Thursday, December 10, 2009

Christmas Australian Style

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow!
(or Christmas: Australian style)

As I write this from my home in Colorado listening to Dean Martin croon a collection of Christmas songs, snow is falling in big, fat flakes outside my window. All is warm, safe and cozy inside. The piney scent of our Fraser fir Christmas tree, purchased from the local boy scouts fills the air. A pumpkin and apple spice candle is burning, the fire is blazing and occasionally the bells on a passing horse-drawn sleigh can be heard in the otherwise silent landscape outside.

This picture-perfect Rocky Mountain township defines the idyllic notion of Christmas. Front yards sport pines or spruce decorated generously with lights. Icicle lights hang above front doors and are strung along eaves and balconies, accentuating the already wintry landscape.

The shops on Main Street are absolutely enchanting. Many are remnants of the Victorian era. Strewn with festive illuminations, their window displays tempt you to enter, look around and enjoy the magic of the season while sipping hot apple cider.

I’m reminded of the contrast in the seasons between the two wonderful countries I live in, as I departed for the airport from my home in Australia, just a couple of weeks ago. For although this is the Christmas season throughout the Christian world and beyond, in the southern hemisphere, it’s also high summer.

At nine am, the temperature was already climbing towards the century mark, promising another impossibly humid day. Although summer is my favorite season of the year, I was looking forward to stepping off the plane 30 hours later, into the winter chill of Colorado.

As we drove down our street, the familiar smells of early summer filled the air. Frangipanis and late blooming Chinese jasmine competed with the cloying heat. Brilliantly colored hibiscus and bougainvilleas vied with the purple jacaranda trees, dropping the last of their blooms just as the orangey-red tracts of Poinciana’s pushed their way towards the baking hot sun.

These cheerful trees with climbing-friendly branches, would be our companions throughout the Christmas holidays of my childhood. In Australia, summer is synonymous with Christmas and so the two-month hiatus from school was always called, the “Christmas holidays”, although they lasted until the end of January!

Since Australia is an island continent and most of us live near the coast, at least part of those holidays we spent at the beach. Families would exodus the city en masse to a nearby coastal community, staying in anything from tents and caravans to family owned beach houses.

During those glorious two months—whether spent at the seaside or at home—we’d live in our togs (swimsuits), swim every day, never wear hats (or sunscreen), burn and peel several times, consume massive amounts of watermelon, wear our togs to the mall for pictures with Santa, never wear shoes, have competitions to see who could peel off the largest piece of skin from crispened shoulders and backs, eat the warm centers from freshly baked white bread from the local bakery as we sauntered home with the morning’s paper, play endless games of scrabble, Monopoly or backyard cricket, and constantly pick at our burnt noses and lips, dreading the all-too-swift passing of January and our return to a new school year.

The actual Christmas period is a huge holiday in Australia—although rarely a particularly religious one. Businesses close down on Christmas eve—or, if that falls on a weekend, then the Friday afternoon beforehand—and don’t open again until after the New Year.

Although stores try hard to duplicate an idealized northern hemisphere Christmas complete with fake snow, Santa, reindeer, snowmen, Christmas trees, sleighs, more snow etc.—the resultant manufactured notion of Christmas in wintry latitudes fails to convince or satisfy when outside the mall, the sun is hot enough to fry eggs in the car park.

And as for Santa coming down the chimney on Christmas eve? Forget it! Most Australian homes don’t have chimneys. But curiosity and logic would fly out the door when we’d awaken on Christmas morning to find our gifts beneath the fake Christmas tree—or as happened one year, on a trampoline in the backyard!

Christmas dinner is celebrated at lunchtime on Christmas day. Our mums would spend the morning sweltering in the kitchen, preparing the traditional heavy winter fare of their northern hemisphere ancestors.

Occasionally, the festive fare would feature turkey, but more commonly, an enormous leg of baked ham, accompanied by salad, mashed potatoes, hot plum pudding, custard, hard sauce, ice-cream and Christmas cake would be served. While adults drank champagne, the children pretended to, with glasses of sparkling apple juice.

I have fond memories of my father-in-law on the days following Christmas, dressed only in his pajama bottoms, carving the leftover ham for breakfast. One hand would be fisted around the shank, the other grasping a knife as he shaved off generous slices to go with fried or poached eggs and lashings of thick white toast. Those hams were so big (and tasty) they’d provide breakfasts and lunches through New Years.

Lately, Aussie families have begun to forgo European traditions for their Christmas repast. Many opt instead for freshly cooked king or tiger prawns (shrimp) from the local Fish and Chip shop, a backyard barbie (barbeque) at which the men folk can show off their cooking skills, or a picnic of sandwiches on the beach (with the emphasis on “sand”!)

Boxing Day (the day after Christmas and also an official holiday) brought with it both the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race and a five day Cricket test. This soporific period of too much arm-chair sport and over-indulgence in Christmas leftovers would segue lazily into the New Year. Families would pack up and return to the city. January would seem to fly by and before long, our Christmas holidays were over.

Australia Day, celebrated on January 26th, signaled the end of our summer freedom and the return to a new school year. School uniforms (compulsory throughout Australia) were bought or altered. Feet, flattened, tanned and spread wide by a summer without constraint were squeezed into freshly polished shoes. Hair that hadn’t seen a comb all summer would be put through the torture of removing all the knots—or cut short!

With new textbooks and stationery purchased and school bags packed, we’d walk or ride to school over a carpet of Poinciana blossoms. It was as if these magnificent trees that had shaded us all summer were mourning along with us the end of our Christmas holidays for another year. Although the summer was far from over—the heat often lasting into April and May.

The return to school brought with it new expectations, new challenges to be learned and achieved, growing to be done, friendships made and lost.

We’d walk through the school gate, stomachs fluttering in anticipation at who our new teacher would be for the upcoming year and hoping the bully whose taunts we’d endured the previous year had been permanently expelled—or was in another class.

That first week of school heralded the beginning of summer sports fixtures every Friday afternoon. The school swimming carnival was the first official meet of the school year. I well remember standing on the starting blocks, tanned and toned, my sun-bleached hair falling in my eyes as I prepared to dive in. I loved these events, for although I couldn’t run to save myself, I excelled at swimming!
Swim meets at local, District and State level over, it was nearing the end of February already. Only nine more months until the Christmas holidays!

What’s your favorite season or time of year and how does your family celebrate Christmas?
CC Coburn
Colorado Christmas (Nov 09)

32 comments:

Michelle Beattie said...

CC,

Loved your post. Very descriptive and informative. As a native Canadian, cold and snow are what we associate with Christmas. And as french-canadians, the tradtion growing up was going to midnight mass, then coming home at 1:00am and eating turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, veggies, meat pies (tortieres) and squares and cookies for desert. We'd do dishes (a must) THEN we'd open presents. For a young child, waiting until 3am to open presents was torture. Luckily as we got older, we started attending mass earlier in the evening, though we still had the big meal late at night.
When my mom died in 1989, Christmas really changed. We got together, ate and went to church, but the feeling was different, something was missing. When my dad died in 2001 it changed again. My brothers and I still get together, but it's different as we alternate houses instead of all converging on the "homestead". I'll never stop missing that feeling of "going home". Anyhow, I love Christmas and the whiter the better! Having said that, fall is my favorite season. I love the colors, the smell and the coziness it brings as we start spending more time inside after a warm, albeit short, summer.
Merry Christmas, CC!

Sandii Manning said...

What a wonderful post, CC which brought back a lot of memories. Having spent Christmas in New Zealand, Australia, London and Southern California, we mash different traditions and memories to form our own Christmas Day.

I love the American tradition of Christmas lights and have taken to it with enthusiasm - much to the horror of my children. We have an ten-foot elf firing presents into a Christmas sack alone the front of our deck, two reindeer we've named Frank and Ralph, whose heads move left and right as if tracking you. The whole house is adorned with sparkling, twinkling lights and I love it.

I miss the heat of the southern hemisphere and the BBQ Christmas day, Pavlova with lashings of cream and passionfruit, sparkling wine and collapsing in front of the TV to watch The Brady Bunch Christmas Special - and promptly falling asleep. (Sorry Brady's.)

I still insist we have Christmas Crackers every year where we all wear a paper hat, tell the unfunny joke and gasp with delight at the plastic ornament the winner of the cracker-pull receives.

No matter where we are, Santa finds us, the children are happy, we spend hours Skyping and chatting with family scattered around the globe.

I suppose what strikes me most about our Christmas compared to Christmas growing up is the technology. We couldn't have imagined Skyping with relatives, having their faces beaming into our houses. Lordy,I feel old now! That said, I wouldn't mind a Jetson car!

Happy Holidays!
Sandii

CC Coburn said...

Oh my goodness, Michelle, how did you youngsters stay up all day and all night? I've always wanted to go to Midnight Mass (not that I'm a Catholic) but it seems a charming tradition and a lovely way to start Christmas Day. However, I could never stay awake long enough! I'm in awe of how much you ate after coming home from MM - did you starve all day? :-)
We don't have Fall in Australia - well it's called Autumn but we don't get even an Autumn where we live in the sub-tropics either. Most of the trees are evergreen - although to north Americans evergreens seem to mean pines etc. To us it means trees that don't lose their leaves :-)
I'm looking forward to being in CO for the Fall one of these days, I'm told the colors are spectacular.
CC

CC Coburn said...

LOL! Sandii how delightfully tacky to have the 10 foot elf firing pressies into a sack (and admitting it). :-)))
The Griswalds have nothing on you! I do love the way people light up their homes here - going totally overboard. Even at my age I sigh in wonder when we drive into a neighborhood that's gone all out.
I'd forgotten about Christmas crackers! Do they have them in the States? I've never seen them here.
I find making and eating Christmas dinner here disconcerting even after so many Christmases spent here in the States, but I'm gradually getting into it. This year we're having rib roast - yummy!(but several days earlier - long story!) I just can't get used to eating Christmas dinner at night tho. :-)
This year we're spending Xmas Day in Santa Fe. I'm hoping we'll go out and sample a South-western Xmas.
CC

Sharon Archer said...

Gorgeous post, CC

We do the whole hot dinner thing even though the day can be absolutely sweltering. Actually these days it's a bit easier because we've got a BBQ with the lid so the roast can go in there so the house can stay a bit cooler, longer.

Doesn't the Christmas ham last *forever*!! We get quite creative with it now - a slab as a ham steak with a pineapple ring, chopped up in a fried rice or in a rice salad, egg and ham pie...

I expect it's a bit the same for a turkey - some of those birds are seriously enormous!

I think my favourite time of year is spring - before the heat of the summer hits. Everything is springing to life and fresh, the grass is green, animals are a bit friskly, birds are busy nesting. Yep, definitely a spring person.

:)
Sharon

CC Coburn said...

Hi Sharon! Brilliant idea to use the barbie to cook the roast, esp. given the over 100 degree days you Victorians can get at Christmas.
Laughed about the ham with a pineapple ring AND a rice salad - how very CWA of you! :-)
We did turkey our first Xmas here and had so much of the stuff leftover - turkey burritos, turkey curry, turkey sandwiches, casserole, pizza, more curry ugh! Then I found out there's a book called "1000 things to do with left over turkey". I didn't need to read it because by then I'd decided any leftover turkey goes straight out for our resident fox family. :-)
This Thanksgiving I did a Rachel Ray recipe with turkey breasts only - truly delicious and no leftovers!
I must say, Spring is lovely - birdsong, new shoots, the dog shedding hair like crazy!... :-)
CC

Keziah Hill said...

I thank God that several years ago our family abandoned the traditional hot turkey with all the trimmings and opted for seafood, mango and prosciutto, green salads and lots of fruit salad. But we haven't abandoned the Christmas Pudding. My mother's recipe is the best in the world so it's now been passed on to my nephew the chef. And mention of Midnight Mass bought back lots of memories. When I was a child it was so exciting to stay up late and be allowed to go. Merry Christmas CC!

CC Coburn said...

Oh just stop it with the seafood, mango and proscuitto will ya??? :-)
My mouth is totally watering at the thought. I could always get the seafood and proscuitto from the local supermarket but the mango would be canned :-( so you're torturing me, Keziah. I do think you've created wqonderful Xmas dinner tradition tho!
We made Xmas puds one year with calico - left them hanging for ages and unwrapped them - they were mouldy. I think claico wrapped pus aren't meant for sub-tropical climes.
Will you be sharing your mum's Xmas pud recipe on your website? I used to hate pud when I wsa a kid but I loveit now (and miss it).
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too!
CC

Trish Milburn (Tricia Mills) said...

Great view into the Australian Christmas and winter season, CC. It's hard to imagine it being summer somewhere at Christmas, but it sounds like a great time was had during those weeks off from school. And, hey, you never had to worry about icy or snowy roads while trying to visit family for Christmas. :)

Cher said...

Hi Catherine!

Great post. :-)

I love the Christmas season here in Colorado. Love the cold, crisp air, the holiday lights and of course the snow.

I just love living here period. Colorado is a piece of heaven.

Cher

CC Coburn said...

LOL! Trish, it was very strange growing up with Xmas cards with wintery scenes on them - I always felt we were being shortchanged! Especially since I grew up in the middle of the Australian desert surrounded by red dust for the first 9 years of my life!
As I grew older they started to produce Smas cards with 6 white boomers (kangaroos) pulling Santa's sleigh. :-)
Merry Christmas to you and yours!
CC

CC coburn said...

Cher, we must be twins separated at birth (and obviously i was shipped to Aus)... :-)
I love living in Colorado too, and as you say, it truly is a piece of heaven.
I hope you "front rangers" get snow on Christmas Day too! :-)
CC

Kandy Shepherd said...

Hi CC - I loved your post about your Christmas in Colorado, can I please come visit next year? So different from Australian Christmas!
In our family there was a very strict rule - no presents opened until after church. So we were quite happy to walk to church for midnight mass because it meant we were allowed to open a present when we got home! I remember walking to church by flashlight accompanied by the chorus of a million cicadas.
My "day job" is in women's magazines and for years Christmas starts for me in July when we start planning our Christmas issues. The recipes are tested (my first Christmas dinner) then photographed in August (my second Christmas dinner) then we deal with the photographs and recipes for weeks while we are in production.
Despite all that I still enjoy my third Christmas dinner husband (he cooks Christmas dinner, it's his thing!) on the Day. Aussie expats can check out the Coles Christmas Magazine (Coles is a major Australian supermarket) for this year's Australian recipes online at http://www.coles.com.au
Merry Christmas everyone!

Kandy Shepherd said...

Um, that's meant to be "husband serves" - slight problem with missing verb!

Linda Henderson said...

My favorite season has always been fall. I love it when the trees start turning their beautiful colors. Fall in Colorado is beautiful, I live there for about 3 years, in Durango. I still have a niece that lives there. We usually open presents Christmas morning and have a big feast in the early afternoon.

Cathleen Ross said...

I love Christmas in Australia. We go to my sister-in-law's place. My job each year is to do the Christmas turkey and everyone brings something eg seafood, the ham, summer fruits, then later we go swimming. I also look forward to skiing in January. Catching up with Catherine this year in Breck, so get a bit of both hot and cold.
Cathleen Ross

Robyn Grady said...

What a gorgeous post! I've always loved Christmas, when I was a child, for obvious reasons. Now I'm older, to be able to get away from routine and lie around the pool, play with the kids, but duck back into the aircon when the heat gets too much.

I think my most special memories are for Easter. It was a big deal when I was young, and the Easter Bunny came on Thursday night as well as Saturday night! I'm not a chocolate eater now, but I sooo loved the smell, feel and look of those bunny and chicken foil wrappers.

Have a fabulous Xmas in Colorado, CC!

Robbie

Alan&Annette said...

Hi CC
Not sure if you are still blogging.
I know that it is not yet Friday in your World, but it is here in Oz.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
best wishes
Alan xx

CC Coburn said...

Kandy! With all those Christmas dinners it's a wonder you're as slender as you are. (what's your secret? I promise not to tell).
thanks for the link to the Coles Mag, I didn't realise we could get it online. I'll have Holly find something to cook up and name it Kandy's Treats!
Oh, yes, church and presents - it was like a bribe!
and yes of course you can come visit me here in CO!
CC

CC Coburn said...

Hi Linda,
My they get some snow down Durango way - 49 inches the other day! I'm going there just after Xmas and having a tour of Mesa Verde with an anthropolist friend of a friend. Can't wait!
CC

CC Coburn said...

Cathleen, your Xmasses with your big family sound lovely. I'm soooo looking forward to seeing you in CO in a couple of weeks hon!

CC Coburn said...

Robbie! Lovely to see you. And I aggreek, I think if I ever spend another Xmas in Aus, I'll be lying around the pool, eating prawns, swimming with my lovely Lab - oh, I miss her so much when we come here!- and if it all gets too hot, I can dash inside to the air con. It seems to strange to think of how hot it is at home when it's sooo cold here atm.
I used to love Easter too - mostly cos it was a good long break from school :-)
Merry Xmas.
CCx

Serena said...

Hi CC,
I found myself nodding throughout your post - well except for the food. Though born and brought up in Australia, my parents were Italian, so our Italian Christmas meals were very different to yours. As we come from Trieste, a port city to the far north of Italy, fish always features. My mamma used to make a dish from the dried salted cod, Baccala - she soaked it in milk and then squeezed it and flaked it. She would heat up some oil with garlic cloves, remove the cloves, then whipped the flaked fish into a mousse with the hot oil. Traditionally it's served on a large plater, shaped into a fish, with capers for eyes and gherkins for the scales. Served with crusty bread. There were also other fish dishes - fried, grilled fresh fish and calamari. I don't remember having pasta for Christmas as a young girl, but we did as we grew up because we'd invite our Aussie ex-next door neighbours and they expected pasta :)

But my favourite time of year is autumn - living in Melbourne we have the deciduous trees with the lovely colours. We also have warm, sunny days but cool nights.

Hugs from Down Under
Serena

CC Coburn said...

Ah Serena, believe it or not, I KNOW about Baccala! Although if you'd mentioned it a week ago I wouldn't have. :-)
Saw Throwdown with Bobby flay and he was challenged to the Feast of the Seven Fishes by an Italian chef. Since he's Irish Catholic and knew nothing of Italian Christmas customs, he called in a team of Italians and was "advised" by one of the Sopranos that he had to have Baccala as it was so traditional. :-) They really liked what he did with it too.
Have a great Christmas that I hope is free of bushfires this year.
CC

CC Coburn said...

Alan and Annette, thank you so much for wishing me a Happy 39th Birthday (again)!
It's nearly tomorrow here, so i'll wait up and read your comments again, just to be sure I've turned 39. :-)
Happy Christmas!
CC

Mary Hawkins said...

Saw on news how cold it is now in Colorado, Cathleen. I am just so glad Ray & I were in Denver in beautiful autumn a few weeks ago! I grew up in Queensland and, as for many years my mother only had a fuel stove on the farm, our Christmas dinner was always cooked the day before so no hot stove on to make the house even hotter. Having married a minister who was used to the traditional hot roast in his Sydney home we had to make the big decision what our Christmas dinner would consist of. Because of church responsibilities christmnas Eve and also on the christmas Day, salads won! However, the two years we spent in England we made sure we had those traditional English roasts - including roast pumpkin and pudding. We really loved christmas there. The Christmas lights everywhere made so much more sense than here in Tasmania when it isn't dark until about 9.30pm at night. And we still talk about that christmas evening we went carol singing in a village. Wonderful times.
Do enjoy your winter Christmas!
Mary

Linda Warren said...

CC,
Thanks for sharing your Australian Christmas. How interesting. I never realized it was summer in Australia at Christtime. You never get too old to learn.

Merry Christmas.
Linda

CC Coburn said...

Mary, I love roast pumpkin! although as a kid it wasn't my favoite thing, but now, I cant get enough of it - pumpkin soup, pumpkin scones... :-)
It certainly is a different feeling to actually experience Christmas in colder climes. I can just imagine your poor mum sweltering over a hot stove in the outback - poor thing.
Merry Christmas to you and your family, Mary.
CC

CC Coburn said...

Linda, you're so funny! Hey, to get a sense of Xams in Aus, how about next summer on a blazing hot Texas day you try cooking a traditional Xmas dinner with all the trimmings? I'll pop by for a summer time Xmas meal! :-)

Love that cover pic on your avatar btw.
Merry Christmas to you and your family and hope to catch up in Nashville.
CC :-)

Jan said...

All of the above rings true for me, CC, but for me as a small child I will always remember my Nana's ability to carry 7 plated dinners up her arms. I thought she was so clever, like a circus juggler. But she confided that her ability was because as a yound woman she had been "in service". We are talking around 1910, I suppose. And I always remember the Christmas pudding, bolied in a cloth for hours and hours and the hunt for threepences amongst the fruit and brandy sauce.I think the children only got custard! No more money in puddings, but I still love Christmas pudding, regardless of our Christmas heat. And I get to have brandy sauce! Lovely memories.

Nicole S said...

Thanks for sharing that CC! I enjoy reading how other people all over celebrate the holidays. It's interesting.

For me on Christmas I wake up look out the window and hope I see snow. It won't feel like Christmas without it. Then depending on if my cousin comes up from Florida I'll go to my grandparents in the morning to see her. Then go home to open gifts with my mom and brother. Then in the evening go to my grandparents to open gifts with the rest of the family. We have a ham dinner. Of course I listen to Christmas music all day.

CC Coburn said...

Oh, Jan you reminded me of the Christmas puds! I'd forgotten about them since we can no longer put money into them :-) I didn't care for the ud but it was such fun hunting for the threepences and sixpences! Very impressed with your Nana's abilities with the plates. :-)
Have a great first Xmas in your new home.

Hi Nicole, I'm listening to Frank Sinatra singing some Xmas tunes. Somehow it seems more appropriate here than at home in Australia. :-)
I hope you have a lovely Xmas and New year too!
CC