Saturday, 26 January 2008

A Real Australian Christmas

Writing about our Australian Christmas-in-January made me wonder when we'll get to show Berry a real Australian Christmas.

Then I wondered how on Earth I'd explain the particular version of Australian Christmas we had during our childhood (light on presents, heavy on family, big on chaos) to all the Americans. Where to begin?

Happily, my clever sister in South Africa has already written about it. And since I much prefer her writing to mine, I'm pinching the whole lot and posting it here. Read on...


“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we never had to eat?” It’s a question my maternal grandma has often asked, and you will understand the question if you know the circumstances that formed it.

In the 1950s, my English grandma was living on a small, red-dirt island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. She and my granddad had resigned young and poor from driving the Bible Society van around the country, and now tended a farm, growing potatoes and tomatoes and avocados. One of my grandma’s tasks was to try and conjure food for them and their six children and the frequent guests and passers-by they collected. Stocks were meager enough that a can of “nutmeat” cut eight-ways on a Sunday was a treat, and the children regularly resorted to eating pigweed from the paddock, or catching and cooking a goanna. That is some background for the feast we had every Christmas of my childhood.

Christmas evening is light and warm in Queensland, and my grandparents’ mainland house-up-on-stilts was always full. The six children brought their offspring, including five cousins from a northern island (where my uncle was translating the bible into an obscure indigenous language) and, if we were lucky, my aunt’s missionary family from Thailand. My mother had not married a missionary, but a motorbike-riding, church-rejecting car mechanic. Often the 20-minute, argument-filled drive to Christmas dinner evoked from my father the story of how Granddad long ago took him “for a walk under the frangipani tree”, to explain that he was “not their first choice for Jane”. For all his grumbling, I think he was quite proud that he was not the first choice.

At Grandma’s, the feast and the presents were always delayed by some or other entertainment, giving rise to varying levels of embarrassment. My older cousin once took half an hour to organize all 20 cousins into a semi-musical performance of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Another year, I famously reneged (in cowardice) on my commitment to do a trampoline dance routine. And as teenagers with boyfriends in tow, we were mortally humiliated when three aunts insisted on leading everyone in a round, singing a raucous song about a goose.

Entertainment endured, there were presents from under a decorated she-oak sapling. Each family gave presents to every person, so the quantity was probably greater than quality. I once received a single hair elastic, and two years running my grandma gave me books explaining how babies are made, one by analogy with a hamster family. I had the good grace to protest the second one loudly and publicly.

Then my grandfather would say grace in his favourite hymn voice, chin against chest. Sometimes, an aunt would launch into a sung grace, such that we in the “un-churched” family would have to do our best to guess at the words in order to sing along.

Finally there was food, the highlight for all of us, having inherited a hunger gene. The spread was the same every year: barbecued chickens (not on our grill, they were “barbecued” at the supermarket); ham slices; potato salad; tinned beetroot; tinned corn; tinned pineapple rings; and coleslaw with raisins. “Ready-made” spelled “gourmet” in our books, so there was never so much as a chicken wing left over. For dessert, several blue cans of pudding were opened and heated, accompanied by shop-bought custard, and green jelly.

A banquet fit for a woman who wished we never had to eat!



  1. Your sister writes beautifully. I can see you all now in that house. It sounds like you had a sensational time. Something a lot of us envy.

  2. What a great story! I love how she describes the obligatory entertainment and the details of the feast.

    And those outfits rock!