Reconnecting families at Christmas

Melanie Dooner

Melanie Dooner

Melanie has worked as a teacher in Catholic secondary schools and now works as a writer and editor

I love Christmas! I enjoy the waiting period of Advent, attending church events and services, preparing food and gifts, and spending time with family and friends. In the midst of the busy-ness though, it can feel like a whirlwind. Despite this, our usual celebration of Christmas is joyful, steeped in the rituals of our faith, and connected closely to loved ones.

But last Christmas was anything but business as usual. COVID-19 entered the scene 11 months earlier and created havoc, it disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed the relatively predictable and peaceful Christmas many of us were used to having. As I reflect on last Christmas and wonder what this Christmas will look like, it reminds me of another disruption, another moment in time when our lives were upended, only in a different way.

Of course, I refer to the story of that first Christmas, the night God broke into our world in the form of a wriggling, crying baby and disrupted everything we knew to that point. There was very little that was calm and predictable about that night, the birth of a baby boy displaced by circumstances his parents faced that were beyond their control, and separated from the large extended family who would, in normal circumstances, have welcomed him joyously and lovingly into our world.

This birth was not ‘normal’ in the sense of ordinary and uneventful. It was the night where God showed us that he is not removed from our pain or fear, that he is not aloof to our suffering or separation from one another or from God. Our Saviour, God’s own Son, who would ultimately go on to free us from sin, darkness, and slavery, was born into this world in less than perfect circumstances, his parents experiencing all the disconnection so many people are experiencing in our world today – from rolling lockdowns, to illness, and sadly, in so many cases in Australia and overseas, death and grief.

One of the striking things to come out of the extended lockdown in Sydney for me this year was discovering how no two people’s story of struggle seemed to be alike. Everyone I spoke to experienced the same lockdown but in such different ways depending on their personal circumstance and challenges.

Bozena Grubisic is from Germany and of Croatian heritage. She met her Australian husband (also of Croatian heritage) overseas and they came to Australia in 2009 to live and raise their family. While Bozena’s family all still live in Germany, she is blessed to have an aunt living in Sydney and has the support of her husband’s family here too.

Every second Christmas, Bozena and her family return to Germany to spend Christmas with them, their most recent visit being December 2020. Since then, her sister has given birth to a beautiful baby girl who Bozena longs to meet in person, hold and most importantly, be the little one’s Godmother if the baptism can be held off long enough for Bozena to be present.

It’s not hard to see in Bozena’s experience that of the experience of Mary and Joseph’s family and friends. To be separated from the new family and unable to assist with the birth or care for Mary afterwards, would have been a difficult time for them. Their story has an affinity with so many people today who have been unable to visit loved ones overseas or even across Australian state borders.

Bozena speaks of her longing to hold her niece, and her sadness at having missed out on those precious early days and weeks of a newborn when they change so quickly. Like so many people, Bozena also struggled not being able to return home to see her family and is praying she can secure a flight home.

“If there wasn’t the issue around the pandemic, either my family would be here in Australia with us, or my husband, children and I would be in Europe celebrating Christmas together,” she said.

Bozena has plans to fly back to Germany this Christmas on her own, “My father has had some health issues lately which makes it a priority for me to visit him as soon as possible. However, it will be a challenge to celebrate Christmas without my husband and children.”

And if the situation doesn’t turn out as she hopes? “We will still have a blessed Christmas with the knowledge that we will reunite with my family soon,” Bozena says. “Our prayers are that everyone stays healthy, as the last 18 months have shown that this is the most important thing.”

Veronika Thomas was one of many people living in Sydney’s Northern Beaches whose Christmas celebrations were essentially cancelled due to a COVID-19 outbreak in December last year.

Ten days before Christmas, her grandsons were practising for the Christmas Eve nativity play. Veronika had by then ordered a large seafood lunch for the many visitors who were coming for Christmas, and 26 family members from other parts of Sydney and beyond were preparing to travel to Avalon to celebrate Christmas with her, and some planned to stay on for the holidays.

Veronika remembers December 16 when “the news broke that Avalon Beach had a number of COVID cases. Everyone in the Northern Beaches, from Narrabeen Bridge to Palm Beach, were ordered into lockdown and required to get tested.” Many people faced 14 days of isolation except to purchase food or get tested for COVID.

Veronika spoke of the small gestures she was able to make amidst the challenges the lockdown posed. Rather than impact on the business she purchased the seafood from, Veronika kept her order and instead made food packages for family and friends ordered to remain in isolation for the 14 days.

She spent Christmas Day calling them and dropping the parcels on their front doorstep. Facetime calls became a regular event but were unable to replace the intimacy of face-to-face conversations.

As we near the end of 2021, Veronika feels such sadness for those who have increased issues and pressure on their families due to lockdown. She looks forward to spending time with her loved ones this year, caring for them, and being able to communicate their love for each other in person.

“I long to celebrate and thank God at church that we came through the pandemic in good health thus far, and that our faith communities are able to practice their faith in full,” she says.

In an unusual turn of events this year, the week before my eldest son returned to school after lockdown, we were travelling up the escalator at our local shopping centre, and as we reached the top we saw a nativity scene. While I love seeing the nativity in shopping centres in December, I usually feel October is far too early for Christmas displays.

But this October day was different, the only sign of Christmas was the nativity – no Christmas trees and no other decorations. I smiled! In the most unexpected way God broke into my day. In that moment, it didn’t matter that Christmas was still two months away.

My heart leapt because I was reminded that God’s time is not my time, that hope is alive, and that maybe this year when people see the signs of Christmas, even if a little bit early, they might also see that the presence of the baby Jesus and the hope He brings our hurting world is already upon us.

 

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