One of my earliest memories of Australia is right after my family arrived from Fiji in the December of 1992. We landed in Sydney three days before my third birthday, which also happened to be less than a week out from Christmas.
My dad got a job as an engineer in Albury, a regional centre in southern New South Wales, so we made our way to our new home with the support of several of his new colleagues, who helped us locate the house we would be renting and extended an invitation to the company’s Christmas party.
I remember walking into a large hall and being handed a wrapped present. Each of my siblings received a present of their own too, and although I can’t remember what was underneath the bright sparkly wrapping paper, I do remember the thrill of a gift given by a stranger. Maybe that was when my Christmas obsession began.
Being Fijian-Indian and Muslim, Christmas didn’t feature much in my household. We never had a Christmas tree or presents, no photos with Santa, and even some of the celebrations that happened at school weren’t available to us.
I remember my entire class making Christmas decorations during scripture classes in primary school. I wasn’t allowed to attend, because the classes taught Christianity and contradicted some of our Muslim beliefs, so I sat outside on my own, with a few books to read for company. When my friends showed off their paper snowflakes, decorated with glitter glue and texta, I tried not to feel left out.
We did have the occasional Christmas-adjacent celebration, usually wrapped up in end-of-year parties with friends. But there weren’t the trappings of Christmas that I expected from my Hollywood diet of the time — I wanted jingle bells and green trees decorated with red tinsel, cinnamon-spiced coffees and fruit mince pies. I quite literally wanted a ‘white Christmas’, the kind white people had in the movies. I watched Love, Actually every year with no irony.
When I moved out, my housemates and I indulged these Christmassy desires by decorating our house and exchanging gifts. Eventually, I was able to join the Christmas traditions of my partner’s family, who aren’t super into the holidays, but still have a tree and presents. It was exciting to finally be on the inside of the holiday, not watching it unfold wistfully from outside.
Lately, I’ve been wondering what lurks beneath my Christmas obsession though. Watching how nonchalant my partner is about the holiday, despite having celebrated it in a traditional way for his whole life, I have to admit that there’s some racialised FOMO that’s hiding behind my desire to drink eggnog and wear a festive sweater. It’s like I’ve internalised the idea that Christmas is better or more relevant than other cultural holidays, despite millions of others being in the same boat as me.
My family may not have celebrated Christmas, but we had loads of festive traditions related to our own culture and religion. Every year we go all out for Ramadan and Eid al Fitr with fancy new clothes, a beautifully decorated table of delicious food to celebrate with our friends, and a special family breakfast featuring the delicacies that are saved for the occasion.
When I was a kid, all of our Muslim family friends would spend the month of Ramadan hosting each other to break fast, and the women would visit each other’s homes to help make the sweets and treats that would form the basis of our Eid feast at the end of the 30 days.
My own family would spend days making the vermicelli noodles that would later be boiled in sweet milk and spices to make ‘samai’, which was a key part of the breakfast we’d share. Those hours of toiling in the kitchen, listening to music and soaking up the scents of nutmeg and cardamom are fond memories for me, but they also felt incredibly separate to my day to day life.
There was no recognition or acknowledgment of Eid or Ramadan in my school or community outside of home. We would miss a day of school when Eid fell on a weekday, and no one ever asked about it or engaged with it, nor did we ever learn about the cultural traditions of other religions in our social studies classes.
I’m sure my classmates who were Hindu, or Jewish or Buddhist or just culturally diverse had other traditions and holidays that they celebrated that I never learned about either. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of different First Nations cultures and traditions that go entirely unrecognised by our mainstream culture.
Australia is a supposedly secular country, and often the justification that’s used to defend the recognition of Christian holidays and not those from other cultures is that we were originally colonised by a European Christian culture. But as we recognise the many atrocities committed as a result of colonisation, and the foundational prioritising of white British people and cultures over both First Nations sovereignty and the multicultural communities that were built here in the aftermath, isn’t it also time we developed a more inclusive approach to holidays and festivities?
I still like Christmas. I genuinely like the feeling of freedom and celebration that comes at the end of the year, and Christmas always feels like a big part of that. But I would like to have the chance to connect with the rituals and traditions of other cultures, and see more people doing the same for the holidays that I grew up with as well.
Imagine how rich our collective cultural life could be if we learned about the breadth and diversity of celebrations that people across the country observe — our joy and community spirit wouldn’t have to be limited to a two week period in December, and could stretch across the year instead.