Christmas in Australia


For many people Christmas brings to mind images of snow covered trees, robins hopping on branches, holly and ivy. Here at ‘the top of the world (or the bottom according to your point of view)’* Christmas occurs in summer. While weather can be variable (it has been known to rain at Christmas), the perfect Christmas day is warmish (25oC or so) and the sky is a clear high blue.

Despite the warm climate, many of our Christmas traditions have their origins in the colder northern hemisphere. Many families do settle down on Christmas Day to roast turkey and ham, roast vegetables, (no sprouts!) and heavy plum pudding and custard. Even in the 19th century it was recognized that this fare might be a bit heavy for the Australian summer. An alternative menu was suggested in an article in the Australian Town and Country Journal (Saturday 22 December 1888, p.37) titled An Australian Christmas Dinner. (AS IT SHOULD BE.)
A plump, young, but full-grown turkey, stuffed and cooked by the steaming process. A nice Australian ham, well boiled two days previously, garnished with bright green parsley and slices of lemon. (The cold turkey might have a garniture of sliced tomatoes.) A nicely corned and well preserved ox tongue, also cold, and laid on a bed of fresh crisp lettuce leaves. A pair of young fowls (boiled); their whiteness contracted with slices of cold well cooked beet-root; and, if game is procurable, a pair of wild ducks would make a nice dish if roasted or baked. A lobster salad with proper dressing, and a Prince of Wales’s shred and seasoned with vinegar and cayenne, would be suitable side dishes. Then, instead of hot plum pudding or rich pastry, I should like to see blanc mange, encircled with preserve of apricots or peaches ; cold custard, lemon sponge, banana custard, and jellies. These, with a selection of light Australian wines and seasonable fruits, laid nicely on a table prettily decorated with flowers and foliage, would, I fancy, be attractive enough to suit the palate of the average Australian. If ice were procurable, the addition of ice claret cup would be very acceptable for the younger members of a family.
Certainly not a meal for family of four. And I suspect that after this tasty banquet one would be as likely to stagger away as after a meal of roast turkey and plum pudding.

For many the Christmas Day menu has moved on and includes salads and cold meats, crayfish and prawns, trifle, pavlova and, really, whatever takes your fancy. Dinner may not be eaten in the dining room but outside, under the trees in the back yard, a picnic at the beach. The important thing is the coming together of family and friends. The old Spirit of Misrule is still present with the crackers and their woeful riddles and silly hats and the after dinner games.

We do not have carol singers traipsing around from house to house but most capital cities have a televised Christmas concert on Christmas Eve, the proceeds of ticket sales going to charity. Local celebrities sing as well as massed choirs and families come along with blankets and picnics and sing along. In Melbourne, Carols by Candlelight has been held on Christmas Eve every year since 1938 at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the King’s Domain Gardens. In country areas local Christmas Eve traditions have developed of Santa riding around the town on the back of one of the fire engines handing out bags of lollies to the children. Many churches will have a Christmas tree as well as a nativity scene and at the Vigil and the Midnight services children sit at the front, near the tree, and are given yet more lollies before they wander home with their parents in the warm and gentle dark. At home, a carrot will be left out for the reindeer and a can of beer for Santa. Although Australia is one of the first countries he visits, Santa finds it thirsty work – must be the summer heat! There is a belief too that the reindeer cannot cope with the heat so for the Australian leg of his journey, Santa uses six white old man kangaroos.

With Australia now home to people from so many cultures other than the Anglo-Celtic other Christmas traditions are celebrated from St Nicolas to La Befana. Christmas foods from many traditions are easily obtainable. In my corner of Melbourne, the panettone is ubiquitous and the supermarkets even sells stollen as well as plum pudding.

Film made by The Commonwealth Film Unit in 1958 showing the various versions of an Australian Christmas Day from start to finish, from city to bush to beach.

Colin Thiele’s 1961 novel Sun on the Stubble  describes Christmas among the German immigrant families farming in South Australia in the 1930s. It is still, after all these decades, instantly recognizable as an Australian Christmas. But then the combination of family and friends and the ideal of good will to all is universal.

Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and a wonderful year ahead.

The great Christmas tree rose up almost to the ceiling of the church, gleaming and sparkling with light near the steps of the altar. And when it was ablaze with hundreds of pretty candles it was as if fairyland and heaven had combined. In the front sat the children, rows and rows of them, their faces bright from the light of the tree and the  eyes brighter from their own radiance. Nearby stood the little tableau of Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus in his crib of straw in the stable—straw that seemed somehow to fit so naturally into the pattern of their own lives in the harvest season. Soon the organ started playing, and the people sang then as they never did for the rest of the year: the fine old carols that meant Christmas and nothing but Christmas—‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and ‘The First Noel’ and ‘Silent Night’. The children sang too—special songs and items of Christmastide—and the pastor read again the story of the shepherds and the coming of the angel.

Then all the children filed past the tree to receive a gift and a great bulging bag of Christmas lollies before everyone went out into the mild summer night. And there was peace on earth and goodwill among men. The stars fairly glittered in the night sky and the land lay still and dark and quiet right up to the crests of the hills. Outside the church the people shook hands and laughed and gave each other Christmas wishes… Then at last they began to trickle off home, some walking and some driving to their own little Christmases in the parlour and the dining rooms, where there were still more Christmas trees with parcels to be unwrapped and shouts of glee and thanks and the lighting of candles and singing of carols. And finally there were bottles of hop beer from the cellar and good things to eat and new presents to try out and a happy going to bed because tomorrow was Christmas Day.

They went off to church again the next morning, and although the great tree seemed strangely subdued after the glory of the previous night the church was still full of its spirit, and the message and the music were still the same. Then there was a huge Christmas dinner, with Mum for once completely relaxed behind her mountains of food, and the boys fairly rolling and wallowing with ham, turkey and Christmas pudding, so that, after the washing up, everyone had to lie down and sleep it off for an hour.

Sun on the Stubble (1961) pp101-2

* A quote from the 1990s children’s TV program Ferry Boat Fred

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