She is this minute feeding it into the CD slot. The music we listen to year-round is mostly online, but something about the way the sun enters the house sideways at this time of year demands Mariah. And Mariah demands the CD with the cracked case and the sleeve depicting her in her Santa suit. The shadows cast by the cabbage tree in our garden splay against the interior lounge wall. “O, Holy Night,” she sings, though no stars are brightly shining since dusk is still two hours away.
It’s Christmas. We know this because the children’s shelves at Whitcoulls are groaning with titles like Santa’s Jandals and Turkey? Get Stuffed! Everywhere you look, there are calendars with pōhutukawa on their covers, close up and as red as the cable car. Children along Lambton Quay are spaced at every twenty paces like toy soldiers. From pint-sized violins, they summon forth “Hark the Herald” and thrust it into the summer bustle. Workmates, slightly louder than usual, pour out of pubs at lunchtime. One of them trails a tinsel streamer.
It’s Christmas and, in my desperate bid to find a foil for Mariah, I fall upon the Blind Boys of Alabama. It’s the Christmas album a friend once bought me. “Tell me, when was Jesus born?” they demand. “Last month of the year.” They repeat this. And repeat it again. “Was it January? [No]. February? [No.] March, April, May?” It’s not quite the gospel, but it has a gospel beat.
It’s Christmas. The kids are at school, Sarah’s at work, and I, a high school teacher, have the morning at home to myself. The biscotti now in the oven, I sort out the tramping cupboard, shaking half-empty gas canisters beside my ear and wondering if there’ll be enough for a dinner and two cups of tea. Outside, the outline of the Tararua range is pollen-hazed and beckoning. I’ve booked a night at Powell Hut on the treeline with a friend and assorted kids. Can barely wait for that feeling you get when out this time of year as if inhabiting a secret pocket of the island, while in your mind’s eye, shoppers frantic with stress traipse along Willis Street or scour the pop-up shops on Courtenay Place. I can already see the riot of piupiu, like Wordsworth’s daffodils, flashing on my inward eye.
It’s Christmas. In this tech age, there are no Christmas letters arriving in the post, no string of cards suspended over the piano. Sarah has rejected the tree I cut down from the wasteland near the motorway. It turns out it lacks shape—is two-dimensional, reminiscent, in fact, of the cacti that used to feature on Roadrunner cartoons. On our shelf is a Christmas children’s book about a homeless boy who is gifted a runt tree. But nope, turns out that trees like this belong in fiction only. Later in the evening, I come home with one of the specially grown ones from the seller on the side of the main road. Sarah and the girls turn on Mariah and drape the tree in baubles and decorations they’ve made at school. William reads a Kane Williamson biography.
It’s Christmas. Having tired of the Blind Boys, I remember the Irish Rovers. Ah, yes—“Christmas at Killarney”. I have never been to Killarney. Never been to Ireland. But how stirring it is to hear their tireless cheer once more: “The holly green, the ivy green, the prettiest picture you’ve ever seen—it’s Christmas in Killarney, with all of the folks at home.” Almost makes me wish I was Irish, groping about in the solstice darkness, spending the days indoors sprawled on La-Z-Boys beneath crocheted rugs, inhaling second-hand smoke from an uncle’s cigarette.
But, it’s Christmas, and, on Stuff, there’s a syndicated article from Melbourne about the Boxing Day test. Australia is going to steamroll England, or India, or South Africa. There’s been some niggle, of course, a bit of sledging. The Australian captain was picked up on stump mic in the previous match calling one of the Indians a “goose.” The Indians are accusing the Aussies of unsportsmanlike behaviour. The Blackcaps are in Zimbabwe.
Yes, it’s Christmas. Later this evening, there’ll be a carol service at the church. We’ll get that matchless Decembery feeling we get at prize-givings and end-of-year dance concerts, gathered together in a big warm room, daylight saving and the solstice combining to create a sense of eternal lightness, children in sheepskins sweltering, their face paint smudging. We’ll sing the famous songs, songs like “Good King Wenceslas” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” songs with no pause between the end of each chorus and the start of the following verse, songs that make the glands in my neck ache, make me slightly giddy, make me yearn to sit back down again, to slump in my seat and hear once more the readings from Matthew and Luke, that mosaic of phrases that pieces itself back together on this night every year: “An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream … And there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night … Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel ….” And when it’s all done and the sweatiness of it all is finally drawn to a close, there’ll be mince pies and perhaps fruit cake in the church hall and cordial in Arcoroc mugs. And upon getting outside once more, the air will be cool, but short sleeves will be enough, and we’ll go home again, and, at last, it will be dark enough for the lights on the Christmas tree to actually shine. The kids will hang newly acquired candy canes on the branches for the ants to get, then head to bed, leaving just Sarah and me, barefoot and thirsty for cups of tea in the night’s stillness. Thirsty too for the magnitude of it all to somehow sink in. The sliding door will be open and a morepork will be calling from the front yard, herald of all we’ve just finished singing about, as inarticulate as a baby’s first cry, bespeaking birth. A voice calling in the wilderness. Gloria.