Christmas and the holiday season means so many different things to different people, conjuring up for some images of cold snowy nights wrapped up next to the roaring fire at home whilst contemplating the trek to Christmas mass early the next morning, all while their antipodean counterparts awaken to the sound of Tui birds singing in the trees and with thoughts of adorning those traditional kiwi jandals, lighting up the BBQ, and heading down for an afternoon swim in the sweltering sun.
There are as many ways that people spend this season as there are bristles on that 20-year-old plastic Christmas Tree, so rather than any in-depth critical analysis of this contemporarily-commercialised Christian-Pagan fusion festival, I’m throwing open my blog to my personal kiwi experience this year with a few asides to satisfy my self-professed trademark daydreaming and musings. As should be expected, in an attempt to gently encourage my “scientific agenda” on an unexpecting public, I’ve interwoven a few science-based asides into the conversation where I can. Somewhat for my own amusement and somewhat in the hopes of enriching the Christmas narrative in a different direction.
My story – Oh, lymphedema nights
My Christmas this year starts out very differently than most. Not just because I live in New Zealand, where the comparatively few of us down here are amongst those who awake up to Christmas day first due to our placement of the international datelines. Nor is it because being in southern hemisphere our festivities differ from those northerners, including beach excursions, BBQs, summery attire, and getting ready for a long holiday away. Rather, it is down to my personal experience living with T-Cell Lymphoma – a cancer of the immune system that I’ve been battling with for over a year and half now and which actually was the catalyst which inspired me to create this very blog as an outlet to explore and express different aspects of my experiences with respect to life, culture, and the world around me. I know, I know, not exactly how one would expect to start a blog post about Christmas festivities, but bear with and I’d hope to illustrate how every kiwi’s Christmas is a little different for lots of different reasons.
Source: Deviant Art.
As far as how this malady affects my personal Christmas story: there are obviously physical, medical, and emotional challenges associated with having any serious illness, especially around the holidays. But in starting off my Christmas day, it’s not the additional mischievous combination of lymphedema (science extract: 1) and dexamethasone (science extract: 2) which have combined forces to make me look far more like the certain infamous rotund, red-suit wearing, jolly old man of the season, and which will plague me in social settings later on in the day. Nor, is it’s the enriched feeling of appreciation for spending time with close family and friends throughout the day. No, rather, it first and foremostly informs my sleeping patterns (blame it on Mr. dexamethasone). Much like the arctic-dwelling jovial character alluded to above, I too am wide awake in the middle of the night and so feel it proper to treat myself to cookies and a warm beverage. I’m not saying I’m Santa, despite having a once a year penchant for gift giving, but if the fluffy boots fit (barely – again, lymphedema) then why not play the part. Wide awake, I peruse Facebook, and a festive poem comes to mind:
“T’was the morn’ before Xmas and all through the house,
not a pill box was stirring ’cause liquid analgesics were in use;
The anxiolytics and opiods were shelved close by with care,
in the hopes that cytokines would not be there;
My legs were raised up, on pillows in bed,
while lymphedema fluid soon quickly fled”
Perhaps it doesn’t have quite the same festive tone as the traditional “T’was The Night Before Christmas”, but I’m confident of an audience amongst other unwell friends and night owls nonetheless. The support I’ve found in others, those who have or are going through serious illness and those close friends and family who have shown boundless compassion and support have been at the core of my wellbeing. Not just in the holiday season but in general in living a life of meaning and substance during hardship and strife.
Now, it wouldn’t feel like my blog if I didn’t try to squeeze in a little bit of science somewhere, but seeing as it is the holidays I’ll only leave you with these two quick asides below and then pay no more lip-service to dullen down the festive tone. After all, it’s Christmas – tis the season for pretending everything will be wonderful and surprisingly, more often than not, being proven right at the end of the day once the meals have settled, the bubbles kicked in, and the prezzie wrappings are laid asunder across the living room floor – or however else you celebrate Christmas.
Science Extract 1: Lymphedema:
Lymphedema is a build-up of lymphatic fluid in the lymphatic system causing swelling in the feet, arms, and legs, limiting mobility and sensation (Figure 1). The lymphatic system is similar to and runs alongside your cardiovascular system, i.e. your veins, capillaries, and arteries. But instead of carrying blood it is responsible for trafficking the cells of your immune system (white cells) and lymphatic fluids (a.k.a. lymph). Lymphedema can be cause by multiple factors including infection, radiation treatment, cancer, and pressure on the vessels of the lymphatic system. Treatment usually involve resolution of the cause and pressure/massage therapies to move the lymphatic fluids and force the reduction of blockages.
Figure 1: Human lymphatic system with lymph nodes and major vessels :
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Science extract 2: Dexamethasone:
Dexamethasone is a strong steroid-based anti-inflammatory and immune-suppressant drug used for the treatment of many different ailments including auto-immune conditions and certain cancers (Figure 2). However, whilst being a potent medication for a multitude of uses it has a myriad of negative side effects, especially for long term users, ranging from re-distribution of fat, muscle loss, mood and apatite imbalances, decrease in bone mass and density, and water retention. It may also cause problems with sleeping, healing, and is generally not fun.
Figure 2: Structure of anti-inflammatory steroid: dexamethasone
“Traditional” Kiwi Christmas
I don’t know why I still sometimes forget that that for so many people here in NZ, Christmas is just another day and that culturally it wouldn’t even appear on their radar if it weren’t for the saturation of media and shops with everything red, green, and Santa-esque. It shows how ingrained one is in their own culture without realising it sometimes. How curious it must be to go about ones daily business while a large majority of the country’s population is all consumed in month-long festivities. I wonder if experiencing Chinese New Year in China would be a similar experience. It would be fascinating to see from an outsider’s perspective.
But of course, not everyone who does do Christmas does Christmas the same way either. You just have to look at the Christmas symbolism and attitudes around the world. Here in Aotearoa, we’ve got our own uniquely dressed (perhaps impractically) version of kiwi Santa Clause. Our advertisements vacillate from the traditional snowy Coca-Cola snow-covered red-lorry staples to the upbeat beach BBQ summer holiday party affairs. Everyone is stressed out but we’re looking forward to the summer holidays at the same time and we don’t seem to get caught up in those silly quibbles over saying “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays”; there’s enough on ones plate without having to make new problems.
Curious thought, as I found out when living in Germany, the itinerary of Christmas isn’t even the same, the world over. In the English-speaking world, we tend to have a more subdued Christmas eve (24th Dec) evening or instead do something social waiting instead until Christmas Day (25 Dec) for the real Christmas action of gift giving and celebrations. Contrast this to many places in continental Europe were Christmas dinner and gift giving are in full force on Christmas eve leaving Christmas day as a much quieter and often family affair. This can work quite well if you’ve got friends and relatives on the other side of the world (i.e. UK, sorry US) as the time zones line up such that if you were to Skype-in you can be both opening presents and celebrating at similar times.
There are also wonderful little traditions and goings-on that we’ve never heard of down here that may occur in different places of the world throughout the season. Whilst working in Germany, I was greeted one day (December 6th to be specific) by a small box of chocolates on my desks with no explanation of why they were there or from whom they had come. A much amused with himself boss then had to explain that this was Sankt Nikolaus Tag (St. Nickolas Day) and that good boys and girls get visited by the infamous old chimney gymnast and get given a small gift of chocolate or some-such in their shoes if they have been good during the year. Those naughty children, however, instead receive a lump of coal from a character by the name of Knecht Ruprecht instead.
There are a multitude of little adorable Christmas novelties you’d never suspect around the world, relating to the festivities, the food, and of course the tree (science extract 3). You could be lucky enough to have a brightly flowering pōhutukawa tree “(Metrosideros excels) in your garden – New Zealand’s unofficial kiwi Christmas tree which delights the summer season with its festive greens and reds (Figure 3). Alternatively, you’ll be making that all important decision: real tree or fake? (Science extract 3).
Figure 3: An artificial Christmas tree on the beach alongside New Zealand’s unofficial Christmas Tree, the red-flowering pōhutukawa: “(Metrosideros excels). Source: modified image from bettysnzblog.blogspot.
Science Extract 3: Environmental impact of Christmas Trees:
Faux-tree or not faux-tree, that is the question? Or at least it is for some environmentally conscious households. I had made the assumption growing up that a fake Christmas tree, whilst seemingly more common here in NZ, might also be the more environmental option compared to cutting down a new mid-sized plant every year. However, this may in fact not be the case. Fake Christmas tress may actually have a greater environmental impact due to the production of industrial wastes from PVC plastic manufacturing, non-localised production footprints, and the necessity of having to dump the plastic husk in a landfill when it’s finally given up the holly ghost. Depending on who you ask, you may need to be using that artificial pine for between 9 and 20 years to make it the more eco-friendly option. There are of course inherent environmental impacts associated with growing Christmas trees too. While real trees do still act as temporary carbon-sinks and habitats for wild-life, being a luxury good they potentially replace arable land that could otherwise be used for the production of more mainstream crops. At the end of the twelve days, if you’re going to get married to that perpetual pine over a freshly snipped shrub, best make sure you’re in it for the long haul.
Food, Glorious Food.
So, we’ve covered off getting up in morning, the Christmas traditions, and the Christmas tree, now the most important part: the food. And between kiwi households, the different type of foods being served is in hot contention. You may have started off sensibly. In ours, there are some homemade mincemeat pies dusted with icing sugar alongside the ever-hopeful Christmas fruit cake, so very dense that one might be mistaken for thinking a small amount of neutron star matter has coalesced into the batter somehow. The first teas and coffees are poured, soon followed put by the first beers uncapped and bubbles uncorked. And so it begins.
So many families coming from a European backdrop, my own included, will still attempt the multi-course massive Christmas roast with all the trimmings, irrespective of the 25 °C+ temperatures outside. It’s chicken and turkey, lamb with home-made mint sauce, roast hedgehog’d potatoes, cauliflower cheese, peas, gravy, and stuffing; and that’s all before you tackle the rich kiwi deserts: trifle, fruit salads, and pavlova adorned with kiwifruit, cream, and strawberries (Figure 4). And this is just lunch. A number of hours later, you may, despite your better judgement, try some assemblage of this again for dinner, leaving you with a quasi-nauseous feeling of hedonistic accomplishment and general boozey malaise in which you can slip into your early evening food coma.
Figure 4: Pavlova with cream, kiwifruit, and strawberries. Source: Stuff.co.nz
But before we depart for home, an aside on the humble mincemeat pie.
Mincemeat Pie Aside: Ah, the confusion of many a foreigner an uninitiated young local alike, the curiously named: mincemeat pie. Not to be confused with a mince pie (another staple of the kiwi diet), mincemeat pies are a central piece of any decent kiwi Christmas coffee table during morning tea, lightly dusted with icing sugar and enjoyed with your first social tea or coffee of the day. For the deprived and uninitiated, we should establish that these are delightful sweat treats that no longer come close to having any animal meat in or near them. Whilst traditionally between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe, fruits were added to bulk out the expensive meat fillings of pies, modern incarnations have seen mincemeat as being a solely a sweet fruit- and spice-based pie filling. Veggies/vegans may still have to beware however, as the short-crust pastry used in many commercial products may be made with lard or butter. Traditional British mincemeat is comprised of a mixture of dried and stewed fruits, currents, citrus rinds, and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, all packed densely into jars and preserved with a strong liquor like brandy (or in my case, Purple Death). This delightful ethanol-laden bath allows them to be prepared many weeks or months before they’re needing to be used to make deliciously boozy Christmas treats.
Source: BBC Good Food.
Final Thoughts: Just one more for the road…
And there you have it. Those were the expectations of the day and with wonderful friends and family it never fails to disappoint. Concluding this hardly comprehensive account of the days festivities, gifts, decorations, food, and treats, I’m left quite satisfied in my general post-Xmas overindulgent malaise; perhaps a little sore and exhausted from the effort but battling on through nonetheless. Many other families will be down the beach with the BBQ all day, lapping up the sun, or enjoying their own family and cultural traditions and flairs from around the world, making every kiwi Christmas a little bit different in our small but diverse piece of the peaceful Pacific. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.