Christmas in Australia
It’s with a bit of sadness and a rueful shake of the head that I read about my traveling friends commenting on how it doesn’t feel like Christmas in Australia. I understand of course that they’re used to snow-storms and roast dinners and chestnuts roasting on an open fire – but to me, Christmas doesn’t feel right when it’s not celebrated in shorts and served up with liberal helpings of king prawns.
And while Australian Christmases still cling (somewhat inexplicably) to the idea of pine trees, reindeer, and a morbidly obese man wearing clothes that would see him keel over from heat-stroke in a matter of moments, there are some uniquely Australian aspects of Christmas that make it feel so special to me.
I commented in my recent post about surviving Christmas abroad that one of the things you need to do is just embrace the ‘weirdness’. You can fight doggedly to hold onto your piping hot meals and your hot cocoa in the 30-something degree Aussie heat, or you can take a few tips from a local and enjoy it as it’s enjoyed across this great, dry continent.
For another look at the Aussie Christmas, take a look at Positive World Travel’s post about Christmas in Australia.
#1 – Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner
It’s not just the timing of the main Christmas meal that differs, but also the food. While it seems the norm to eat a big meal of roast meat and vegetables to celebrate Christmas in the colder north, the Australian Christmas meal is an entirely more casual affair.
Gone is the roast fresh from the oven. Replaced instead with cold cuts of meat (usually ham and chicken) and the quintessential prawns. My own family table is also often adorned with my Mum’s fantastic seafood salad.
The cool treats don’t stop there. Desserts around the Walker-Bush family table include the usual cookies and cakes as well as salted peanuts, chocolate, cheese & crackers, and my personal favorite – devon lilies.
In my house lunch seems to follow a familiar routine every year. Once presents are unwrapped and mid morning naps are had, the womenfolk (comprised of my sister, my mother and, most recently, my brother’s lovely girlfriend) pitch in to prepare the meal. The men, by happy circumstance, don’t seem to feature much in the preparations.
I like this.
Lunch is served up around the big mahogany dining table that acts as a laundry folding station 364 days a year along with Christmas crackers and plenty of ice cold punch, soda, and beer. Crackers are popped, horrendously cliched jokes are read out loud, and flimsy paper crowns are worn.
It is one of the best moments of the year for me, even though every year somebody is grouchy with tiredness and some petty arguing inevitably breaks out.
Still others are proponents of the Christmas BBQ. There are few things more dinky-die Aussie then cooking some snags (sausages) over a few beers while the girls prepare salads to compliment the fresh cooked meat. My own family makes a habit of doing a few BBQs before and after Christmas, but the big day is always a sit down lunch.
#2 – Warm Nights, Bright Lights
I cannot fathom a more relaxing and sublimely humbling experience than what I have made a somewhat private tradition over the years. With nights typically quite warm in the lead up to Christmas in Australia, it’s not a big deal to step out after dark and do a bit of light spotting on foot.
While my family home exists in a village of fifty and doesn’t boast much in the way of displays, my family always does its best to Clark Griswold the house up. My two younger brothers, fit bastards that they are, clamber about the roof like monkeys. I typically oversee from the comfort and safety of the ground, beer in hand.
But that serene moment is one I have all on my own. On the nights leading up to Christmas I’ll go out and I’ll stand in our drive. A good two hundred metres separates our front drive from the barely used road and no man-made light can be seen save the twinkling of fairy lights on our house.
Overhead the stars, and they really need to be seen to be believed, stretch out overhead on a pall of deep blue-black. I’ve gazed admiringly at a lot of starry skies but to my mind, none has ever come close to the view from the mountain-tops above the sleepy little village I grew up in.
In more crowded areas – such as in my new home, Sydney – it’s not uncommon to see families out on foot or in cars to take in the many brilliant light shows on display. While decorating houses is common across the western world, there’s something particularly nice (at least to me) about being able to do it all in a t-shirt and shorts.
And don’t forget the pleasant buzzing of Christmas Beetles (known as June Bugs up north) as they bumble hopelessly against windows and doors. Australian kids have been known to catch the hapless insects, whisper their Christmas wishes, and then send them off into the night sky to carry a message back to Santa.
#3 – Midnight Mass and Carols by Candlelight
I’m not a particularly religious man, it has to be said. While I was Christened and raised as a Catholic, I’ve taken efforts to distance myself from the institution (and all organized religion) since I was old enough to make the call. It’s not that I am an atheist – far from it – but I mistrust groups of men and women who claim to know what the unknowable has in mind for us. It just seems arrogant at best, and self-serving at worst.
But enough of that dross.
My one religious indulgence each year is the Christmas Eve mass. The village I grew up in inexplicably boasts three churches, and while only one of them sees regularly masses these days, people of all faiths come together on Christmas Eve to sing carols and hear an always lengthy sermon.
Much like my solitary star-gazing, there’s something enchanting to me about being out with my family underneath the starry sky. Anticipation buzzes in the air despite the fact all but one of my siblings is over 20 years of age now. We’re still big kids at heart. And as the mass draws to a close and the last refrain of a carol echoes off of the high roof of the church, we’re all well aware that it’s time to go home and hit the hay.
This love of carols and the warm nights also brings us to the Carols by Candlelight phenomenon. While Sydney’s Carols by Candlelight and Carols in the Domain are perhaps the best known, many towns across Australia and New Zealand also do these wonderfully festive events. Candlelight, beautiful music, and picnic blankets spread out underneath the stars? Sign me up!
I was lucky enough to stumble across Nelson’s Carols by Candlelight in 2010 as well. You can read more about that in my entry about Christmas in New Zealand.
#4 – Swimming Weather!
Keep your snow fights and sledding. I’ll save my awkward ice skating for the winter.
Christmas in Australia takes place (gasp) in summer and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Once Christmas lunches have been finished and wrapping paper has been piled into a corner, the real business of enjoying the usually bright summer day comes about. Whether they’re on the sun drenched beaches or simply heading out to the family pool, Aussies have a fascination with water that seems unmatched by any other country in the world.
I remember being honestly shocked when American friends admitted to have never having seen the ocean or, worse, not being able to swim. I daresay I was dragged out into the breakers by my father well before I could even walk.
My family home is about three and a half hours from the coast, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get out and get wet. Christmas 2009 saw one of the gifts being a large above ground pool and my brothers and I made good use of it.
For those not lucky enough to have water nearby (and even a farmer’s dam will do) – staying cool requires an icy beer and the air-conditioner. And that’s an option not entirely without its charms…
In Sydney, thousands of expats crowd onto iconic Bondi Beach to celebrate Christmas with beach cricket, far too much beer, and plenty of fish and chips. I’d love to do the same someday.
#5 – Random Aussie Touches
In a lot of ways, Christmas in Australia isn’t so different to anywhere else in the world. We sing (mostly) the same carols, we give gifts, and we decorate our houses. We still string tinsel about and we still spend entirely too much money on presents.
But there are a few quaint Aussie touches that I find endearing. Take the song Six White Boomers (see below), for example…
Same Same, but Different
Christmas in Australia is, more than anything else, a time for family. I think a big part of my traveling friends not feeling very ‘Christmassy’ come December 25th is being apart from the ones they love. I know that my Christmas in South Korea and my Christmas in New Zealand both felt a little less festive because I wasn’t around my goofy brothers, my adorable younger brother, my sometimes bossy sister, my Dad and his obsession with ensuring we have entirely too much food, and my generous to a fault mother.
I tap out this entry from the floor of a friend’s living room knowing that in about five hours time I’ll be in a car and headed towards the family home. And while this year’s weather tends more towards the English than the Australian, I’m still very much looking forward to spending some time with my family.
I’m looking forward to spending Christmas Eve in the kitchen helping as best I can. I’m determined to make Snickerdoodle Cupcakes this year to go with my usual contribution of egg nog.
I’m looking forward to Christmas Eve Mass followed by the now traditional viewing of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Looking forward to piling presents underneath the tree and waking at the crack of dawn to open them.
Looking forward to bacon and eggs for breakfast and the big Christmas lunch. To being too tired and full to move on Christmas night and subsisting on leftovers on Boxing Day.
As I grow older and it gets harder and harder to get everybody back together in the one place, it’s these Christmases at home that bring us all together. Despite most of us being in our twenties, we’re still very much children when the big day rolls around. It’s a nice change from worrying about bills and budgeting.
Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope yours is every bit as wonderful as mine looks to be.
And now that I’ve shared my family traditions with you, I’d love to read about yours. What makes Christmas special for your family?