Christmas was the constant in my young life. Joyful, exciting, anticipated for months in advance, and always following the same much loved routine. Breakfast at our little gabled house, lunch with Nana and Grandad and Mum's family in Toowoomba then driving down the range in the late afternoon towards Redcliffe for the loud and vibrant celebration with Dad's family.
The Toowoomba celebration was always out the front of the little white house under the Jacaranda tree that I fell out of when I was 10 busting my hip. Tinsel in the gawky evergreen tree that never seemed to grow or bush out but just *was*. Cold ham and turkey and devilled eggs (I made those), and mum's desserts, a pav and then a cold mango that was Grandad's special treat for us. We'd be sitting there in our beautiful Christmas dresses that Mum had finished the day before (cursing and swearing never to do again), with a tea towel tucked up under our chins as we slurped that cold mango-y goodness.
Nana would be sitting back with her beer or glass of sars, jovial and beaming at the sight of excited pink cheeked grandchildren fussing over their new presents. Mum and Dad sweaty and tired looking in the heat, Grandad pottering in the background, chucking us under the chin occasionally and loving us and all that we did on Christmas Day.
Stuffed full of good things to eat and the excitement and the heat we'd pile back into the commodore station wagon (I can still remember the license plate 15 years on) with our Santa sacks fairly bursting with loot under our feet. Before we strapped in I'd fish out whichever much coveted book that Santa had delivered in preparation for the 2 hour drive ahead, while my little brother and sister passed out, usually with their heads bobbing on my shoulders, while I immersed myself in the wonder of the new tale.
As we pulled onto the Deagon deviation the heat would be starting to go from the day and a little snake of excitement would start squirming in my belly. My book would get put down (usually past half finished) and I would gaze out the window watching the eucalypts flash by and wait for that first glimpse of the sea - nudging little sister so that we could compete to see who could see it first. Sometimes we'd cheat and pretend to see it, but nothing felt like the flash at seeing the low sun on the glinting water with the lazy pelicans overhead as we sped across the Hornibrook bridge towards the house in Hill Pde that was bursting at the seams. People who looked just like me but older or younger or louder spilling out of the tiny 2 bedroom house. Loud games of hotly contested backyard cricket, Aunts in the kitchen booming out greetings as they organised salads and chocolate caramel slice and trays for the barbeque. Dad and the Uncles doing the man dance around the BBQ and stoking it so that sparks flew out of the chimney while we ran around chased by the fumes of the RID we slathered on to keep the bloodthirsty mozzies at bay.
In the middle of this joyous chaos would be Nana, her round belly squished into yours as she gave you a gigantic bear hug and praised Mum for her Christmas dress creations, chiding Dad for something, her accent which I never noticed until she died even more strident. Poppop would be there too, chastising us naughty children while giving us a pipe smoke scented bone crushing hug that we never realised would be something we'd miss along with his Welsh-lilt. He would usually be sitting in his chair in the corner, with a cheeky bedimpled, 2 year old "Poppy's Pest" on his knee as Nana and the Maiden Aunt would herd us all into the lounge room for the orgy of gift giving. We'd charge on in, desperate for the place closest to the evaporation fan in the sweltering humidity, glowing with heat and sweat and exuberance.
Then the gifts would be handed out, piles and piles of shiny wrapped gifts stacked in front of the Christmas tree distributed to the symphony of tearing paper and oohs and ahhhs. Someone would sneakily turn on the cricket and it would be in the background, with Dad and Poppop and the uncles all throwing in their 10c and Nana insisting she didn't care who won as long as it wasn't the Australians and especially that horrible Shane Warne. I remember sitting there amongst the chaos and just beaming with joy that I got to be a part of this wonderful ritual. The cacophany of noise, of children laughing, of adults exclaiming and arguing and benevolently trying to ply us with fourth helpings of food.
Then as some of the families trickled home, the backgammon board and the beat up Scrabble box coming out so that Dad and Nana could compete for the most competitive family member. Reading terrible terrible bon bon jokes and laughing uproariously while wearing silly paper hats. Picking up my new book and finishing it. Feeling spent but still excited. So high on life that if I could bottle that sensation and sell it I would be the richest woman in the world. The wonder and the magnificence and the magic of it all.
So much of that was shattered when Nana died. We never realised before she was gone how much that magic Christmas had been her. Two of her son's marriages have broken down since. Many of her 13 grandchildren don't come to the family celebrations any more, after she left we just didn't know what to do. That chaos and joy had been centred around her and it could never be the same again. We've tried to emulate it but it just isn't. When Poppop died 18 months later we stopped pretending. For Mum and the Aunties we try and all meet up once a year again, and it's fun, but every time I go there's a wistful bit of me that remembers the ghost of Christmas past and mourns for what we once had.
For 6 years though we have had Christmas with Mum's family largely untouched. The same ritual of going there for lunch under the jacaranda tree while children run around outside, except in recent years it has been our children adding to the mob cruising around and stuffing themselves with cold meats and salads and glorying in their swags of gifts. It's felt strange going from child to adult, but the transition was gradual and only finalised when I brought my own child. Nana would still fuss over me and the girls though, and even though her health has been woeful as she gasped for every last breath she was still *there* and Christmas was still Christmas there under the jacaranda eating mum's trifle and those devilled eggs.
This year there is no Christmas at Hill Pde and there is not going to be Christmas under the jacaranda. We're forging our own traditions at home and I love that my girls are going to have their own rituals that they remember every year. But I am still wistful for that drive over the bridge with the glimpse of the water and the pelicans overhead. I still miss the pungent smell of RID and the cacophony of noise and bustle and cheer. I miss my Nanas and their effusive love for all things Christmas, the tinge of Poppop's pipe smoke and eating the last square of chocolate caramel slice. I miss the fact that from this year forward, I will never be the child at Christmas again - I pass that joy and privilege to my own children.