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Yule be right

An "orphan's Christmas" spent away from family can indeed be a joyous one, writes Vanessa Murray

This article appeared in Sunday Life on 1 December 2013

Christmas is coming. I can tell, because my local council has strung twinkly lights from lampposts on the High Street. Store windows are festooned with tempting trinkets, candy canes and the occasional, vertiginous smattering of fake snow, and a selection of headache-inducing festive tunes are on rotation at the supermarket. 

When I was a kid, this sort of carry on filled me with so much excitement I could barely sleep. I fantasised about what Santa might bring me for weeks on end – and my parents made the most of my enthusiasm, reinforcing Santa’s preference for well-behaved children for all it was worth. 

After the Christmas tree went up and gifts magically started to appear, my brother and I sat cross-legged in front of it like worshippers at an idol, inhaling its fresh pine scent and surreptitiously stroking and shaking each carefully wrapped package. 

Then, finally, around would come Christmas Day itself, and with it aunties and uncles with platefuls of food and bottles of beer. My cousins, trailing behind them like a litter of unruly puppies, and a heady whiff of unbridled togetherness infused the air.

My mother’s fruit mince pies, chocolate covered Santas, and eggnog. A lunch big enough to feed three times the crowd and new toys to play with as the adults became increasingly red faced and jolly as the day wore on. 

But these days, Christmas has lost some of its lustre – I know Santa’s not real, for a start, and once again, I’ll be spending the festive season alone. Well, not alone exactly, but without family. 

I’ll be having what’s termed an “orphan’s Christmas” – a modern day misappropriation of an old-fashioned term where today, a Christmas orphan is someone who is, either by choice or by circumstance, away from their relatives for the festive season. 

I've lived away from my family for nigh on twenty years, so this won’t be the first time I’ve flown solo. In fact these days, I only make the pilgrimage back to my hometown every second or third year – and I’m not the only one. Melbourne and Sydney, and cities like them all around the world, will be full of other orphans.

My first Christmas sans famille, I was in London, sharing a flat with a bunch of twenty-something antipodeans. It was snowing, albeit unenthusiastically (“sludging” might be a more accurate term), but being in the middle of an old fashioned greeting card was exciting enough to keep the blues at bay. We’d planned ahead and brought ingredients for a pancake breakfast, so filled up before heading out to attempt snowmen. Devil-may-care swigs from a bottle of vodka being passed around helped to keep the cold away, and our al fresco mid afternoon sausage sizzle entertained the neighbours. We drank, played charades, and drank some more. At some point I phoned my family back home, but due to an unfortunate blackout (sadly, I’m not talking about the electrics), I really can’t tell you much of what was said. 

This was before the days of Skype, which of course enables even the most far-flung families to generate a sense of togetherness. These days, I talk to my family in New Zealand and England early in the day then get on with the business of doing Christmas, my way. 

Pavlova and strawberries for breakfast? Don’t mind if I do. Staying in bed reading trashy historical fiction until midday? Yes, please. Champagne and caviar at lunchtime? Why the heck not! This is Christmas, for grown ups.

Another yuletide, I visited an orphan friend in Berlin. Emme and I drank glühwein and ate stohlen. We donned thermals and puffy jackets and wandered the frozen streets, marveling at the dull winter light ricocheting through icicles hanging from shop boughs and lintels and creating dappled shadows on the icy ground below.

And now, Australia. My first orphan’s Christmas here in 2004, a workmate donned me in tinsel and took me to a house full of expats from other countries – the USA, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and the UK – where everyone was dressed as a Christmas decoration. A little silly, but it kept the blues away. 

More recently, a dozen of my nearest and dearest fellow orphans and I booked a table at Melbourne’s 130-year-old Hotel Windsor, where the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and Gregory Peck have stayed. We frocked and suited up, and dined like Hollywood royalty on a buffet lunch that included blue swimmer crabs, smoked salmon pastrami, honey baked ham and more desserts that you could possibly hope to do justice in one sitting. We set a $100 limit on gifts and ran a ballot, each picking another’s name and buying a single gift to that value.

Telling friends and colleagues you’re not going home for Christmas can prompt a sympathetic response, and sometimes a wonderfully generous invitation to their own family Christmas gathering. For some orphans, an in to another family’s Christmas is likely a welcome gift. But I’ve always declined them – if I can’t watch my own borderline alcoholic aunt slowly unravel like a poorly trussed turkey, then I don’t want to watch anyone else’s, either. 

But this all about me, isn’t it? For the 105,000 or so Australians experiencing homelessness, Christmas can stressful and painful. Perhaps it’s time to be a little less selfish, and a little more selfless. I could serve lunch to the homeless, or make sure my elderly neighbour is being cared for on the day, or donate toys as gifts for disadvantaged children. There are many ways to reach out. 

And given that Saint Nicholas (from whom jolly old Santa is derived), was himself an orphan – in the old fashioned sense of the word – it seems like the right thing to do.