“Christmas . . . all the treasure and the trash,” sings Australian musical icon Paul Kelly in his song How to Make Gravy.
Go and look it up online now, have a listen, and then come back to this. “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here, I hope you’re keeping well,” sings the narrator in the first line. “It’s the twenty-first of December, and they’re ringing the last bells.” It’s not immediately apparent who Joe is, or who “they” are, but the next lines put us in the picture. “If I get good behaviour, I’ll be out of here by July.”
He’s in jail, separated from home during one of the year’s main family celebrations. The music is sparse, a simple strummed acoustic guitar riff with plaintive electric guitar lines over the top. Music and vocals build in intensity as the narrator’s emotions spill over.
It’s a moving song. Pathos comes in early: “Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Day, don’t let ‘em cry for me”, and continues: “It’s just my mind it plays up / . . . Tell ‘em all I’m sorry, I screwed up this time”. There’s regret for what led him here, a longing for home — “I’m really gonna miss it” — and a yearning for something better: “You know one of these days . . . I’m gonna pay them all back.”
The gravy recipe for the Christmas roast is for Joe a symbol of the love and joy of the season, and of his absence this year: “Who’s gonna make the gravy now?”
Around 10,000 men and women are in prison in New Zealand. Like Joe, many will be “thinking of [home] early Christmas morning / When . . . standing in line” up and down the country. Many of our fellow New Zealanders think these prisoners are where they deserve to be, and that prison should indeed be a place of sadness, but thinking people surely have a different view.
Victoria University’s Dr Chris Marshall, an advocate of restorative justice, says an “‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude is not an option for Christians” when it comes to our obligations towards the needs of prisoners.
New Prime Minister Bill English has called the current prison system “a moral failure”. His Government’s challenge will be to address that failure, and there’s also a challenge for each of us this Christmas.
Amongst all the “treasure and trash”, the rampant consumerism and love of family and over-indulgence and laughter and stress and prayer, we need to find something, somehow, to gift to the needy and vulnerable, and maybe something for prisoners could be part of that.
[Note: This review appeared in our last print edition of 2016, hence the Christmas theme.]