Baubles the size of small planets light up Manhattan as they do every Yuletide, while in Europe the Christmas markets envelop visitors in an aromatic fug of gingerbread and mulled wine. In Paris snowflakes dust the hair of shoppers and on Oxford Street in London there’s barely room to mince along the footpath with so many puffer-jacket clad pedestrians lugging over-sized bags and parcels. In Sydney we chill out by the harbour or the beach, plan seafood menus and ignore people wearing flashing Santa earrings. Millions are putting the last touches to travel plans for family reunions, or to get away from their families. Yes, it all looks like Christmas as usual.
Except it’s not.
Christmas usually brings the misfortunes and needs of others into sharp relief and this year they seem even more acute. I have a lot of American readers and they’re wrestling with Christmas joy vs soul searching over the Sandy Hook elementary school gun massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 little children and six brave teachers died, along with the gunman’s mother at her home.
To his credit, President Barack Obama moved swiftly to propose an assault weapon ban. I’m glad he didn’t wait until the tears had dried, the usual inertia set in and the NRA began recycling its loathesome mantra. It’s a complex task, tied in with long-neglected issues on mental health care. Fortress America pays a high price for its love affair with the gun.
Here at home in Australia we have less access to such weapons, but people still get shot and killed, although the statistics pale in comparison. Shootings in Australia over the past week have left children without parents, and mothers without sons. More empty chairs at the Christmas table.
Drink-driving is a common horror on our roads at Christmas. My New Zealand friend Mike Morgan just posted a message on Facebook, telling how he was one of the first on the scene when a drunk driver collided with a car, killing the mother and critically injuring two girls aged five and seven.
Perhaps tragedies hit us even harder at this time of year because we’re busy thinking a little more about loved ones, and take it for granted that everyone will be gathered around the tree on Christmas Day. Just 10 minutes from my house is a teddy bear shrine for a dear little boy. Five-year-old Kevin Quintal, with his backpack full of Christmas cards for kindergarten classmates, was killed when he was struck by a car as he crossed the road on the way to school. Normally this is minor news in mainstream media, but last week it was a front-page story in Sydney.
Tough times are also routinely front-page news this year. With much of the Western world mired in economic recession, more people than ever are doing it hard and finding Christmas cheer a stretch. Charities in Australia report fewer donations. In my third homeland of Greece many families are struggling to keep themselves warm and charities are stretched to the limit coping with the needs of the new poor. I have no doubt it’s a scene playing throughout the European Union and the UK. And not forgetting the children of Syria – the smallest, most vulnerable targets in a bloody civil war, who need our compassion just as much.
I also think about my mother who has sent our family gifts. Now aged 86, it took all her effort to get from the car into the bookshop where she then had to sit down and direct my sister about what to buy. Her body is weary, but her spirit is keen and her gifts will be all the more cherished because we know her time with us is shorter than ever.
No matter how much the capitalist world screams at everyone to drink, be merry and shop til they drop, it seems Christmas 2012 feels different. The need for compassion and reflection is a whole lot larger than all the beautiful baubles in Manhattan.
I wish travellers safe journeys and joyful arrivals. Have a cool Yule, folks. XX