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Edgily festive: Christmas with dead relatives


I normally spend Christmas at home with my family. We might not be a traditional family – I’m pretty sure my brothers aren’t even human – but our Christmases are about as close as we come to a peaceful, ‘normal’ household. The year that I went travelling, though, it obviously didn’t make sense to run all the way home from half the world away, so I chose what I thought was the next best thing – I accepted the invitation to spend Christmas with distant relatives, in Australia.

I should explain; when I accepted said invitation, they weren’t all distant relatives. Among them had been Old Jack, an eccentric great-uncle of my mother’s – a man who emigrated with nothing at the age of sixteen and proceeded to make a killing in the tourism industry. A man who perfectly encapsulated the American Dream. Only in Australia.

While I was growing up, he would occasionally return to the UK on business, often taking the opportunity to grace us with a flying visit and an inappropriate gift for my siblings and me. Mere mention of the bowie knife he brought me for my fourteenth birthday (“’Ere y’are, Danny boy – an inch of cold steel for every year of yer life!”) still makes my mother’s mouth look like she’s just bitten into a slice of tequila-soaked lemon.

Old Jack was a laugh, anyway, so when he offered to let me stay with him and his family in Aus over the Christmas period, I was delighted. I hadn’t met his wife before – or his kids, or any of his clan, in fact. Distant relatives are called that for a reason.

Unfortunately, halfway through my travels, Old Jack gave in to his nickname and passed away. This sad event took place in August, and though I was wary of intruding on family grief, his son was insistent (via e-mail) that I should join them for Christmas. And so four months later, that’s exactly what I did.

The friends I was travelling with left for the UK in mid-december; there were plans for us to meet up in France in January, and continue our travels with a tour of Europe. We went our separate ways at Deliniquin (more on that in my next entry…) Airport, my friends flying home while I continued on to Sydney. Old Jack’s lot all lived here, spread around four or five households in a rough diamond shape, in an inner-city suburb named Woolloomooloo. I swear to God I’m not making that up.

I digress, but I have a vivid memory of fishing with Old Jack, on the longest of his fleeting appearances, as he told me about life in Australia. Apparently, he was in a taxi in Adelaide one night, seven sheets to the wind, and amiably chatting to the driver about the most pressing topics of the day – kebabs, lager, kebabs, sex and lager, and so on. When he asked the driver – who I should probably mention had an almighty stutter – where he was originally from, the driver replied, “Woolloomooloo.” Or rather, he tried to. What actually came out was:

“W-wooly-ya-ya-er-wool-oo-loo-loo-uhh…”

I’m not making fun of those with speech impediments, by the way. And neither was Old Jack. Once he’d gotten over the initial shock and assured himself of the fact that his driver was not having a stroke, he’d roared with good-natured laughter and decided then and there that he was going to move to Woolloomooloo. So he had.

Anyway. Old Jack’s eldest, Chris, met me at the airport, standing with a big sign and a bigger grin by the coffee shop. It was a little awkward for the first few minutes – we’d never met after all, and he was a good thirty years my senior – but he seemed like a friendly, upbeat bloke, and we were soon chatting away. My fear of a morose week, in remembrance of his late father, dissipated, and I slumped back in the leather seat of his Audi, floppy with jetlag, looking forward to meeting the rest of the family.

They were out in force when we pulled up to the house – Chris had told me in the car that it was their tradition to congregate here for Christmas, since the house was large enough to hold them – sprawled in deck chairs in the fading sun. They cheered as I stepped from the car and I was treated to the infamous Aussie hospitality; barraged with hugs, handshakes and highfives as age and gender warranted. Chris’ wife Sharon steered me toward the barbecue and handed me a beer – my knees went weak and I had to wipe away a tear. The group began a cheerful interrogation process, as if they hoped to catch up on nineteen years’ worth of lost time by grilling me now.

I had no objection; these people were affable, expansive and to a man, a tribute to Old Jack. We stayed up long into the night, drinking and talking, and by the time I was eventually shown to a neatly furnished guest-room, there was a mutual feeling of having known each other all our lives. To this day, I still maintain that the Australian people are – on balance – some of the friendliest in the world.

I say ‘on balance’ because things didn’t stay quite so peaches and cream for the rest of my stay. Woolloomooloo was beautiful, sure – if it weren’t for the dustbin-lid-sized spiders and oversized fish that are only too happy to eat anyone stupid or brave enough to go swimming, Christ, I’d probably do an Old Jack and relocate to Australia tomorrow. My complaint was that something seemed to be happening to Chris. As the week went on, he gradually became more and more bad-tempered.

I was worried that he might be regretting asking me to stay over the holidays, or that the festive season was reminding him of the absence of his old man – but when I tentatively mentioned these theories to Sharon, she waved away my concerns with a grin and and shook her head. “Oh, don’t worry about it. Chris is always like this over the holidays – He just seems to have something against Christmas.”

Wait, what?

Who has something against Christmas? Non-Christians would be the obvious answer, I guess, but I’m an atheist, and I love the holiday season. I didn’t get it. What was even more strange was that the others just seemed to take Chris’ behaviour in their stride. While I sat there, genuinely uncomfortable, as his glowering gaze swept over the room, the rest of his family (our family, I had to keep reminding myself) chatted and laughed as happily as ever. He snapped when he was spoken to, so no-one tried. He found fault with anyone who tried to help out, so no-one did. It was like he didn’t even exist.

Christmas Day was an understandably awkward affair. Despite the family’s best efforts to be upbeat and entertaining – and they did a bloody good job of it – Chris continued to sit there with a face like a bag of spanners. And to my dismay, Sharon seemed to be cracking under his relentless moodiness. What began with a couple of snappish replies soon devolved into a full-blown screaming row between the two, over the dinner table.

Turkey was hurled as readily as the jeers and insults, and several of the younger kids dissolved into tears. One of the older ones made a brave attempt to separate the two, but was repulsed, backing away with an expression that was both hurt, and splattered with gravy. I didn’t know where to look. I followed the example set by the rest of the family, and stared resolutely at my plate as I ate.

The rest of the day, and the following three, wore on with no change in the hosts’ dispositions. The resultant discomfort was so great that I got into the habit of slipping out regularly for a “cigarette”. I don’t even smoke; I just needed to get away from the hostility.

With a thrill of surprise, I realised I was thinking longingly of the bedlam that is the average Christmas spent at my house, back in the UK. Take the year before, for instance.

My parents had exchanged a couple of sharp words over whose fault it was that the tukey was slightly burnt on one side; my little brother had been so excited by his Christmas present that he’d run around the living room and fell straight into the table; my dog had decided in the night that anything soft under the tree was obviously a chew toy; and a car had slid out of control on the icy roads outside the house, and ploughed straight into my motorcycle, parked in the driveway. Not exactly the sort of thing to write down on your Christmas list, eh?

“Dear Santa, please bring me some parental arguments, a replacement for the jumper the dog’s gonna chew up, and a couple of stitches for my brother.”

But we love our family Christmasses all the same.

I was due to fly out on December 29th, and it was with more than a little relief that I repacked my bag and trooped out to the lawn to say goodbye to everyone. When I got out there, to my surprise, I saw Chris and Sharon smiling with their arms around one another. It was as if their psychosis had been counteracted with a monumental dose of prosaic. There wasn’t a trace of bad temper to be found.

As I made my way down the line of beaming relatives (there were no handshakes this time; we felt beyond that now) I paused and asked a couple of them what was with the deal with Mr. and Mrs. Moodswing. I won’t try and transcribe their reply complete with accents.

“Oh no, they’re alright. They always do that. They’ll be fine until next year, now.”

I thought about those words later, staring out of the window of my passenger plane. Australia was spread below me, every bit as beautiful from the air as it is up close, and it struck me just how many people there are in the world. Are their Christmasses as hectic as ours? I guess they probably are. I’d be amazed if it turned out that there had ever been a ‘perfect’ Christmas. What can go wrong, will go wrong, as the old saying goes. And there’s a hell of a lot involved with the process of Christmas that can go wrong.

Yet we love them just the same. Old Jack’s lot were perfect proof of that – despite the guarantee that each year, at least one thing was going to wrong (the total transformation of Chris and Sharon into violent, fire-breathing arseholes) the rest of the family still gathers at their house, and has a wonderful Christmas together. My own family, back home, are the same.

They always do that.

That’s actually a perfect metaphor for the unpredictability of Christmas. Every year, something will happen to stick a spanner in the works of your ‘perfect’ family get-together. Without fail.

But just knowing that doesn’t ruin the anticipation. I’m thinking ahead, right now, to that glorious festive fortnight, a couple of months away. Something is inevitably going to happen to mar the occasion.

But no-one seems to have told the excited butterflies in my stomach.

Dan Hart is an amateur travel enthusiast, with over ten years’ writing experience. Having recently cracked open his old travel journals, he is keen to share more memorable moments from his journeys worldwide. For more Christmas spirit – and in a good cause – visit Cards for Charity.

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