Several of my Geekbuddies have asked me how we celebrate Christmas in Australia. That's a little like asking how long is a piece of string, but I will do my best to give a snapshot.
First, of course, you need to remember that the Australian Summer officially begins on December 1st. Christmas is usually relatively hot – high twenties would be, I think, an average for Melbourne (and hotter the further north you go) – of course, that's Celsius, or around 80+ Fahrenheit – although the really hot weather doesn’t start until January most of the time.
Despite that, our Christmas images still mostly come from the northern hemisphere – so Father Christmas always wears a red, fur-trimmed suit; snowmen abound in shopping centre displays and on cards and wrapping paper; the north pole is occupied by polar bears, reindeer and penguins; and we decorate fir trees not branches of eucalypts.
As a child, I remember overdosing on Christmas carols – at kindergarten (pre-school) and in school, as well as in Saturday morning German classes. These days, though, Christmas is much less celebrated in schools and childcare centres, and I am regularly shocked at how few carols my children actually know – Jingle Bells seems to be the exception to the rule. As of yesterday, though, I have over 6 hours of Christmas music on my ipod, and they are loving listening to all the new songs (although I did censor "Santa never made it into Darwin" – a song about Cyclone Tracy, the devastating storm that hit Darwin on Christmas Day 1974). (This is one of very few australian christmas songs; the only one that I would consider really mainstream is the carol "The North Wind")
As Fraser’s family live in and around Sydney, we don’t often get to spend Christmas with them. We do, however, spend time on Christmas day with my parents (who are both in their seventies now), my brother and his wife and – this year, for the first time – my baby niece. This year, they're coming to our place for lunch – a "traditional" lunch of ham, roast turkey, roast veggies and salad, with cranberry sauce to accompany it and probably some plum pudding (even though neither Fraser nor I like it) with brandy butter for dessert.
We also have our traditional Christmas foods that mum and I try to bake every year – honey gingerbread, brandy balls (never rum balls), "stained glass window" biscuits (sugar cookies with a hole in the centre, filled with a fruit drop that melts when you bake the cookies) and of course fruit mince pies. Oddly, we never make any of those except the gingerbread when it’s not Christmas, even though we enjoy them all very much.
Christmas Day itself starts very lazily – up around 8 (the girls won't let us sleep any later – we would if we could!) to see what Santa has brought in the girls' Christmas stockings. He's a kindly old fellow, and usually leaves them lots of lovely little things including at least one or two that will keep them busy for the morning. It's always exciting to see whether the reindeer ate the carrots we left out for them, and whether Santa drank the little glass of port and ate the brandy ball (I just hope no-one checks his blood alcohol count, and that the reindeer know the way home safely). This year, we're hoping that the Christmas fairies might stop by the girls' new-for-christmas cubby house and leave a touch of Christmas magic there too.
We try to have a rule of no presents before everyone is dressed and has had breakfast – it doesn’t always work, and we do have some tolerance (1 gift often sneaks through), but eventually we do get to exchange gifts. The girls usually choose who opens what first – we've already received some interesting-looking wrapped gifts from the northerly grandparents and auntie, as well as a couple of others by mail. Fraser is quite strict with himself about never opening gifts before Christmas Day; I am far less strict usually, but have been very good this year so I have quite a few to open.
This year, the girls' gifts from us will be much smaller as we have blown every budget ever set on their cubby, but it would not be giving anything away to suggest that pretty clothes, a handful of books and probably a toy each are on the horizon. We find, though, that the overload of gifts at Christmas and on birthdays seems to make them value individual items less, so I try to spread them out over a few days rather than encouraging them to open every single item in a hurry.
Lunch ("Christmas Dinner") is at about two o'clock – at our place this year, although mum and dad will be our only guests. I'm hoping to delay gift-giving till after we have eaten, but that will probably depend on when mum and dad arrive. We'll open a bottle of something sparkling to go with lunch, and will keep a good stock of beer, wine and cider in the fridge. I'm hoping that they will take a taxi to our place rather than try to drive, although the traffic tends to be very light on Christmas Day.
My brother and his family will be by later in the afternoon – I expect around fiveish – by then, we will have eaten, chatted, even done most of the dishes (that's Fraser's job, and he still hasn't forgiven me for the year when it took two days to get all the dishes washed). Dad will be snoozing in one of the chairs, the girls will be nearly exhausted and quite possibly getting a little ratty, mum will be worrying about helping Fraser and I will be wishing I could follow dad's example and just block out the world. I'd love to say we'll break out a game at that point but it's unlikely – although there might just be a couple of family presents in the pile that will need road-testing.
The weather will be weird this year. Due to the drought, we are subject to increasingly severe water restrictions – as of January 1st, we will only be allowed to water our garden between 8 and 10 pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and we are already banned from watering lawns. There's no washing cars unless you're at a specialist car wash with recycled water, and showers are supposed to be no more than 4 minutes long. Severe bushfires have already burned well over 750,000 hectares of bushland within the state, and Melbourne has been covered in thick smoke for several days in the past few weeks. We need rain and we need it soon. Fortunately, Melbourne is famous for its mercurial weather. Last Thursday, the temperature reached 36 (Celsius) with an overnight LOW temperature of 26; on Monday, we're expecting a top temperature of 16, with snow expected in alpine regions. So parts of Victoria will potentially be experiencing a white Christmas, which will hopefully help to quell the fires.
December 26th is Boxing Day, but for me it is also Sales Day. Last year, when we were in Sydney where the shops were closed, was the first year in at least 13 that I have missed the traditional Boxing Day sales – and while I am not quite keen enough to be there at 6.30 when the shops open, I am usually past my first purchase by 7.30. I am usually super organised, with a list of what I want to get (with notional price points) and a path mapped out through the various stores and departments. I even buy the morning papers on the way in to make sure I have all the catalogues handy. I'll be home by ten thirty, with an overheated credit card and – hopefully – everything I set out to buy and nothing extra. (Hear that noise? That's Fraser laughing at that idea).
As well as a time for family celebration, Christmas is also the start of our long summer holidays. Biggie finished school on Thursday 21st December and will start Year 3 on January 31st. Fortunately, Fraser and I are both able to take most of that time as leave (in my case, unpaid, as I do most of my work as a subcontractor) and we will get some good family time, including our now traditional two weeks at the beach.
There's one Christmas tradition that is unique to Melbourne, and that is the Myer Christmas Windows. Myer is a chain of department stores; its flagship store in the centre of Melbourne is the largest department store in the southern hemisphere, occupying six floors of two city buildings connected by a bridge across the street. Every Christmas since 1956 (when the Olympic Games were held in Melbourne), the Myer staff have prepared a series of six Christmas windows telling a story or sharing a theme. Past themes have included various fairytales, the twelve days of Christmas, carols and a variety of children's books. I remember going to see them as a young child, and try to make the time to take my kids to see them each year, despite the crowds and the queues. This year, the theme is the delightful children's book "Wombat Divine" by Mem Fox.
Now the funny part of this is that before I knew what the theme of the Christmas windows, I knew who my BoardGameGeek Secret Santa victim was. And I knew that he had two children, and that I wanted to send him a couple of picture books to read with them as well as his games. If I was only sending one book, there would be no choice: Possum Magic is the classic australian children's book for international gifts. With two to send, the choice is a little harder, but my pick was Wombat Divine. Biggie was excited about the Secret Santa exchange, and keen to be involved in it, so she took both the books and read them for me to burn to CD for my victim to enjoy. I'm sure he won't mind if I share a little Christmas magic with the rest of you – so here, courtesy of the lovely Biggie, is a delightful little Christmas story to hear: Wombat Divine, by Mem Fox.
(For those who are interested, my third pick – albeit for older children – would be Drac and the Gremlin which delighted even Biggie when we read it a week or so ago).
I wish you all the merriest of Christmases, happiest of Hanukahs, most wintery (or summery) of Solstices, and the best of whatever you may be celebrating at this time of year. And to all, a good night.