Christmas in Australia

June 01, 2011

Christmas in Australia

Recently, when teaching American university students, I was reminded afresh of how strangely incongruous traditional Christmas celebrations are in Australia. These students had never conceived of Christmas in one of the hottest months of the year, and were incredulous when I pointed out that from behind sunglasses, and in air-conditioned spaces, we still maintain (in our homes, churches and shopping malls) many of the vestiges of a long passed, wintery Victorian Christmas. Snow, candles,  skating rinks, and fur-coated families are still frequently depicted scenes on the Christmas cards that are dutifully delivered in their thousands by heat weary postmen in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Even though we have modified our dress code for the special day (my uncles used to wear jacket and tie to Christmas dinner when I was a child growing up in a country town), we still view Christmas through a northern hemisphere lens, often imagining that we are somewhere other than this ‘sunburnt country’.

  1. J. Dennis, the Australian poet, best remembered for his children’s verse, captured this ambivalence in his poem entitled A Bush Christmas. First published in the Herald in 1931, it tells of a Christmas dinner setting that is familiar to many. On a day when the ‘sun burns hotly thro’ the gums’, the father of a family in a remote Australian setting complains, half-heartedly, of the unsuitable nature of the lovingly prepared Christmas meal: ‘Plum puddin’ on a day like this, / And roasted turkeys! Spare me days, / … In climates such as this the thing’s all wrong.’ Rogan, the poor, invited neighbour to this convivial Christmas gathering, having enjoyed his meal despite the heat, later reflects on his childhood in England when he was a farmer’s boy. He entertains the children with stories of ‘whitened fields and winter snow, / And yuletide logs and mistletoes, / And all that half-forgotten hallowed joy’. The children listen to the stories ‘mouths agape’, for England is ‘a strange and freakish Christmas land to them’.[1]

When this poem was published, the completed trilogy of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson, had just become available.  Set in the goldfields of Ballarat, the first volume, Australia Felix, captures perfectly the sense of searing heat and discomfort that often accompany Christmas in Australia. Goodwill is put to the test under such conditions:

Summer had come round again, and the motionless white heat of December lay heavy on the place. The low little houses seemed to cower beneath it; and the smoke from the chimneys drew black, perpendicular lines on the pale sky. If it was a misery at this season to traverse the blazing, dusty roads, it was almost worse to be within-doors, where the thin wooden walls were powerless to keep out the heat, and flies and mosquitoes raged in chorus. Nevertheless, determined Christmas preparations went on in dozens of tiny zinc-roofed kitchens, the temperature of which was not much below that of the ovens themselves; and kindly, well-to-do people like Mrs Glendinning and Mrs Urquhart drove in hooded buggies, with green fly-veils dangling from their broad-brimmed hats, and dropped a goose here, a turkey there, on their less prosperous friends. They robbed their gardens too, of the summer’s last flowers, arum-lilies and brilliant geraniums, to decorate the Archdeacon’s church for the festival; and many ladies spent their whole day beforehand making wreaths and crosses, and festoons to encircle the lamps. [2]

Christmas Pudding

This simple, sentimental poem and this extract from a major Australian literary work draw attention to a dilemma that Christians in Australia face when they seek to celebrate the Nativity in a manner both culturally appropriate and focused on this significant Christian event. It is difficult to attend Carols by Candlelight services or Nine Lessons and Carols without feeling a disjunction between our desire to esteem Jesus Christ in the climatic conditions in which we find ourselves and the practices we adopt to do so. Many of the symbolic practices that we persist with, while intrinsically beautiful in a cold climate, are not suited to our weather conditions. If you have ever sweated under choir robes at Christmas or stood in a group of joyful, perspiring carollers holding candles, you will know what I mean. Some things do not seem quite right. It is true that many Australian churches conduct Carols by Candlelight services outdoors to escape the heat, yet at such times artificial candles are more prudent, as the risk of bushfire is a constant threat at that time of the year. It is also difficult to get the timing right in the lingering light of a long Australian December day. Candles are intended to add warmth and light in a dark, northern hemisphere Christmas setting, where night closes in at about four in the afternoon. But neither warmth nor light are needed amongst the gum trees and the tinder-dry bushland on a summer’s day at the local suburban park.

Anywhere in the Western world the weeks leading up to Christmas are a busy period. It is difficult to give due attention to the significance of Advent in a way that most Christians would like to do. The preparation and shopping demands that we place on ourselves minimise the time that we can set aside to focus, with grateful hearts, on the mystery and wonder of the Incarnation. Nowhere is this more acute than in Australia. The combination of heat exhaustion, the end of the academic year, preparing for Christmas and the need to get organised for the forthcoming long summer holidays make it difficult to be contemplative and prayerful. Inclement weather, by contrast, has advantages. When I have been in the UK for Christmas it has usually involved long periods in front of the open fire, reading and reflecting, venturing into the icy streets only when shopping lists finally demanded attention. The pressure on Australians to pack their car for seaside holidays in the wake of preparing for Christmas often means that the time needed for meditative moments is lost. The sense of expectation is soon gone, the decorations are packed away for another year, and thoughts quickly turn to surf, sand and sunshine.

This does not mean that reflecting on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is an impossible task in Australia. It is just that there is a need to revisit this issue and to pursue new and culturally appropriate ways of doing so.  It is apparent that the vestiges of our post-colonial thinking still shape the manner in which we approach Christmas. These residual elements of a northern hemisphere festival have a limiting effect on the way that we conceive of this timely reminder of God’s grace.  While we cannot change the time when Christmas is celebrated (although some have a secular Yuletide dinner in July) we could subject it to a radical reappraisal suited to our Antipodean weather and environment.

Historically, there have been some attempts in Australia to establish a helpful, ongoing connection between Christmas and what is taking place in the natural world at the time. The use of Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) to decorate the Australian home in December is a good example. Bunches of the delicate dark pink or red blossom of this Australian native plant have been a traditional means of doing so since the nineteenth century. Red, green and white are the colours traditionally associated with Christmas, and Christmas Bush replaces the red berries that are readily available in Europe to make up Advent floral decorations. This colour also has potentially symbolic significance, subliminally representing the blood of Christ. Conflating the narrative of Jesus in this way is not uncommon. When we remember His birth we remember His sacrifice as well. Blood is a common element in both events. It is a natural, expected addition to the range of ways in which we draw attention to and signify the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. Another example, although less common, is the use of Christmas Bells (Blandfordia nobilis). Both suggest a gradual reorientation away from hawthorn and mistletoe, and an acceptance of the fact that we live in a very different place.

Overall, however, there remains very little evidence that we, as Christians in Australia, have made any serious attempt to relate our cultural context and landscape to the celebration of Christmas, or any other event on the Christian calendar for that matter. Prawns on the barbeque at Bondi Beach do not quite capture the subtle reorientation of sensibilities that I have in mind. Seafood for Christmas dinner is becoming more popular and is much more suited to the hot weather than the traditional roast. But culinary concessions cannot be considered as a sufficient attempt to re-examine the whole Christmas narrative against the climatic and cultural setting in which we live.  Certainly there have been humorous attempts to write or rework Christmas carols to make them more explicitly Australian in content. Also, beautiful and evocative songs like The Carol of the Birds and The Three Drovers highlight the Australian context but have limited reference to Christ. That there are very few Australian Christmas songs outside of these two categories underlines the lack of serious consideration given to what it means to celebrate the Nativity in this country. Good quality, thoughtful and reflective verse and songs about Christmas in Australia are patently absent.


We are still very much a Pacific rim country, looking outwards to other countries, other cultures, living a liminal existence on the fertile, seaside fringes of this vast continent. We have not really engaged with the Great South Land in anything but a tentative manner. We have exploited but not learned from the indigenous peoples of this land. Their sense of ‘place’ and identification with the Australian landscape are foreign to us. We have largely turned our backs on the silent, vast expanses of country that lie beyond the Great Dividing Range. In reality, the arid continent in which we spend most of our lives, so much of it desert, is more akin to the area in which Jesus was born and lived than any northern European or North American environment. Thus, it should not be a difficult task for us as Christians to draw parallels between these two worlds in a way that would be symbolically productive. Although there is a strong theological tradition of the desert as a place of spiritual testing and renewal, we have not capitalised on that in any way in Australia. The same could be said for the vast mountain ranges that are close to many of our cities. In his earthly life Jesus had significant experiences in both desert and mountain settings.  But, as many of our theological traditions are devoid of contemplative practices, we would prefer the comforts of suburbia to the concept of quiet retreat and engagement with the natural world. Thus, we do not relate Christmas to our particular landscape.

Living in one of the most urbanised countries in the world, I guess it is not surprising that Australian Christians do not consider the bushland or desert as places that have any resonances with our desire to celebrate the Christmas narrative. Landscape, however, is important in many northern hemisphere treatments of Christmas. Fanciful as the wintery setting of Christina Rossetti’s  In the Bleak Midwinter (c.1872) may be, we still prefer that  view of Christmas as an anchor for our thoughts over any references to the Australian bushland or outback in poetry or prose. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens (1843) is another popular work of fiction that relies heavily on snow and ice to achieve its effectiveness. If we can envision Christmas within those unreal and unfamiliar settings, why is it that we cannot correlate our Christmas reflections with this ‘wide, brown land’?  Climate and landscape play a very large part in determining who we are as Australians. We are known around the world for our warm weather, our outdoor living, and the vast distances that we travel within and outside of this wonderful country to maintain meaningful lives. But the implication of these positive aspects is that we do not need to uncritically accept northern European traditions and stereotypes. For the Christian church in Australia to make sensible changes to such time-honoured legacies, however, will require serious and imaginative reflection. Whilst accepting that Christmas is an important time for families to be together, surely more creative, uniquely Australian ways of acknowledging the importance of this pivotal event in history are possible. This Christmas Day, as we shelter in the shade, esky beside us, we should consider again what it really means to be Christians at Christmas in this lucky country.

[1] C.J.Dennis, 'A Bush Christmas', The Herald, December 24th, 1931.

[2] Henry Handel Richardson, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony: Australia Felix (London: William Heinemann, 1965), p194. First published 1930.

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