Christmas cards have been a bit thin on the ground this year. Which is probably fair enough for someone who has never made a habit of sending them. Give and thou shalt receive is no doubt as true now as it ever was. But the days of Mum (usually) sitting at the kitchen table, writing messages in scores of cards for family and friends, have long gone.
The Christmas card tradition clings on, barely, in digital form, but the annual gold rush that cards delivered to the Post Office is over, a shame for them, and for us. It was always nice to get a card in the mail, especially from someone far way, someone who often made contact only at this time of year, to assure the recipient that they were not forgotten.
The practice of distributing annual family newsletters with cards didn't seem to last long, but it was good while it lasted too. These days of course we have email, Skype, and all sorts of other ways and means of keeping in touch, so there is less need for the more laborious method of reminding loved ones that we are still here.
There are some die-hards though, including, in the case of the Northland Age, Kaitaia man Paul Muller, whose home-made card arrived last week. It was a wordy one, complete with photo, going far beyond the usual seasonal platitudes. And it is one that is well worth sharing.
Paul wrote the story inside the card in 2017, recalling his encounter with 'The Bottle Man,' who he first saw on the stretch of sand between the Turtle Airways hangar and the Nadi Airport Boat Club in Fiji. And he was bit "peeved," given that this individual was in an operational area without permission. He was trespassing, but everyone else seemed to be ignoring him, so Paul did too.
A little while later he saw this bloke heading in the opposite direction, and two hours later he was back again.
He was the skinniest little man Paul had ever seen, so slight that a decent puff of wind would have toppled him. He had a dirty synthetic sack, that would once have been white, over one shoulder, which he clutched with both hands as he leaned forward at an acute angle. He wore a grubby blue baseball cap with the Caterpillar logo emblazoned across the the front, in a vain effort to protect his wizened face from the sun.
His attire was completed with a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a pair of long, ragged black trousers that his lower torso struggled to fill, and a pair of jandals that had seen better days.
Half his upper teeth were missing, his eyes were a distinct shade of red, his moustache would have matched Magnum PI's had it not been so grey and shaggy, and he had not shaved for some time.
Beneath all that was a big, beaming grin.
He looked Paul in the eye and said, in a "slanted" Hindi accent, "Ah, Bosso, can I rest here a while to get back my strength?" Paul ushered him into a hangar, where he dumped his sack and squatted in a position that most Europeans would have found most uncomfortable, half under a bench. Paul, his curiosity well and truly piqued, asked him what he was doing.
His name was Andrew Subhash. He was 52, and for many years had had a job in a retail shop, where he learned to speak English "so good." Seven years earlier he had had an accident at work and had to spend two days at home. When he returned to work he was sacked.
He now had no money, and suffered "iplicy," which Paul finally interpreted as epilepsy. At times he could do nothing but wait until he felt better. No one helped him, no one gave him money, medicine or food. "I just gotta look after me." So he collected bottles that "drunk people" threw away on Wailoaloa Beach. He went every day when he didn't feel sick. He carried the bottles to the Nadi Boat Club, and when the bottle truck picked them up he received $1 a dozen.
He had been having a good day. He had found two dozen.
With that he struggled to his feet, slung his sack over his shoulder with an audible grunt, and slowly "clinked" his way towards the boat club.
Paul was deeply moved.
"Two bucks for a day's work in the hot sun," he wrote.
"This guy wasn't freeloading off the health system. He hasn't got his hand out for anything. He's not bitching about how hard done-by he is. He's not saying anyone owes him a living. What he is doing is helping save my planet, two dollars at a time."
That's not a bad Christmas story, especially in a country that increasingly seems to take a glass half empty attitude. A country where the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are sharper and more prolific for some than for others, but bear no comparison with many in less fortunate societies. Where often there is no one to give, and therefore little, if anything, to take. Where responsibility for oneself is not a political philosophy but an utter necessity.
Some years ago the writer spent a short time in Vanuatu, which, in common with much of Fiji, could be described as Third World beyond the confines of the resorts. The people there, by New Zealand standards, were truly impoverished, including those who were employed to cater for the tourists.
Incongruously, everyone seemed to have cell phones, including those who drove the battered old vans that constituted Port Vila's public transport system, although one man, employed as a tour company driver, was nonplussed by the suggestion that he might put his cell phone, which one of his children had dropped into a bucket of water, in his hot water cupboard to let it dry out.
He had no idea what a hot water cupboard was, or, one assumes, a hot water cylinder.
In terms of Western affluence, these people had very little, but it clearly didn't bother them. And while no comparison can be made between Vanuatu and New Zealand, we can learn something from them.
Unlike Paul Muller's Bottle Man, we in New Zealand are used to getting help when it is needed. And so we should. Every one of us should have access to the same opportunities, the same services and the same level of support when needed, regardless of our lot in life, but there will be times when those whose job it is to provide those opportunities, services and support don't get it right.
And it goes without saying that some New Zealanders are doing it tougher than others, and are in much greater need than others.
But, at Christmas at least, we should count our blessings. Life in this country isn't always fair, and the wealth it offers, including but far beyond money, isn't always equitably shared. But, as the Bottle Man reminds us, we are much, much better off than many.
For most of us life is, always has been and always will be what we make it. As we celebrate Christmas, in whatever way we choose, we should remember that, and take time to count our blessings. In many ways the past year has been a cruel one, for reasons beyond our control, but as a people we are truly blessed, and we should give thanks for that.
The very best wishes to everyone for a safe and happy Christmas. And if Santa doesn't quite rise to expectations, remember that gifts are just a tiny part of what should be a joyous time of year. A time to reflect on all that we have, to celebrate the love of those who mean most to us. To count our blessings.