Does anyone remember the film Four Christmases? In a predictable mass-appeal fashion, resident rom-com goofballs Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn embark on the task of visiting their parents on Christmas Day, all of whom are divorced from one another. The film itself was designed to be an easy, one-time family watch rented from a local DVD shop. In our case, it seemed like the perfect attempt by my Mum for us to enjoy something together that wasn’t wrestling or Disney Channel reruns. The film embodies the traditional three-act-structure, with the couple being ‘forced to go through the day—some of which is endearing and some of which is surprising’, a structure not unlike most of the big-budget rom-coms being spewed out from Hollywood in the late 2000s. However, the essence of the film and its structure resonated somewhere deep in my childhood subconscious for the past 14 years. I could empathise with the jarring dissonance that experiencing Christmas Day between divorced parents brings, as well as the full-scale drama that envelops society both during and leading up to the bookend of the year.
Picture it. The year is 2001—Britney Spears is topping the charts, and her relationship (and matching denim outfit) with Justin Timberlake has bloated all the tabloids. Low-rise jeans, Heelys, digital Happy Meal toys and unintentionally campy red-carpet fashion are all the rage. The ‘web’ cautiously begins its descent on the social fabrication of Western society as we know it. And for Aotearoa, summer was in full swing as Christmas wrapped us up in its clutches. My family weren’t impervious from its influence, and my two brothers revelled in anticipation of stockings filled with footballs and club shirts, Nerf guns, and knock-off wrestling merch as my parent’s Rumors CD filled the house with soft-rock. We certainly weren’t rich or religious, but the onslaught of presents, decorations and Christmas cheer in the air could have fooled any visitors to our home. Life, particularly during the holiday season, seemed pretty good. Usually, once the house had been torn up by the wreckage of new toys, and wrapping paper littered in every corner and crevice, our next venture would be down to the beach. The remainder of our day would be spent with the boundless number of family and friends that were dispersed throughout Auckland.
While I was yet to gain self-awareness at the tender age of three years old, I’m eternally thankful to my dad for capturing all of my earliest moments on his gigantic camcorder. It seemed to engulf all the tropes of mildly ancient technology with its hulking demeanour, grainy quality, and persistent sepia tone. Its true eminence, however, was found in the rose-tinted nostalgia that fills simplistic scenes of a Papatoetoe family home in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, one that makes the home videos a mandatory watch each Christmas. The solid block of metal seemed to perfectly capture the messy, happy, energy-filled pandemonium that ran rampant throughout our childhood. My moments of peace and curiosity as the baby sibling, revelling in my few years of a nuclear parental structure, were pervasively disrupted and captured in 144 pixels by the presence of my two older, more rambunctious brothers. My dad’s role behind the camera would sometimes translate to an on-screen superstar, with his most notable appearance being as Santa Claus at the Indian Community Centre in South Auckland. Unbeknownst to my four-year-old brother, he exclaimed to his friend with skilled comedic timing out-of-shot that, “Santa has the same shoes as my dad!”
My parents had decided to separate by the time 2002 sprang around. While we all collectively moved to Wellington to remain close to my Dad who had gotten a job there, change was fresh in the air as family Christmases began to look a lot different. My mum raised the three of us in Miramar during the week, while my dad met his current Pākehā partner, who came with two daughters close in age to my middle brother and me in tow. Our weekend visits to Tawa were filled with family holidays, meat and vegetables, and Friday night rugby-watching that I avoided at all costs.
When spread out over the week, this routine became a surprisingly normalised, comfortable part of my childhood. Enjoying the weird flex of telling my school friends that my Dad lived in a different ‘city’, I also revelled in the main character complex that came with living what felt like two separate identities. My parent’s personalities were clear reflections of these reality shifts. My mum was quite bohemian, if you will, often leaving us to our own accord while living the exuberant social life that my outcasted-self dreamed of one day having. My dad, on the other hand, was rooted in structure, upholding the dynamic of his newfound family and limited time with his children to ingrain tradition and ‘quality family time’ into the weekends.
These shifts were only exacerbated when the weekly visits were condensed into a single day by our new Christmas routine. Christmas Day would always kick off at Mum’s house. It started as a ‘laxed affair, where we slowly emerged from our rooms from mid-morning onwards and circled around our tiny Christmas tree standing idly on the lounge coffee table. The TV would be playing whatever channel had been on the night before as we began tearing into presents that we’d already picked out for ourselves. My most pertinent memory was being unable to sleep on Christmas Eve due to the excitement of being able to finally wear the new classic checkerboard Vans that all the cool primary school kids had been wearing. My poor mother finally conceded after months of begging and pleading.
The lull of Christmas morning would soon be disrupted by the arrival of ‘The Circus’. My staunch Indian grandmother, affectionately and fearfully referred to as ‘The Don’, would roll up in tow with my uncle, aunty, and two younger cousins. My extended family are a cast of characters, and the vibe shift was immediate as the echo of peppy Mariah Carey’s music worked to expend the manic energy that had filled up our small house. My cousins were either in two states; glued to their iPads in focused silence, or running rambunctious through the lounge with wrapping paper flying like capes behind them as they launched into their next present. My brothers and I would begin making repetitive small talk with my uncle, while my grandma set up her neck pillow on the La-Z-Boy and ordered my mum around in Gujarati. Their arrival was always jarring, to begin with, but there was also some excitement to being engulfed in a chaos that dissipated the familiar weekday chillness when it was simply our family of four. The smell of brunch wafted through from the kitchen while noise ensued in all corners of the house, and the abundance of different voices, languages and movements ensured there was no mundane moment on Christmas morning.
High on coffee, code-switching and pre-determined presents, the 30-minute journey to my dad’s house felt like crossing over into the Brave New World. My brothers and I would rile each other up on the car ride there, wondering what stories would emerge from The Annual Yo-Tel Christmas. My dad’s partner kicking up a fuss over buying the wrong brand of sausages, the awkward lull between opening presents and the big Christmas lunch filled with small talk and growling stomachs, and the usual family quirks-turned-running gags that would become a drinking game as my brothers and I got older.
We knew the house would be carefully decked out in its usual fashion. The poised white Christmas tree with ornaments and multi-coloured tinsel (that we were chastised for touching) would be set up by the lounge window, supported by a sprawling display of Christmas presents that included my dad’s classic Christmas cards with $50 notes slipped inside. The dining table would be immaculately set; seven beaming white plates with polished forks and knives in perfect symmetry, two Christmas crackers laid out on each side, and our specially-named cups directing us to our corresponding place at the table. My dad’s popular sherry-doused trifle displayed tantalisingly in the fridge. White rum and pineapple juice for the adults and sparkling grape juice for the kids neatly laid out across the kitchen bench. The changeover between chaos and civility was always apparent, and we braced ourselves before entering the castle. Slapping on our best white-people smiles, we took off our shoes in the hallway and offered up dignified hellos.
The beginning of the afternoon followed in usual succession. Michael Bublé began his aggravating ascent on the afternoon through the ancient stereo, grinding his way into my peace of mind as the once innocuous background music became truly unbearable after a few hours. My dad always claimed that he wouldn’t hand out the presents this year, before finally ‘giving in’ to collective persuasion. We would go around the circle and open our presents one at a time in silence, watching and waiting for our turns while chiming in with the occasional ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when someone got something particularly cool. There was one year where my stepsister pulled out Vanessa Hudgens’s cult classic single Sneakernight on CD from her stocking, squealing with pure joy as I enviously looked on. This all changed two rounds later as I trumped her with all three High School Musical CDs from my stocking, revelling with a pointed snarky grin at her from across the room.
While the beats and rhythms were the same each year, it didn’t take away from any of the anticipated fun. The best gag would always be my dad handing each of us tiny, delicately wrapped gifts, that, through sheer appearance and a quick shake, would indicate it was either a packet of cashews, a soft drink, or chocolate. These always happened to be his favourite snacks and would inevitably guarantee a wheezy explosion of laughter from him. Gasping out between laughs, he would cheekily claim it was ‘from Santa’, knowing we’d be wilfully gifting them right back to ‘Santa’ by the end of the afternoon. We’d all crack up simultaneously—not so much from the gag itself, but more so that he still got such a kick out of doing it every year.
As we moved into the late 2010s, the smell of change was fresh in the air once again as us kids got older and the pre-heated traditions started going cold. The roasts and supermarket salads at the dinner table were replaced by barbecued kebabs and Monteith’s Radlers on lawn chairs outside. While I was still destined to a plate of roasted vegetables and corn on the cob due to my newfound undertaking of vegetarianism, the new changes to Christmas were bittersweet. I’d started to desire a Christmas afternoon that felt less rigid and rooted in place. Still, it wasn’t until I was older that I realised how much I truly appreciated the one time of the year in which court-ordered formalities meant that I really got to create memories and gags with my family that otherwise wouldn’t be there.
This fear of change in the structure and traditions of Christmas Day reflected my own duality of realising I was queer. I wanted to continue living in ignorant bliss, where I could simply function in my role as the quiet, younger brother being dragged to and from spaces that were comforting in their familiar routine and structure. As I got older I became fearful of change, and more importantly, I was fearful of others seeing me change. The realisation of my maturity eventually hit home during my first summer working full-time. After working gruelling ten-hour days as a dishy inside a 300-person seated café, my three day break over Christmas felt like a godsend. And while this stressful adaptation to the world of manual labour likely added some physiological reason for why I was so excited for a reprieve, I had a deeper sense of gratitude for the tried-and-true traditions that were simply an excuse to fill up on alcohol and trifle, unapologetically have a mid-afternoon nap, and spend quality time my family. My life and identity were shifting rapidly, and yet I wanted to feel reassured that some parts of it were still the same; that on Christmas Day, I was still just a child participating in the norms around me without any reflection of how the ‘new’ me fit into them.
This perspective shifted as Christmas time evolved from only spending time with only family, to including friends as well. When our first ‘Friendmas’ swung around, I had no idea what to expect other than a copy & paste formula of what other friend groups were doing on our Snapchat stories—sitting in big circles with perfectly curated charcuterie boards and RTDs in aesthetically-pleasing scenery. Over the years, as our uni friend group shrunk in size but grew in closeness and Friendmas would become a tradition in itself with the usual beats that were simplistic and self-made. Hosted at someone’s house or an outdoor space, we would each bring a designated potluck dish of homemade food and Secret Santa presents that were, more often than not, also homemade. As a result of my moody, misunderstood complex, my family had resorted to money and gift cards as Christmas presents, or a neon green hoodie that I would have loved when I was 10. But the natural metamorphosis of your best friend group meant receiving gifts that accurately reflected your love language and quirks as a blossoming young adult. It was a revelation to receive a handmade ring from my best friend as a Secret Santa gift, especially when compared to a pair of socks from a sort-of friend’s boyfriend six years earlier.
While the presents were lovely, they certainly weren’t everything, and it was really the expression of love through traditions built from scratch that made our collective bond that much stronger. There’s a melancholic happiness in getting to share Christmas with those that know and understand the authentic you in a way that your family don’t. I finally felt ready to embrace change, and it felt like a luxury to revel in my full queer self during a time that had always been structured and built on a false reality of a life that simply didn’t exist anymore. Imposed rules and ways of behaving that were previously fixed in place for the occasion could be broken, restructured and transformed into whatever we wanted it to be. Our own traditions emerged in a way that was for us, by us.
While the nuances of Christmas day feel insignificant in respect to the emergence of individualism, overconsumption and societal despair, my recollection of this time that I often took for granted indicates a need to preserve the few social indicators of time and collectivism that we have left. While I fondly celebrate the nostalgia-filled past, I also look forward to the new memories exuded by our constantly shifting reality and found culture. I have hope that my nephew will get to experience the same specialness of Christmas that I felt, void of its religious sentiment and unsustainable consumerism. The chaos of relatives running manically around the house to ensure everything runs smoothly. The excitement of seeing a few meaningful presents under the tree. The happiness of playing cricket with his uncles and grandpa at the local park. The joy of creating makeshift traditions with his close friends as he grows old enough to realise how much it underpins our interconnectedness to one another.
These moments spent together carry a greater gravitas than just fleeting rose-tinted memories that I look back on with both delight and apprehension. They are a record of change that my uniquely different worlds have brought forth no matter how hard I tried to fight it. Christmas is a three-act structure, some of which is endearing and some of which is surprising, and I thrive in being present in all its chaos.
Featured image by Sloane Hong.