December 2017

Waif and Stray on a Hot Christmas Day: Lawless Reflections

Christmas is for family.  And for friends, waifs, and strays who join families discovered in their neighborhoods, communities, and workplaces. Who will you be without and with on December 25?

by Dr. Ann Lawless

Australian Decembers are often hot—really hot—and sometimes best spent at a beach or shady park cooling down; or in chilly air-conditioned indoor spaces for shelter from the swelter; or spent adjacent to a cooling pool, billabong, dam, lake, or river. There may well be swimming, splashing, paddling, and water fights. One should dodge the sunburn and heat fatigue yet glory in the Australian outdoor culture. And December the 25th?

Christmas day is readily conflated and confusing: it is both a Christian festival, a national public holiday, and a family gathering. As a holiday it is rarely regarded as a chance to rest, recover, and recuperate from the exhausting build-up period in the hot hazy days before Christmas.

Christmas is a hot topic indeed in Australia. It has both public and private domains, family insiders and outsiders, freeloading and reciprocity, and the joy and pain of the gift exchange, of obligation and freedom, of restraint and excess. The sacred family day may involve much travel or much staying: may involve more than one obligatory meal at more than one home, perhaps a visit to a church, chapel or grotto, and a strange dance of affection and distance with obligatory hugging, squeezing, smiling, grunting, eyebrow raising, snoozing, and attendance to body maintenance. There may even be expressions of silence and solitude. And there is alcohol. And trees and tinsel, consumption and cards, gifts and glitter, and the dealing with pets for play, banishment, or sufferance.

Man dressed as Santa Claus decorating christmas tree on beach, rear view
Man dressed as Santa decorates a Christmas tree at the beach, where many Aussies celebrate the holiday. Courtesy HuffPost AU.

As both a public holiday, and religious festival, the Australian Christmas is also a family event. Romantic partners—the young or old boyfriend and girlfriend—are often invited into an Australian family home where they must endure or enjoy the scrutiny of family and kin.

What then of those without family nearby or with family nearby but who suffer amnesia and persist with a nuclear-idea of what constitutes family? What about single childless aunties and uncles, those with deceased parents, aromantic attachment, and those living far away from biological kin? What of the waif and stray in your neighborhood, in your community, and discovered in your workplace during casual bragging and complaining of how will we spend the day?

I offer lawless reflections on what it is to be the single childless adult occupying a twig in a huge spreading family tree.

That is pretty much my story, the story of waif and stray on a hot Christmas day. I offer lawless reflections on what it is to be the single childless adult occupying a twig in a huge spreading family tree, an extended family surviving (just) in a culture that worships the nuclear-family, one that often forgets the aunty, cousin, and niece who is childless and unattached. Fortunately for the color of this story, there are dramas (almost as good as an Aussie soap-opera) about having a mobility disability that makes driving verboten, of being a teetotaler vegetarian in a alcohol-guzzling meat-worshiping cultural festival, of not being Christian, and of being an intellectual in a sun burnt landscape that worships sport and booze—the life of the gut and the muscle, rather than the life of the mind.

During thirty-five years in proximity to kin in one state of Australia, living in a capital city, I discovered the extended family amnesia. I was rarely asked to join family on this sacred family day and either spent it with friends and workmates, or in occasional solitude. I asked a favorite local cousin, why am I so rarely invited?  Why on this one day of year am I excluded from family events when I am welcome at so many others on other days? Do I lack familial popularity, am I disgracefully theirs, available to be excluded? Or is it the “not-a-Christian thing?” Is it the dietary preference in a carnivorous society? Because I don’t drive and to offer a lift is too much when there is so much else to organize?

After a short silence, he says “Out of sight, out of mind.” I ponder this. Am I waif and stray within my own kin? I am a popular aunty, so I am told, and a loved cousin and niece. The vegetarian and teetotaler thing isn’t a hassle—the festive tables groan with the weight of many options. My dietary lawlessness surely is not the cause of my exclusion? It doesn’t seem to be an urban thing, the aloof cityscape thing.

wiradjuri_map
Location of the Wiradjuri nation, where the author wrote this piece, in inland New South Wales. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

As a sociologist I have made it too complex: it’s as simple as memory. So yes, perhaps it’s amnesia that explains those rare and dwindling family invites to share Christmas with kin in this state. It leads me into mindfulness of the condition of the Australian family with its intimate performance of the nuclear family and a sort of cultural and familial erasure of the kinship of the abnormals. There are outlier kin without nuclear kin in contemporary Australia, those lurking in the marginalia of the family storybook. It hurts to be excluded. It hurt terribly when during and following one recent Christmas day spent in hot solitude I was sent pictures from eight family events in the metropolis in which I lived and not one invite to join their air-conditioned comfort. Habermas notes in an autobiographical moment in Kyoto, “Only those who talk can be silent. Only because we are by our nature linked to one another can we feel lonely or isolated,” reminding us that intersubjectivity is a fundament of our lives, rather than monadic individuality.[1]

Each Christmas involved an invite to feast with a workmate and their kin: warm welcomes, festive tables groaning with food, gift exchanges, and conversations with humans and pets.

I eased my biological kin of their sinful burden of amnesia for the past three sacred Christmases: I moved interstate, to a state with no lawless kin, and sojourned in a rural community near an inland river on the other easterly side of the continent. A neighbors’ mum rushes past me while I sit quietly with a friend who has dropped by—she stops, opens a pot and offers food and greetings. Wonderful neighbors and friends indeed!  Each Christmas involved an invite to feast with a workmate and their kin: warm welcomes, festive tables groaning with food, gift exchanges, and conversations with humans and pets.

Too much to eat, too much to drink, a casual dress code, and time to lounge and brag of over-eating before reaching for more. Time to talk with friendly and unfriendly children, youngsters and elders, to play with dogs and cats, and to try to escape the heat. In a busy year there is now time to talk with workmates who have created intimate friendship to complement their collegiality, time to listen to music, to practice small talk rather than sociological discourse. There is time to admire the decor and hospitality shown to non-kin amidst so many kin. Australian mateship here involves insistent offers of tubs of left-overs as though one is doing them a favor by taking festive food home. It isn’t freeloading is it, if the host insists you bring no food and depart with yummy left-over’s?

We are always inside and outside at the same time: are we both waifs and kin?

This mobilization and performance of mateship, of hospitality and goodwill exists: it’s the life-world and it is alive and fosters sociality. It counters the alienating landscape of the nuclear family for outsider kin, the waif and stray on Christmas day, and fosters community and nourishes body and soul. In this sense it is emancipatory for it is life-affirming. Here, amidst workmates, neighbors, friends and their pets, I am welcome and welcomed. Habermas, in “Theory of Communicative Action Part 2,” separated the public sphere from the private, the workplace from the family home, but in this story workmates entwine them on a sacred day.[2] In her 1985 feminist critique of Habermas, Fraser did herself proud with a feminist reconstruction of his work, drawing attention to silences and absences about gender and unpaid domesticity in his work on the public sphere.[3] And later, in 2004, after twenty years for reflexivity and dialogue, Habermas spoke auto-biographically of the “intuitive sense of the deep-rooted reciprocal dependence of the one person on the other…. The public character of the jointly inhabited interior of our lifeworld is both inside and outside at once.”[4] Here he refers to the melding place of structure and agency: of sociality and the individual. We are always inside and outside at the same time: are we both waifs and kin? Concerned Australians have built a reconciliation movement between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, addressing an Australian amnesia about sovereignty, colonialism, and race.

Social relationships on a hot Christmas day are fragile and ambivalent in the well-being of the nuclear family with amnesia about its own extensions. As Connidis and McMullin have argued, there is no immunity from the contradictions and paradoxes made manifest in interaction.[5] The contradictions and paradoxes within social structures are reproduced in our social relationships and interpersonal roles, and can be a catalyst for social action in the social sphere. Who will you be without and with on December 25?

lawlessDr. Ann Lawless is a Habermasian scholar, critical theorist, and sociologist with interests in critical higher education research. She has been actively involved in health activism, unions, and pro-diversity community work since the 1970’s. She is aunt to sixteen and great aunt to ten or more (and more on the way!), great-great aunt to one, and is curious about everything including what it means to be a member of family and community in modern Australia. This article was composed in the lands of the Wiradjuri nation of inland New South Wales, whose sovereignty and kin system is acknowledged.

Notes

[1] Habermas, J,  2004, p4. “Public space and political public sphere—the biographical roots of two motifs in my thought” (Commemorative Lecture, Kyoto Nov. 11, 2004). Downloaded from: http://ikesharpless.pbworks.com/f/Kyoto_lecture_Nov_2004,+Jurgen+Habermas.pdf

[2] Habermas, J, 1984. Theory of Communicative Action part 2. trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press.

[3] Fraser, N, 1985. “What’s Critical about Critical Theory? The Case of Habermas and Gender,” New German Critique, No. 35, Special Issue on Jurgen Habermas (Spring – Summer, 1985), pp. 97-131.

[4] Habermas, J, 2004, p4. “Public space and political public sphere—the biographical roots of two motifs in my thought” (Commemorative Lecture, Kyoto Nov. 11, 2004). Downloaded from: http://ikesharpless.pbworks.com/f/Kyoto_lecture_Nov_2004,+Jurgen+Habermas.pdf

[5] Connidis, I & McMullin J,  2002, p. 564. “Sociological Ambivalence and Family Ties: A Critical Perspective.” Journal of Marriage and Family, 64(3), pp. 558-567.

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1 comment on “Waif and Stray on a Hot Christmas Day: Lawless Reflections

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