Third Age: Xmas is a four-letter word

Comedians still get a laugh from using four-letter words. It’s pathetic really. Nobody much is shocked by them now, but the stand-ups still depend on them, upping the dose as addicts do. We all know what the next word to be permitted is, don’t we? I don’t like it at all. But I am not shocked.

Xmas, on the other hand, is the four-letter word that still has shock value. Utter it in September or October and people will fall about, shouting that it is just around the corner, about to overtake their peaceful lives, and threatening to rip down any decorations that appear before mid-December. As we hurtle into mid-November, propelled by pre-Xmas sales and specials, people have stopped fighting it, accepting the inevitable, stoically, but it many cases, miserably. Low moans greet the mention of Xmas, as we gloomily await the first English robins-in-the-snow card, the first panic of “did I send them one?” Old people dread it, even if they aren’t permitted to say so. But no one seems to challenge successfully its dominance and power. Most of us are not religious these days, but children are indoctrinated with the lore of Xmas from the earliest age. Multiculturalism hasn’t dented it. Attempts to abolish it in kindergartens always end up being portrayed as ridiculous. The vast medical and social disapproval of fat people is suspended as we slobber over the distinctly obese Santa Claus. Xmas is a huge, four-letter determinant in our lives. Look, people even put o ff dying until after Xmas – “He managed to hang on to see the lights, to see his last pageant…” The fruitiest kind of family arguments resume at Xmas. Couples split at Xmas. Dogs, cats and old people become burdens at Xmas. Every kind of service that makes modern life convenient is suspended at Xmas. Ruthlessness, thy name is Xmas. True, the retail trade would probably collapse without it. But something else would come along to ring the tills. This year, for the first time I felt Xmas met a little challenge. Hallowe’en put the frighteners on Xmas. The festival has many origins, including ancient Celtic and Christian ones (Shakespeare mentions Hallowmas, the day after Hallowe’en, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; there was a performance of Othello on Hallowmas 1604). It is being embraced – with or without the apostrophe – probably more often than opposed these days. Americans fell in love with it in the 20th century and we are discovering it in the 21st. It is not an American invention, whatever you may like to think. Children relish the macabre element and the dressing up. It brings neighbours together. Or if they don’t want to be a part of it, they just leave some sweets outside the door, the kids scoop them up, and everyone is happy. My grandchildren adored it. The only problem was the di fficult daylight-saving wait until it was dark enough to parade our luminous skeletons and skull lamps – and a 10-year-old being noisily puzzled when I told him one neighbour wanted no part of it. “Show me their house,” he said. “I just want to know what these Puritans look like.” I put my hand over his mouth. It was beginning to sound a lot like Xmas. But give it time. It may overtake the fluffiness, sentimentality, hypocrisy, and generally overblown four-letter, family upheaval, overcrowded, lonely, far too expensive Xmas. Yay. When the new Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, was barely 10 years old, I was in Victoria, BC, Canada, watching a play by Linda Gri ffiths, about Justin’s parents. Pierre Trudeau was then in his second term as Prime Minister and he and his wife Margaret, 30 years younger than he, had separated. The two-acter was about the family and public life of the PM and Margaret, who fled the marriage to “live her own life”, which included her fl ing with the Rolling Stones, and about Pierre’s reaction to it. I was one of five visiting arts writers from Australia. I can’t speak for the others, but by comparison with Malcolm and Tamie Fraser, then in our Lodge, the Trudeaus were charismatic material and Canadians seemed imaginative and daring in presenting a play about their domestic life with almost no holds barred. The three characters in the play – Maggie, Pierre and Henry (the newspaper reporter who became involved in the marriage crisis) were played by one person. By the time I saw it, Patricia Oatman had taken over the roles from the playwright herself. I wrote at the time that the expected element of voyeurism was overtaken from the start by compassion, inspired by the excellent characterisation. It was quite moving – still, a little bit shocking by then Aussie standards. It had a short, off-Broadway run and the playwright returned to Canada to have a substantial career until she died last year, aged 60. Margaret Trudeau saw the play and was said to have liked it: Pierre thought it was very fair in the way it presented him. I wonder what the young Justin thought of it. Pretty cool, I expect.

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