An Australian Christmas

I was asked by a friend overseas to explain for her students what an Australian Christmas is like. Here is how I explained it. It was only later that I turned it into a talk as well. It was first written in 1993, and I think it went to air at the end of that year.

Our Christmas is different, under the Australian summer sun. My favourite Australian Christmas carol says it all, I think.

     The north wind is tossing the leaves,
     The red dust is over the town;
     The sparrows are under the eaves,
     And the grass in the paddock is brown . . .

Now that's Christmas in Australia. My family have lived here for more than 150 years, and while there're still traces of our Celtic inheritance and culture, we're part of this land now. When the Koori people claim any sort of relationship with their land, most whites scoff, but you can become a part of the land. It even happens to whites, with time.

Much of our sense of belonging came very fast, once the time was right. My parents' generation still look to Europe, my generation, and even more, my children's generation, see Australia as "home". This isn't the cheap imitation of patriotism favoured by struggling politicians, it's a deep sense of being in the right place.

When I visited Britain earlier this year, I went to Kew Gardens. I explored the more exotic plant displays for a while, then I went to the "Australian house" for the muted greens of our vegetation. I sat and looked, and knew then it was time to go back home where I belonged, back where the greens are less lush, the dust is red, and the Christmas wind is hot.

A winter Christmas would be totally alien to me. Some forty years ago, I learned that carol about our red dust and brown grass at school. It seemed right then, it seems perfect now. My parents never knew the song as children: its time hadn't come, then. Their carols were about winter snow and cold, but my favourite Yule-tide song describes what I experienced as a small boy, the warm summery Christmas times and events that I still love today.

As an only child, I always took off after lunch on Christmas Day for the local beach, with one of my new books from the uncles to read. (Those books always seemed to have a Scots or Jacobite theme when they came from the uncles.) When I left for the beach, my parents had a sleep to recover from the 4.30 am start we kids in the street always demanded, plus the rounds of drinks in each others' houses, from 8 through to 12, and a heavy, if cold, late Christmas lunch. Every year, my father would slip and cut himself, opening the tinned ham. It was one of the givens in life.

They played that carol on the radio, and a number of others from the same South Australian composer, just as I sat down to the keyboard to write this out. Now I've heard my Christmas song, I know that Christmas is here.

Usually there's a warm westerly breeze, our local equivalent of South Australia's north wind, coming from the continent's dry interior. All our hot winds come from the dry centre of the continent, and a hot wind is part of Christmas, too.

As a child, down at the beach in the late afternoon of Christmas Day, with my new book and my towel, there'd be sun, hot wind and hot sand, seagulls scavenging for scraps, a few worn-out adults improving their sun-tans, back before we learned all about skin cancers, and that's how I still think of Christmas. All salt and sand and seagulls and slightly smelly seaweed. A sibilant time.

It's late on a Sunday morning as I write this. I've just spent the last two hours at the beach, where my son is a "nipper", a trainee life-saver. Several hundred boys and girls have spent the morning in beach sprints, flag races, swimming races out past the breakers and back, and surf-board races. Now four small ones are in the back yard, piping as though they're competing with the birds, while my wife plasters them with cool factor 15 sunscreen, before they can go into the pool.

All of a sudden, the day spent on the beach or round the pool, soaking in the sun to get a healthy tan, is a thing of the past. Christmas presents this year will feature broad-brimmed hats, UV-proof shirts, sunscreen in designer bottles.

There's been a ghost of Christmas past in our house this week. My wife found a red patch on my back last Sunday. She was putting sun-screen on me before I went out as one of the safety patrol for the children during the swimming race. It was only small, but it was there.

I said that probably the mark was no more than an insect bite. She agreed, and we both worried silently to ourselves. The next day, I went to have a medical check. We may feel we belong here now, but our Celtic inheritance hangs over us, and Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world: we take no chances any more. It didn't make us gloomy, but we played safe.

In the end, it was nothing serious: only a small red patch that the doctor burnt off with dry ice and alcohol, just to be on the safe side. Not to worry, he told me: skin cancers are easy to deal with, so long as you get them early.

Then, because I like to get value for the consultation fee, I casually mentioned a small dark patch like a mole on the sole of my foot. The good doctor almost wrenched my foot off in his eagerness to get a clear look at it, for melanomas, he said, often appear first as dark patches on the sole. Melanomas aren't skin cancers: they're much worse. Melanomas are colonists, who leap-frog about, all over the body, riddling it with out-of-control growths. Melanomas are killers, but my spot was no melanoma, to our joint relief.

The politicians of the northern hemisphere muddle around about banning CFCs, and say the ozone hole is only in the south. In Edinburgh last April, I was told the only problem with the ozone hole was a few skin cancers in people of Scots descent in New Zealand. Nothing for anybody else to worry about, said the speaker.

Well, they'll soon learn that they're not immune either. Soon they, too, will understand the difference between skin cancers and melanomas. It's taken our wider public just two or three years to recognise what some of us first heard about twenty years ago. Soon the Northerners will have to change too, when the ozone holes start to appear over the Arctic. But hopefully it will not affect their Christmas habits, just their summer habits.

It's been raining here, once again. Australia's had a lot of rain in the last few years. Not long ago, there were floods in some of the best wine-growing areas. Still, "We always have unseasonable weather in summer", say the traditional cynics, tongue in cheek. Our local rain has brought frogs around from the nearby creeks, and so I check the pool at night and in the morning, to save them from drowning. That's almost become a Christmas habit, like having an early morning swim before the sun gets up too high.

We change our Christmas habits slowly, but few of us will sit down to a hot Christmas dinner in Australia this year. Some will take picnics to the beach and sit under umbrellas, eating sun-screen flavoured chicken or ham sandwiches, and they'll lick at fast-melting ice cream cones. Others will be out on boats on the harbour, while others will wait till Boxing Day when a fleet of up to 200 yachts will set sail to race to Hobart, 600 nautical miles away. A few people will go to the cricket or the tennis, many will just sit in their shady gardens, brushing away the flies.

The well-off may decide to go to a restaurant (if they booked in months ago), where they will eat too much, and drink too much good Australian wine. I, too, will drink some Cabernet Sauvignon, a red wine from an area where the dust is generally red, and the grass is brown, or will be, when the recent floods dry out. Red wine isn't good for me, I know, but I'll indulge in a small way. And I'll try not to cut myself, opening the ham.

My family will sit for their lunch in the enclosed and screened conservatory that I refurbished last year, a sort of extension of the family/lounge/dining room. My older son and I have just replaced the panel of shade-cloth on the clear fibre-glass roof today. It's tough black fibre-glass cloth, which will block out the sun's heat, and much of its ultra-violet.

We'll drink cold drinks in its welcome shade, and maybe even sleep there at night when it's hot. With luck, I'll finish the shelf where the flower pots and fish and frog tanks will go, before Christmas Day. I only have one frog at the moment, recuperating after being netted, three quarters drowned, from the swimming pool, but I'll release it tonight.

Right now it is noisy with children in the pool. My study windows are open, and four eleven-year-olds are in there, playing water cricket or something similar. The gum tree that hangs over the pool is in flower, and we've scooped maybe 2 kg of stamens from the pool surface. Christmas for us is a time of flowers, but they can be a mixed blessing.

We have Santa Claus here: just as we were leaving nippers, my son said "Oh, that's right. There was a Santa person coming at eleven to hand out lolly bags." "Do you want to go back," I asked. "No, they'll probably get salt all over them when the Santa comes in, in the surf boat."

The Santa in question is not the real one at all, but the fattest adult member of the surf club, in swimmers and Santa suit, smuggled out in a surf boat. He gets robed out beyond the breakers, and then comes ho-hoing in, standing in the bows and waving as the boat rides the waves to shore.

These surf boats are long, slim and light, rowed by four rowers and controlled by the "sweep" who steers the boat, and keeps the stern to the boiling breaking waves. The sweep is mostly an older man, who has already had many skin cancers burnt off. In a few years, I suppose all the boat crews will wear full suits to row in the morning sun.

Well, that's Christmas in urban, coastal Australia. Inland, we've had some good rain, but soon it'll be dry again, the red dust will swirl, and the grass will be brown once more. To outsiders, it may seem desolate, bare and forbidding. To us, it'll be more like home.

With luck, the sparrows won't get in under my eaves too much, for they go there to eat the spiders. I counted fifteen species of spider there, the other day, and what with the wasps eating some, and the sparrows plundering more, the spiders are having a hard time. I resent these feral foreign birds, which displace our native birds, as well as munching on my spiders.

Out on the plains the brolgas are dancing, says another of the carols in the set. Brolgas are magnificent birds, though I've only once seen them dancing. We leave for the bush, two days after Christmas, and we'll spend three or four days in the wilderness, where the Devonian metamorphics thrust up into the base of the Permian sedimentary rocks, where a single hand can span a gap of 100 million years in geological history.

We'll all take our new books (maybe with less of a Scots and Jacobite flavour to them than in my youth), and a couple of spare fly sheets to shelter from the sun under during the day. With any luck, the bush flies will be less of a problem than they were last year.

We'll see no brolgas, but we should see many other birds, kangaroos will crop the grass around the tents when it gets dark, and wombats will waddle and crump noisily through the camp site in the middle of the night. There'll be too many invertebrates to count, alas!

We'll explore the area, and maybe find a good cave in the higher rocks: the prospects look good. These "caves" are generally just rock overhangs, but they're good for camping in, during really wet weather. Some years ago, my three children and I were rained into a cave for 36 hours: when the mist lifted, we could wave at the people in the cave over the valley, and we could make our way around the cliff line to visit the university students in the next cave, or the adults in the other direction, or they'd come and visit us. For a wilderness area, it can get quite convivial in the Budawangs at Christmas!

We'll probably bump into any number of other like-minded families and groups on the single-file foot tracks. We'll all stop, each file to the left side of the track, share a few words, discuss wood and water supplies, and what's living where, who's heard the latest weather forecast, and then move on.

That's an Australian Christmas, in my view. Who needs snow, or reindeer, or jingle bells, when you can drift along a mist-covered river at piccaninny daylight, hoping against hope for a brief sighting of a shy platypus?

     The north wind is tossing the leaves,
     The red dust is over the town;
     The sparrows are under the eaves,
     And the grass in the paddock is brown ,
     As we lift up our voices and sing
     To the Christ child, the heavenly King.

A merry, joyous and peaceful Christmas to you all. May your land grow on you and yours, as this new land has grown on me and mine. We all deserve to belong to our own land, whether it has been our land for forty years or forty thousand years. We hope Australia will have a prosperous New Year, but somehow I think we will only do so when we can come to grips with the problems that come with belonging to a land.

Some years on, my children are somewhat grown, and every so often, I get little bits burnt off. So far so good . . .


This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes—I'm not particularly territorial, and on this one in particular, I'm generally delighted to share.

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For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.