An Aussie Christmas, Poetically Speaking

June 01, 2011

An Aussie Christmas, Poetically Speaking

Banjo Paterson’s ‘Santa Claus in the Bush’ (1906) begins with these words:

It chanced out back at the Christmas time,
When the wheat was ripe and tall,
A stranger rode to the farmer's gate--
A sturdy man and a small.

‘Rin doon, rin doon, my little son Jack,
And bid the stranger stay;
And we'll hae a crack for Auld Lang Syne,
For the morn is Christmas Day.’

I can still hear the muddle of children’s voices reciting poetry at school speech night, and the shrill cacophony of enthusiastic singing. I can feel the beads of sweat dripping down the nape of my neck as much as I can feel the way the air hung heavy in the town hall and photocopied programs found ready use as makeshift fans as parents and grandparents, packed to the rafters, cheered on their little candy canes, angels or swagmen (depending on the choice of play for that year). So too, I remember the outdoor Christmas carols as school choirs sang and school bands played ‘The First Noel’ with tinny abandon and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ with out-of-tempo zeal. It happens across Australia each year, from the towns with only a pub and someone who can play ‘Silent Night’ on the piano, through the larger organized carol services of our regional cities, to the televised Carols in the Domain.

A family Christmas for me has always been a rambling affair with food, recitation of poetry and Christmas carols, including many of the Australian Christmas songs that have become popular in the last twenty years. We may not think about it a lot, but many of the Christmas carols, hymns and songs we sing started out as poems, and the lyrics of many of these make interesting reading in themselves still.

Many Australian Christmas poems reflect on the events of the Christmas season and their significance by focusing on the distinctiveness of the Australian experience and the communal and family aspects. They are generally quite intent on pointing out the humour of northern hemisphere traditions being turned on their head.

 Like ‘Six White Boomers’ written by Rolf Harris and (American) John Brown, ‘Aussie Jingle Bells’ by Colin Buchanan (and performed with Greg Champion) is a foil to songs written in the northern hemisphere which speak of snow and cold and holly:

All the family's there,

sitting by the pool,

Christmas Day the Aussie way,

by the barbecue.

Though the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is the central purpose and theme of Christmas, this and a number of other notable Australian Christmas poems celebrate the communal aspects and specifically Australian experience of Christmas.

Another recent song that nods to this unique experience is beat poet and comic Tim Minchin’s ‘White Wine in the Sun.’ Minchin’s honesty is a refreshing antidote to fake snow:

I really like Christmas
It's sentimental, I know, but I just really like it
I am hardly religious
I'd rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest

And yes, I have all of the usual objections
To consumerism, the commercialisation of an ancient religion
To the westernisation of a dead Palestinian
Press-ganged into selling Playstations and beer
But I still really like it

I'm looking forward to Christmas
Though I'm not expecting a visit from Jesus

I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun
I'll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They'll be drinking white wine in the sun

I suspect many Australians feel similarly to Minchin. Much Australian Christmas poetry helps us to connect with the season in a way that is natural and familiar. Of course it doesn’t make much sense to sing of snowmen and white Christmases when it’s 30 degrees plus. But, given the central purpose of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ, I realized that I struggled to find poems by Australian poets which explore the birth of the Messiah in relation to our own context. I could find nothing like ‘Nativity’ by John Donne or ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’ by John Milton, nor, dare I say it, do I think there is an Australian equivalent to ‘T’was the Night before Christmas’. Until, that is, I remembered the ‘Barranong Angel Case’ by Les Murray. It is worth including here in full:

You see that bench in front of Meagher's store?
That's where the angel landed.
What? An angel?
Yes. It was just near smoko time on a sale day.
Town was quite full. He called us all together.
And was he obeyed?
Oh yes. He got a hearing.
Made his announcement, blessed us and took off
Again, straight up.
He had most glorious wings . . . .
What happened then?
There were some tasks he'd set us
Or rather that sort of followed from his message.
And were they carried out?   
At first we meant to,
But after a while, when there had been some talk
Most came to think he'd been a bit, well, haughty,
A bit overdone, with those flourishes of wings
And that plummy accent.
Lot of the women liked that.
But the men who'd knelt, off their own bat, mind you,
They were specially crook on him, as I remember.

Did he come again?
Oh yes. The message was important.
The second time, he hired the church hall,
Spoke most politely, called us all by name.
Any result?
Not much. At first we liked him.
But, after all, he'd singled out the Catholics.
It was their hall. And another thing resented
By different ones, he hadn't charged admission.
We weren't all paupers, and any man or angel
With so little regard for local pride, or money,
Ends up distrusted.

Did he give up then?
Oh no. The third time round
He thought he had our measure. Came by car,
Took a room at Morgan's, didn't say a word
About his message for the first two days
And after that, dropped hints. Quite clever ones.
He made sure, too, that he spoke to all the Baptists.
I'll bet that worked.
You reckon? Not that I saw.
We didn't like him pandering to our ways
For a start. Some called it mockery, straight out.
He was an angel, after all. And then
There was the way he kept on coming back
Hustling the people.
And when all's said and done
He was a stranger. And he talked religion.

Did he keep on trying?
No. Gave us away.
Would it have helped if he'd settled in the district?
Don't think so, mate. If you follow me, he was
Too keen altogether. He'd have harped on that damn message
All the time—or if he'd stopped, well then
He'd have been despised because he'd given in, like.
He'd just got off on the wrong foot from the start
And you can't fix that up.

But what—Oh Hell!—what if he'd been, say, born here?
Well, that sort of thing's a bit above an angel,
Or a bit below. And he'd grow up too well known.
Who'd pay any heed to a neighbour's boy, I ask you,
Specially if he came out with messages?
Besides, what he told us had to do with love
And people here,
They don't think that's quite—manly.[2]

‘The Barranong Angel Case’ is from Les Murray’s first solo collection The Weatherboard Cathedral from 1969. Murray insightfully wonders how the angel Gabriel might have been received had he appeared in an Australian context and declared the coming of Christ. Though conflated here, the later verses in Murray’s poem can also be read as a commentary on how John the Baptist and later Jesus Christ might have been received had they found themselves in a rural Australian community.  The Christmas story is an exciting one of travel, adventure, and historical significance and Murray grasps these themes in a distinctively Australian pastoral context. Christmas is notably about family and making do—the manger and the lack of room at the inn are hardly paradoxical for an Australian audience. It’s a story that captures the imagination and it seems it is so entrenched in the cultural vocabulary that poets take it for granted and focus on the environmental difference and experience that is Christmas in Australia.

Despite Murray’s insightful and far from saccharine exploration of the Christmas narrative, I lament the lack of contemporary Australian poets exploring the Christological aspect of Christmas. Though it pains me to have to resort to a poet who hails from a different century and a different shore, let me finish with a final stanza from American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘The Three Kings’. This is not to hearken back to an American poetry tradition as being superior to our own—far from it—but to leave you with a challenge to consider whether we just go through the motions at Christmas, or whether there’s something more to it:

They laid their offerings at his feet:
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body's burying.

There is a robust heritage of Aussie Christmas poems and songs, but if you’re a poet seeking a topic, there is a rich and largely unmined vein to be found in considering the nativity and the events surrounding it in light of the Australian experience of Christmas. I would certainly be grateful if you did.

[1] Used with permission.

[2] Used with permission.

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