HOME IN THE HIGHLANDS:
I’m Dreaming of a White Gables Christmas*
This will be our fifth Christmas at White Gables. I was hoping it would be a time of thanksgiving and celebration after two years that have tested everyone. Only a short time ago, Covid case numbers were low and prospects were bright. Sadly, we are now seeing the opposite – an exponential increase in infections in NSW and an appeal from certain political leaders to ‘stare Covid in the face’ and 'take individual responsibility'.
Rewind to December 1, 2017, the day we moved into White Gables. It was also the first day of Advent. While the boys lugged furniture out of the hire truck and into the house, I was busy decorating the Christmas tree. The boys knew not to question my priorities. As far as I'm concerned, Christmas has to come first. The next year we decorated the tree together.
Then came Christmas 2019, when our little village found itself face to face with the Currowan-Morton Fire which had been burning relentlessly towards us all through December. I can’t remember whether I put up a Christmas tree that year – Christmas is a blur. But I do remember wrapping photo albums and other family treasures in bubble wrap and packing them in the Land Rover while our son meticulously sealed all the French doors and windows with duct tape. Meanwhile my husband perched precariously on a ladder, cleaning gutters, installing gutter plugs and then filling the gutters with water.
Christmas Day came and went, and still the fire continued to burn, simmering in the valleys and creating hotspots visible from the weather satellite. Each day we would measure the distance from our place to the fire, using the satellite map.
It wasn’t until just after New Year that an inferno hit our village. There was no notice. We hadn’t even expected to be in the ember zone. The main fire was still some distance away, but unbeknown to us, a pyrocumulus cloud had formed over Kangaroo Valley (36 km away). Strong southerly winds propelled the cloud towards the villages on the northern edge of the Morton National Park. That night, precious homes were destroyed, wildlife killed and ancient trees burnt to a crisp, but thankfully, no human lives were lost.
From the top of the hill
Finally, in February, after further fiery incursions and evacuations, the Morton Fire was declared extinguished and we held a little celebration for our neighbours. Strong bonds had been formed during those dark times. We had helped each other clean gutters, shared tips about water pumps, fire hoses and the aforementioned gutter plugs, and debated the efficacy of various face masks and respirators. (Little did we know that there would be more mask-wearing ahead, but of a different kind). That evening we laughed and cried, shared stories and had a toast to a better year ahead. We were entirely unaware that, far away in Wuhan, a zoonotic virus not unlike the pneumonic plague of 1918/19 was spreading among the local population and would soon reach Australia.
And who would have thought the spectre of Covid would still be hanging over us at Christmastime in 2021?
Anyway, this December, I decided to decorate the house in the usual way – normally I love the process of placing ornaments on the tree, garlanding the staircase and festooning the fireplace. However, this year it's felt like a chore rather than a delight. Like so many other people, I don't feel particularly festive. The easing of restrictions in NSW has been chaotic and illogical. Most of us won't be eligible for booster shots till 2022. And if we feel as though we're part of an ill-advised experiment in creating herd immunity, we may well be right.
On Christmas Day, we’ll be having lunch on the back verandah at White Gables – just the six of us, including two beautiful little girls (aged one and three), who know nothing about Covid and simply assume that masks are just another accessory that grownups wear whenever they leave home. For a couple of hours we might even forget about Covid and simply enjoy the magic of Christmas.
Happy Christmas, everyone, and may the New Year and booster shots bring better times for all of us.
* Thank you to the lovely Michelle Endersby whose Christmas message to me inspired this title.
Read more Home in the Highlands articles:
Deborah O'Brien 19 December 2021