Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

It's Christmas and I'll dance if I want to



One of my earliest school memories is of dancing berserker-like to 'Jingle Bells' for my fellow grade one students. It was the last day of classes. Looking back, I suspect the teachers wanted a smoko (literally — this was the '70s) and a good laugh. I don't remember any reluctance on my part — I happily rocked out in the hope that it might put me in Santa's good books.

Woman throws her hands in the air while dancing at a nightclub (Credit: Hinterhaus Productions / Getty)Dance and music are as innate as breathing. Babies dance while they are still in the womb, and the Yuletide can be prime time for 'playing music, singing and dancing [as a] healthy outlet for their emotions'. As William Stafford observed, kids dance 'before they learn there is anything that isn't music'.

Add some four decades and, aside from the occasional awkward shuffle at weddings, I am not by inclination one of life's dancing fiends. But Christmas still gets me moving, to the embarrassment of my kids.

That's as it was meant to be. Christmas carols started as folk dances, originally, sung and strutted in villages and pubs (a carol can literally mean 'a dance in a ring'). Carols were a celebration of life.

Nowadays, Christmas is a double-edged sword. It cuts through to the memory of who we used to be, while laying bare the flesh of who we are now — and what we may feel we are reduced to. Robert Fulghum expressed the wish for this prototypical Christmas present: 'I want my childhood back. Nobody is going to give me that. I might give at least the memory of it to myself if I try ... It is about a child, of long ago and far away, and it is about the child of now. In you and me.'

There's no dodging the tidal pull, or the gravitational weight, of the season. Like Garrison Keillor you may think it 'a lovely thing about Christmas' — that 'it's compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together'. Or, like Eric Sevareid, you may see it as onerous call of moral 'necessity [on] at least one day of the year, to remind us that we're here for something else besides ourselves'.

I think both barbs, solidarity and duty, miss the mark. While we can eschew participation, dodge the coloured crowns and Kris Kringles, the corny jokes, bon bons and office parties, Christmas is a chance for a spiritual breather. We've made it more of a marathon.


"Truly? Christmas can suck."


In an era when more than three million Australians (13.2 per cent of us) live below the poverty line, lashing out for seasonal gifts, meals, and holidays can place severe financial stress on us. The sadness that hits people when they can't celebrate as they feel or think they should, can turn into shame and self-loathing.

It piles on, on top of the pressures we can feel at seasonal get-togethers when we're broke or haemorrhaging debt, or Christmas work parties in times of impermanent work, or family gatherings tinged with bereavement, estrangement, divorce or old hurts.

Truly? Christmas can suck. While it is the possible cause of or contributor to pain, however, Christmas can also hold the cure.

The playwright William Congreve famously suggested that 'Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast/To soften Rocks or bend a knotted Oak.' Robert Burton, writing The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621, said music 'is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself [by making] a melancholy man merry, and him that was merry much merrier than before, a lover more enamoured, a religious man more devout'.

Singing, dancing, or possibly enduring Christmas carols takes you back to when life was simple. Innocent. When you looked up in hope to older faces, trusting them to have answers. When joy and generosity were easily found, and kith and kin accepted you. When laughter was a shared abundance, not a weapon or a scarcity.

Whether you get together this Christmas with friends, family or fellow strangers, it's a chance to recapture optimism. To offer love and make amends. To look outside of your own universe.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Dancing woman image credit: Hinterhaus Productions / Getty

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Christmas



submit a comment

Existing comments

Dear Barry. What I like about Christmas: the carols, especially ones like "In the Bleak Midwinter" which I think relate to anywhere on earth (or in heaven); giving gifts. These don't have to involve money. I found the perfect gift this morning for a granddaughter living in Canberra. It's a book titled "Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls". I will be seeing her this Christmas so that's my gift; and, lastly, the treasure we find in each other, friend and stranger.

Pam | 16 December 2019  

In the Bleak Midwinter? In Australia? Pah! Its this kind of sickly, sorrowing, wallowing in unenculturated sentimentality that's killed Christmas. Only yesterday a friend took me to see his new parish church monstrosity filled with the outrageously costly pseudo-Romanesque kitsch of modern-day Ravenna. There was no crib because the priest had saddled the parish with a debt of geometrically progressive proportions that has cleaned out the kitty. Despite ES's offering of two articles and a poem of unimpeachable contestational integrity, our sick sentimentality creeps in to reveal the real Scrooges in our midst: those who, in inverting Dickens's tale, would shackle our minds in sugary avoidance and saccharine evasion. Let's instead sing a new song - of defiance, of courage, of growing into adulthood and of nurturing our youth to do the same - in emulating the example of Christ's incarnality. That, surely, is what the Mistress of the Dance invites us to do: to dance boldly and uncompromisingly, to sing forth defiantly, and to mould from the word go a life built upon integrity, opposition to the blandishments of the world and its transient and, at this time, opulently vulgar materiality, in uncompromising preparation for the inevitable Cross beyond.

Michael Furtado | 17 December 2019  

Well written, Michael Furtado, read by me aware of bourgeois extravagance in, of all places, a religious house/monastery. Could you or the author direct me to some contemporary music/song in the spirit of those items of protest/liberation of old, song that picks up the reality of our evolving world/universe rushing headlong and entropically to who knows where in tandem with so much invincible ignorance. The first Christmas entrusted the responsibility to us to address this contemporary reality rather than to get together lamely once more for the annual 'festive season'. You-tube links would be welcome.

Noel McMaster | 17 December 2019  

I do understand what you are saying, Michael Furtado. I would only point out that Christina Rossetti's lovely poem, In the Bleak Midwinter, contains images that are universal. The cross awaits our suffering servant and we his followers. Advent and Christmas are times of waiting in joyous anticipation and celebration of the incarnation.

Pam | 17 December 2019  

I'm deeply touched, Noel, by your response to my tirade. You'd have some very sound ideas yourself about how to proceed in your quest to rouse your community from its torpor. As you know, good liturgy can only spring from sound theology. I would start with 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel' in plainchant and unaccompanied and insist that every verse is sung. Thereafter the Connolly's magnificent anthem, 'Sing a New Song; Sing a New Song', (composed for JPII's papal Mass in Sydney) would bring on the goose-bumps. I'd also include a secular reading, say 'The Story of the Grand Inquisitor' from Dostoevsky's 'The Brothers Karamazov' (downloadable from the internet) and end with the Nativity account. Its a paraliturgy that has always worked for me. Hope that works, Noel. God Love You.

Michael Furtado | 17 December 2019  

Similar Articles

Notre Dame de Paris

  • Marlene Marburg, Grant Fraser
  • 16 December 2019

It rose in its tall verticals from the grace and welcome of the earth, / That swooned far, far below, / As canny masons hefted the limestone / Into vast beatitudes of grace; / Shipwrights inverted their minds to groom the oak, / So that it would soar, / As if a celtic monk had charmed a serpent into a holy phrase.


A Himalayan miracle to carry into the New Year

  • Catherine Marshall
  • 17 December 2019

Stopping along a ridge, we beheld the Garhwal Himalaya range as it came into view: a tumble of mountains crowned on the horizon by an irregular, saw-toothed range ... In that brief moment between sunrise and daylight, when a once-secretive world would be illuminated, our wonder at the world was multiplied many times over.