Tuesday 19 December 2017


Enya- The Spirit of Christmas Past-

Christmas in Australia-

NFSA Films 

That film was made in 1958. I was born less than ten years later. Many things in the video I remember well, including the British accent of the narrators on our black and white tv and transistor radio.  We citizens had Aussie accents . The majority of us were white, as there was a government “white Australia “ policy.

In the two biggest east coast cities , Melbourne and Sydney, Myer and David Jones department stores would decorate their windows with mechanised puppets, a different storyline every year. It was a family outing for children to trek into the city central to see them. We didn’t, as we lived about 5 hours away, in a country town, in the days before the freeway that is in place now. 

We had a similar metal and plastic Christmas tree to that shown in the film, but bigger. As we had traditional English/Celtic style Christmas food every year, Mum would start the baking up to months in advance, of the Christmas fruit cake, and Christmas boiled dried-fruit pudding. This was done so that the flavours would merge. As Mum and Dad were teetotallers, she put orange juice in them instead of alcohol, as is normally done. I love Christmas cake, these days I buy mine to support a charity, (The Lions Club) I’m eating some as I write, it’s delicious, and “keeps” without “going off” in a tin, for weeks or months. One year Dad appeared in the kitchen after the cake batter was in the tin. Mum asked him to arrange the almonds on top of the cake. He opened his hand and just let them drop. He was never a cook, that’s for sure. 

A feature of our lives every Christmas, in what is known as the advent period, was Mum going to church choir practice one night a week, and also rehearsals for a Christmas concert that would be put on at different institutions. When I was very young it was a mental hospital, later when we moved to a different town,  a country hospital and nursing home. (Later when we lived in the city in my high school years, she visited a jail every Christmas Day to sing as part of a concert. )

A couple of days before Christmas, Mum would get the Christmas turkey out of the freezer to defrost in the fridge.  One time she threw the large frozen turkey to Dad unexpectedly, as he came in the kitchen door. Every Aussie is trained to “mark” (catch ) a football, so it didn’t land on his foot. 

The pillow case at the end of the bed for Santa to fill with presents on Christmas Eve was a feature of our childhood too. A great idea as it was completely reusable all year, biodegradable, and held more than a stocking does. There were also less toys given than now, as shown in the video, as overseas cheap manufacturing was less prevalent. Things cost more, were better made not to break, and we valued them more. Often as kids we would be given a craft kit , and a science kit. I received a jewellery box with a ballerina inside that went round and round to the music when the box was wound up at the back. 

I had dolls but only one Barbie, that didn’t bend its knees and elbows so I think it was a copy. It came with the clothes on its back, I made it’s other clothes. I had a baby doll, with closing eyes,  and a posh chrome pram for it from my Grandma , Dad’s Mother, which had a real wool blanket, edged with satin ribbon, like a miniature of the ones on our beds. In my primary school years I used to hide the hated tomato sandwiches Mum gave me for my lunch, under its mattress, going mouldy. One did not successfully stand up to my mother, although having been born a redhead, I often tried. 

I had a netball, tennis balls, drawing materials. My brother had footballs, both Australian rules and soccer. He had plastic soldiers, cowboys and “Indians”, also plastic, and a moveable male doll with small plastic survival accessories, called Action Jackson. We had plastic construction toys , both LEGO and another kind, after we grew out of the wooden blocks ,and also metal Meccano . We had a felt board with felt pieces to move around. We had a basic Spirograph* to play drawing. I remember a basic Kaleidoscope, and a YoYo.

We didn’t have loads of soft toys, just a few, and well made. I had a stuffed koala with some kind of real fur, which lost its plastic claws years ago. My brother had his panda, and I had my teddy bear, they were the same size and could sit up, they were very well loved, and each of us still had ours into adulthood. I think mine was loved almost to death by my kids in their turn. (They had lots of teddies though). Mum tried to teach knitting to my brother, (and me), he made his panda bear a scarf and tank top. When I visited his home as a young adult he still had it on a guest bed, with its knitteds on. 

We were always given books. (A bookworm family, I now have thousands, it didn’t help marrying another bookworm! ) Books I remember on my little white stepped bookcase were Little Golden Books including some Disney ones, my favourite was their Cinderella one. There were classic novels later: Little Women, What Katie Did, A Christmas Carol, Black Beauty, Bible Stories, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson, Seven Little Australians etc. There were books about science too. (In the house we always had non fiction books to help with our homework, and an encyclopaedia - one really large cumbersome volume; many art books, and large dictionaries). We had board games, which we played as a family, like scrabble, checkers , snakes ‘n ladders and parcheesi.

For ride on toys we were given tricycles, and a foot powered ride on metal car based on the Thunderbirds. Later we had two wheel bikes, and my Dad taught me to ride mine, on the public footpath outside our house. He also taught me to throw and catch my netball. We were given kites, and he taught us how to fly them at a nearby schoolground, where we also went to kick the football and play cricket, out of school hours. We had a medium sized yard where we also played those things. I had a skipping rope, and a hula hoop. There was a netball ring on the front of the garage, where I practiced.

We had plastic buckets and spades to take to the beach. We were half an hour drive from Lakes Entrance, where Dad had elderly relatives, so went there to the beach. Later we went to Wilson’s Promontery Tidal River, where I remember Mum swimming back and forth, in her one piece swimsuit.  My parents would enter the draw to rent a cabin there, which is done as it’s a National Park. Unlike the film, I never remember going to the beach Christmas Day, as our lunch was always a hot, English style one, eaten at the dinner table. 

A few days before Christmas when we were teenagers in the ‘80s in the city, Dad would take us a bunch of suburbs away to see coloured Christmas lights on houses. They were unusual in those days in our country, Christmas lights were usually found on Christmas trees inside.

My parents were religious Catholics, and both would be involved in Masses. My brother was a altar boy. 

Christmas Eve Mum would put the television on to Christmas specials which always included the outdoor Melbourne Myer music bowl Carols by candlelight, which was held to raise money for services to the blind. Mum always said that the singing was of much better quality than the singing at the equivalent Sydney concert. I went to the Melbourne one a few times as a young adult and can recommend it, but do take a cushion. 

Hallelujah Chorus (Messiah) - Carols by Candlelight 2010:

 I remember the coloured electric lights would always be lit on our modest tree in the loungeroom on Christmas Eve and the overhead lights turned off. Then one would realise it was really Christmas. Dad would be sitting in his armchair . Meanwhile, Mum would be showering and putting on her make up to go to sing at Midnight Mass. Often that would be a choir affair. We would go along too when we were old enough and my father would “do the readings” at the lectern. I started doing that when I was fourteen. 

When we got home, we would  have slices of Christmas cake , fruit mince pies and shortbread biscuits. Then we would go to bed, at this point there were usually no presents under the Christmas tree on Christmas eve when we were children. 

Although my parents were religious they did follow tradition when we were young children, of pretending that the presents in our pillowcases were put there by Santa. On the other hand there was not a following of Santa in our home, they did not put out cookies and milk or pretend that there were reindeers landing on the roof, or that he came down the chimney. Elves and the North Pole didn’t really get a mention. Santa was kind of a side issue.  Mum would stay up even later, in her room,  rustling bags and wrapping presents for under the tree. 

We would play with our gifts from our pillowcases before breakfast until our parents got up and, then the mad rush would begin for mum to go to mass again on Christmas morning, sometimes with us, sometimes without, as she was singing solo alongside the organist on microphone. As we grew up, sometimes my brother or I would man the overhead projector with the hymns written on acetate sheets, in the days after hymn books. People always talked to each other after mass, Mum would talk longer than most.

Returning from Mass, there would be more presents under the Christmas tree, not forgetting one for our dog. My father would often get me to wrap his in my bedroom, excluding mine, of course. Straight after mass, Mum would start cooking the big lunch . If it was a hot day she had a fan on, but there was no air conditioning in ordinary homes back then, especially in the kitchen, it’s a mystery why people continued on the English traditions as long as they did. The roast turkey , baked potatoes, simmered vegetables, gravy and apple sauce would take a couple of hours, so it was always mid afternoon before we ate. The pickled pork had been cooking in the slow cooker while she was out.

We had to be very patient to wait for the wrapped presents until after lunch. It was my job to set the table with the best things from the wall unit near the dining table, including the red glasses and best side plates and cutlery (flatware)., all on a best tablecloth. I would go out into the garden and pick some red roses etc to arrange for the table. (Dad didn’t cook all my growing up years, he gets meals on wheels since Mum passed away. )

Mum and Dad didn’t drink, so we would put bottles of sparkling non alcoholic cider and lemon squash, on the table. Lastly, crackers (bon bons) were placed on each side plate, containing a paper hat, small plastic novelty, and a paper joke. I was allowed to stir the gravy, but was discouraged from trying to snaffle some meat. Mum would plate up in the kitchen, there would be cranberry sauce from a jar to accompany the turkey and apple sauce she made for the pork. When we were teens she started making a cooked half pear with cranberry center instead of, or with the applesauce. As well as the roast potatoes there would be green beans or peas also a yellow and orange vegetable too. When she finally sat down, we would pull the crackers together , put on our paper hats and say our jokes. Then we could eat. 

The Christmas pudding, which had been carefully stored , was reheated on the stove and served with custard and ice cream. There were Christmas lollies (sweets, candy) to follow. We children would have milk and the grown-ups would have tea in the good teacups that went with the dinner set. Dad had a standard dinnertime joke. He would wave our milk back and forth in front of our eyes and ask us what it was. We would pretend he had not said it before and say “ I don’t know Dad what is it?“ He would say “past your eyes milk”. (Pasteurised milk. ) I get my corny sense of humour from him. 

Finally we would sit down all together in the lounge room to open our presents. There was a rule that only one at a time was opened, with the tag read out by the person closest to the Christmas tree,  who each gift was from and who it was for. All watched during each unwrapping, including any guests. This was to ensure that the presents were noticed and discussed, not taken for granted and quickly cast aside in a mad burst of consumerism. 

This was a vinyl album my father would put on the record player, on Christmas Day : Tijuana Brass. Man, this takes me back!

Then the washing up of the dishes had to be finished. I think my parents first got a dishwasher in the 1980s, I still don’t have one, which is one of the reasons I take so many short cuts compared to my mother, also because I’m from generation X and we are not as bound by tradition. We still do get to church almost every Christmas, except maybe one, the year I was doing a big project for a website I was on, and the deadline was Christmas Day.

Some years I do the hot English style meal, others I do a cold seafood Sydney style meal, with salad and/or hot veges, some years we eat out. We don’t usually leave opening our presents until mid afternoon, but we don’t do Santa either, we never have. We taught our kids to respect other families’ Santa tradition, and not to tell other kids the truth, but it wasn’t our thing. The only Santa feature I would seek out, was the shopping centre (mall) photo of the kids with Santa , as it was a professional photo for the grandparents, for relatively low cost.

Our kids would wake up to presents, Christmas morning, in a printed Christmas sack, but they knew they were from us. They would get more, often from relatives, and us , under the tree later. 

Their generation, in Australia, got far more toys than we did, though we were well provided for, it was not excessive. The removal or reduction of trade tariffs had made cheaper overseas things attainable for more families, by the time my son was born. Ultimately, of course, this destroyed our manufacturing industry, so that the well made few wooden toys in the video are now almost a thing of the past except for those parents and grandparents who try to seek them out for ethical or nostalgic reasons. 

Multiculturalism in Australia has meant that a Christmas meal with family and friends can nowadays comprise food from any country. I try to keep a link to my own family cultural background, but if my children choose later to do Indian, or Chinese, it will just reflect how our country has changed. What I can tell you  , I’ve seen with my own eyes. Walking through the city, we are no longer a “white Australia” and those days will never come again. As for the female slaving in the kitchen? Between the pressures of social media, Pinterest, and immigrant cultural traditions, it seems that many women still don’t get to rest at Christmas like Dad. 

Well, I’m off to open some windows , it’s a hot evening here. Merry Christmas, or as Mum would say Happy Christmas, as it was supposedly nicer, and “whatever you do”, she would say, “you shouldn’t write Xmas”. I suppose she meant, in not so many words, that Jesus is the reason for the season. It’s good to see that many things in the 1958 video havn’t changed , as we try to find our new Australian identity, let’s keep the best of the old traditions.

In memory of my beautiful, inexhaustible Mother. You deserve your rest now. I’m also remembering my two dear uncles we lost this year. 


Spirograph link

History of the Myer Christmas windows:



KEthical Politics said...

Such an enjoyable journey through the past. It is so much as I remember and tried to create with my own children. Sometimes it is only when we look back that we are thankful,for our childhood when at the time it was easy to take it for granted. Christmas in US starts even before Halloween which is too far ahead to even contemplate and the really ambitious ones have all their shopping done before Thanksgiving. Not I! I usually wait til then to start making a list.

Since I am probably old enough to be your mother, your story sounds a lot like our family. I remember being so tired by the time Christmas arrived the only chance I had to sit down was when we opened presents and then I had to fight to keep awake. Thankfully, these years my daughter does the Holiday family gathering and we stay home and celebrate Christmas Day quietly. There are now too many families with the grandkids extended families to enable everyone to be together on Christmas Day.

It is looking as if we will have a white Christmas here this year unless the snow decides to melt. Either way is fine with me. The snow is pretty but it does make it more hazardous for those who have to travel.

Wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from US..

Rina said...

And a beautiful Christmas to all who celebrate it from Johannesburg, South Africa, where the sun is shining and the air is soft after last night's rain. And to those who don't celebrate Christmas, a beautiful day anyway. I spent yesterday with my three-person (genetically related) family,* happily talking nonsense and eating too much, of course. Today I'm quiet and alone and very content to be so. It's been a hectic year-end, and I am deeply grateful for the peace.

* I live with another, non-related family, but they've all gone north to their traditional home, so the house is uncommonly quiet. I'll start missing them soon, but not yet. :-)