Turning the Silly Season into the Social Season

My column for the local Chronicle newspaper is below.
The Social Season Begins
The Chronicle, December 2011

Whether it’s the proliferation of bare knees, the tinsel on the supermarket shelves, or the warm winds that assail our allergies, there’s no mistaking that the silly season is upon us. Some have just celebrated Diwali, others are about to celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas or Chinese New Year. For others, this time of year is less about religion, and more about simply appreciating time with family and friends.

But December is also a terrific chance to build up Canberra’s ‘social capital’ – the bonds of trust and reciprocity that bind us together as a community. So I want to encourage you to do two things this season.

First, consider holding a street gathering. According to one survey, a whopping 28% of Australians never mix socially with their neighbours. And yet by sharing a coldie or a cuppa in December, you’re more likely to get along for the rest of the year.  Knowing your neighbours makes life easier when you decide to replace the fence, host a noisy party, or hit a cricket ball into their yard. You’re also less likely to get burgled if your neighbours know you. If someone carries your television out the front door, who do you think is more likely to shout out: a neighbour who came to the party last year, or one you’ve never met?

Over the past decade, Gweneth and I have hosted a street party about every other year. I’m going to let you into a secret: it’s almost no work to organise. A few weeks beforehand, we print off an invitation and drop it into people’s letterboxes. And thanks to the magic acronym ‘BYO’, we simply provide our backyard as a venue.

Second, consider helping out a charity. For Canberrans who are doing it tough, this can be a time of tension. Parents have spoken with me about feeling inadequate when they can’t buy their children the same gifts that their school friends receive. For those who have recently lost a loved one, what ought to be a time of celebration can be a sad reminder of the empty chair in the corner.  And in a global sense, it’s a chance to remember how comparatively well-off most of us are, in a world where a billion people live on less than a dollar a day.

Among the local charities that are particularly active at this time of year are UnitingCare, the Smith Family, the YWCA, the Salvos and St Vinnies. All will welcome your money, your time, or both. If you want to assist an international charity, why not make a donation in the name of a family member? After all, there’s nothing like the look on Aunt Mabel’s face when you tell her that her Christmas present is a goat for a family in Mozambique. Many global charities, including Oxfam, World Vision and Plan Australia, allow you to buy a gift that gives twice. Let’s make sure the silly season is also the social season.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. His website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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