy another Christmas tree again.  My father has taken that promise to heart.  In the four decades since he purchased his artificial tree, the plastic needles have fallen away, leaving what’s left totally denuded and looking like a demented TV antennae.  That it he sets it up whenever he wants to watch something on SBS only entrenches this impression further.

 It’s not just the tree.  As kids, we were required to remove the wrapping paper with the utmost care, ensuring no rips or tears.  It was a task we approached with all the caution of a member of the bomb squad.  He even gave us each a scalpel.  This has enabled my father to reuse the same paper numerous times over the subsequent decades.  There’s an upside.  These days it can be difficult to secure a supply of ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ wrapping paper, but each year I can rely on my gifts being swaddled in cartoon images of Steve Austin.  It’s comforting.

Other things change quickly.  Two years ago, I headed down to family Christmas on my own.  It was a difficult day but, luckily, I had Steve Austin wrapping paper to look forward to.  A year later, I was arriving in a small minivan full of people.  It was to be an entirely different experience.  A better one.  Twelve months earlier, I’d driven down with just my thoughts for company.  It was a lousy experience.  In contrast, the following year was full of colour, movement and chaos. 

Arriving with such a large entourage was new for me.  I’ll admit there were moments that caught me off guard.  Especially when the eight year old loudly declared that his seventeen-year-old sibling had an image on his cap that, for reasons associated with good taste, I’ll simply describe as a ‘Dickens’.  The picture had been drawn on with black texta and, hopefully, was not to scale.  It was a moment of great excitement that resulted in some rather heated discussion. 

As to why the image of a male appendage had been drawn on the hat or why this hat had been selected for Christmas lunch was never explained, as the seventeen year old kept his thoughts to himself.  In a moment of panic, his sister snatched the cap and used a marker to turn the offending image into holly.  By the time she was done, it looked quite festive.  With the stroke of a pen, the Dickens had become decorative.  A Christmas miracle!

Truth be told, I’ve always loved Christmas.   But there were times when my family was no good at it.  For a little while, after we all left home, we struggled to come together on Christmas Day.  Looking back, I’ve no idea why that was.  What I know, however, is that it all changed when the first nephew arrived; Christmas was instantly reinvigorated with purpose and meaning.  It’s been that way ever since.  Christmas is a malleable thing.  It changes as we do.

I’m looking forward to all of it.  The threadbare tree skeleton that haunts the living room as presents spill out across the carpet.  The sound of children and (possibly) adults screaming with delight as they shred wrapping paper with merciless vigour (my father is more relaxed when it comes to wrapping paper these days), the decorations and the festive jumpers and t-shirts.  Crackers and tinsel, baubles and pudding, and even hats that have a giant Dickens drawn on them.  I can’t wait.  And, when it’s done, I’ll find a moment to sit down with one of my all-time favourite books – ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens and marvel at the transformative nature of good will and generosity of spirit.  Then before I go to bed, I’ll likely read the last line of that great book aloud – God bless us.  Every one!

  The Adversarial Anniversary

Ultimately we all want the same thing.  No matter who we are or where we come from, deep within each of us is a burning desire to live our best life.  The hope that we might do so is the very thing that sustains us and drives to get up in the morning to put our pants on, one leg at a time.  Granted, I’m overlooking ambi-trousered freaks that put their pants on, both legs simultaneously.  Those people can’t be trusted. 

But as much we may strive to live the best life we can with whatever meagre talents the Universe has seen fit to bestow upon us, what if there was an alternative?  What if, instead of living your best life, you had the chance to live somebody else’s?

We went out to lunch.  It was a glorious occasion.  The sun was shining, the birds were singing and I’d managed to secure a midday booking.  As we arrived, the waitress stepped towards us with a grin as wide as the ocean and declared ‘happy anniversary!’  She sounded so incredibly certain.  It seemed rude to disagree.  So despite the fact that our lunch was not adjacent to anything you could fairly describe as an ‘anniversary’, we nodded and simply said ‘thanks’.

I realize there were other options.  It would be possible, for example, to take umbrage.  Take it where, I couldn’t say, but definitely take umbrage somewhere.  By wishing us a happy anniversary at a time wholly unrelated to our anniversary, they had clearly mistaken us for two other people.  Some folk might react to a case of mistaken identity by saying something regrettable like, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’  Unfortunately, if you ever find yourself in a situation where it’s necessary to ask ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ the answer is, inevitably, either ‘no’ or ‘I don’t care’.  No good can come of it.  Ever.

A better reaction might have been to ask who we were.  Or, at any rate, who she thought we were.  Instead, we accepted the misplaced warm wishes, believing we’d heard the last of it.  Tragically, we were wrong.

Clearly the couple we had been mistaken for had decided to go all out.  I knew we were in trouble when a plate of food arrived with the words ‘happy anniversary’ written in what I think may have been a mix of truffle oil, a balsamic reduction and unicorn tears (possibly).  It must have taken them ages.  The lettering was so precise and perfect, it almost seemed a shame to ruin it with a piece of char grilled asparagus.  Only as I pushed the food into my mouth did I notice what I think might have been a tear in the waiter’s eye.

We had only just started the main course when I realized we were surrounded.  What seemed to be every staff member in the entire restaurant had encircled our table, singing ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ in perfect three-part harmony.  Their voices rang out as other people began to cheer them on.  Clearly, we were stuck in the middle of something we couldn’t control.

On the one hand, it’s nice to be showered with praise, even if it’s undeserved.  On the other, it’s impossible not to reflect on the fact that there were two other restaurant patrons to whom all this acclaim and love rightly belonged.  Doubtless, they felt aggrieved as they watched us bathe in the good wishes of others and wondered when someone might get around to wishing them ‘Happy Anniversary’.  They’d be waiting a long time.

I started to panic.  Drops of sweat appeared like rivets on my brow.  Granted, the salad was a bit heavy handed on the chili, but I was suffering under the weight of my conscience and I wanted the madness stop before our ruse was uncovered.  I considered trying to sneak out before dessert, except they asked if we’d pose for photos with the kitchen staff and the patrons.  I got up to go to the bathroom and they released a hundred white doves in my honour.  Talk about awkward.

Other guests were lining up to get a Selfie with us.  I felt embarrassed.  I felt ashamed.  Indeed, I lost all Selfie respect as I grinned my way through the afternoon.

Ultimately it was too much, we were stealing somebody else’s big day.  Not out of malice but because we didn’t want to tell the waitress she’d made a mistake.  An announcement was in order.  Standing on my chair, I cleared my throat and confessed that we were imposters.  The couple by the window shouted ‘yes’ in full-throated vindication and punched the sky, almost hitting a low flying dove.

Having confessed to wrongfully inhabiting somebody else’s life for a few hours, I would now have to accept my just desserts.  Which, in this case, was a vanilla chocolate mousse with berry compote.  There was another message, this time written in what I hoped was chocolate – ‘Get out’ it read.  Normally, it’s the patron that tips the staff, but this was a tip I was more than willing to take.

I’d like to formally apologise to the couple whose anniversary we inadvertently (at least tot begin with) stole.  If there’s anything we can do make it up to you both, please don’t hesitate to ask.  If you’d like a full fork-by-fork description of the meal or would like one of the doves back so you can raise it as your own, you need only ask.  Think of it as our gift to you.  Happy anniversary.