Warm Weather Christmas
by Ben Groundwater
Technically, it doesn’t look a lot like Christmas. There’s no snow on the ground. There’s no mulled wine being served. You’d have no use for a sleigh on a sandy beach. You’d struggle to go ice-skating on a tropical lagoon.
Visitors from the northern hemisphere who arrive in Australia around Christmastime must feel like they’ve been cheated somehow, that all of the familiar Yuletide traditions have melted away. Gone are the Christmas markets and the outlandish light displays. You’re hard-pressed to find a roasting turkey; you’d swelter in a knitted jumper.
It can take a while for those people to slip into the Australian way of doing things, to begin to enjoy what this place has to offer on December 25th, even if it can feel so different from home. Even if it feels like it isn’t Christmas at all. We don’t do mulled wine, for starters. It’s far too hot for warm drinks – it’s probably about 30 degrees out there. Here we drink beer, cold stubbies pulled straight from the fridge. We sip rose and white wine. We might start the big day with a fruit smoothie rather than a glass of egg nog.
Few turkeys are harmed in the making of an Australian Christmas Day. There are some who go the traditional culinary route, but for plenty of us the big day is hot enough without running the oven all day and having to feast on a meal fit for an English winter. Seafood is far a more popular lunch option: big buckets of ruby-red prawns with seafood cocktail sauce; Moreton Bay bugs cracked and slathered in garlic butter; whole fish roasted on the barbecue in the backyard.
If you live near the coast, as most of us do, Christmas Day also involves a trip to the beach. This is what’s so strange for those from the northern hemisphere, and yet so brilliant to us: you can spend the 25th of December in your boardies on the sand or wallowing in the bath-warm waters of the summer ocean.
“Few turkeys are harmed in the making of an Australian
Blokes in Santa costumes surf the waves. Families gather beachside for barbecues and drinks. It’s friendly, convivial. It makes Christmas Day a communal affair; it takes it out of people’s homes and into public spaces where strangers celebrate together, where families mingle and travellers party
We’ve kept some of the northern Christmas traditions, or at least bastardised them in our own special way. Santa is still big for an Australian Yuletide – though he doesn’t have any chimneys to slide down. Instead he pads in via the screen door, leaving presents in stockings that hang from bookcases or mantelpieces instead of over the hearth.
We sing Christmas carols too – sometimes by candlelight, sometimes with family, sometimes hummed subconsciously as we wander through a shopping mall and listen to the same five or six songs played over and over again.
Mostly though, we do our own thing for this warm-weather Christmas. And it’s not the just on day itself that these traditions are embraced. Christmas in Australia is a full summer holiday: it’s a least a week, probably two, of work-free splendour.
People spend early mornings paddling out into the surf; they escape the ferocity of the midday sun sitting around the house in the air-conditioning listening to the cricket; they enjoy long evenings in the dying light, sitting in beer gardens and on balconies catching up with friends.
The sounds of Christmas are different in Australia: here it sounds like crashing waves; it sounds like frogs croaking in the balmy night; it sounds like cricket commentary with its gentle rhythm, like the crackle of singeing meat, the hiss of a cracked stubbie.
It smells different here, too: it smells like sea-salt and charcoal, like fresh-cut grass and ripening fruit.
Those things may not be familiar to visitors as the epitome of Christmas. It might feel to them as if Santa would pass this hot and somewhat bizarre place by.
But when you’re hanging out down at the beach on Christmas Day, wiggling your toes in the sand, eyeing off a bucket of prawns, tossing up another sausage or another swim, getting ready for that first cold beer or that glass of wine – well, northern traditions don’t seem that important anymore.