I love Christmas time in Australia and enjoy spreading our particular brand of holiday cheer to the rest of the world.
It's Never a White Christmas in Australia
Christmas is a splendid time of year in Australia. December and January are at the very height of our beach season, and we love to head for the beach and relax. The Christmas holidays stretch over the longest days of our long summers, and our Christmas cards almost always show scenes in the snow. My earliest childhood memories of Christmas are of sand: in my hair, in my sandals and in my tomato sandwiches.
Though snow has rarely fallen at Christmas, we have experienced all the seasonal quirks of summer down under: the electrical storms, floods, hailstorms, cyclones and terrible bushfires. Those fires have been part of the Australian landscape for millions of years. Indeed, some of our flora and fauna depend upon it, but climate change has brought more, and fiercer, firestorms.
Depending on where you are in Australia, daily temperatures range from 25–45°C (77–113°F) on the mainland, while Tasmania, in the far south, is always slightly cooler.
In this article, I'll break down just how different Christmas is in Australia compared to many other parts of the world and go into detail regarding some of our most storied traditions during the happiest time of the year.
Are Australians the First to Celebrate Christmas Every Year?
I'd like to tell you that we are the first to celebrate Christmas, but that would be a fib, and I don't want Santa to put me on his Naughty List.
The New Zealanders, who are immediately west of the international date line, have the pleasure of greeting Christmas Day two hours before us.
Not in Australia? Then you'll just have to wait another day. Merry Christmas!
Australian Christmas Plants
While people in the northern hemisphere are decorating fir trees and decking their halls with boughs of holly, here in Australia we have the bright and beautiful Christmas Bush, Ceratopetalum gummiferum.
This lovely shrub has white, star-like flowers in late spring followed by beautiful reddened, swollen calyces in summer, just in time for Christmas.
You can decorate your whole house with Christmas Bush. If it doesn't grow in the backyard, a neighbour is sure to have some. At the florist, bunches are cheap enough to buy in armfuls. As you can see by the photo above, the Christmas Bush is a wonderful vision of red.
Flowers are always a special feature of Australian Christmas decorations.
There's a perfect and popular summer plant we call Christmas Bells, the Blandfordia nobilis with funnel-shaped petals. It's a type of lily, with delicate red flowers ending in golden tips, the colours of Christmas time.
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These Christmas Bells grow wild in the sandstone country of New South Wales and in the mountains. One year they grew for me.
The photo below is from my garden in 2007, one lucky year for my lilies.
With Christmas Bells in your house alongside nasturtiums, wisteria and honeysuckle bloom, you don't need much more in the way of Christmas decorations.
Red and Gold for Christmas
Why bother with the fir tree made popular by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria? We have beautiful red and gold native plants for the festive season.
Further north from me, Christmastime brings out the brilliant scarlets in the Illawarra Flame Tree while, in the west, the predominant colour is gold.
This lovely example of our native flora is the parasitic Nuytsia floribunda, bursting with brilliant yellow flowers to greet both summer and Christmas.
We call this the West Australian Christmas tree, and the golden blossoms are an absolute delight to see.
Christmas Dinner in Australia
We have three choices for Christmas dinner.
- One choice is to get out of bed on Christmas morning, as our grandmothers did, and start preparations at 4 am before it gets too hot to have the oven on. We have five hours at most before the heat drives us out of the kitchen. Sometimes, if it's going be to a scorcher of a day, we can only cook for three hours.
- A second choice is to have a barbecue. Toss a few salads together and throw some prawns on the barbie.
- Or we could pack a picnic lunch and head for the nearest beach. Seeing as most of us live along the coastline, there are picnics and parties galore.
As our society now reflects the influence of migrants from around the world, food can vary. But nearly all of us celebrate Christmas by giving gifts and preparing special meals to share with friends and family.
When it's 40°C (104°F) or more, eating a hot meal, much less cooking one, isn't any fun, believe me. Instead, we have cold meats such as ham, corned beef, chicken, turkey, duck and all sorts of seafood like oysters, squid, crayfish, prawns, salmon and morwong.
Fruit is especially abundant this time of year, and we get stuck into pineapples, mangos, pawpaws, rockmelons, watermelons, plums, apricots and peaches. We enjoy more exotic fruit too, including lychees, jackfruit, mangosteen and the incredible durian.
Christmas Lunch on the Beach
Once upon a time, Christmas lunch on the beach meant packing cold chicken, tomatoes, watermelon and lemonade in the Esky and laying a couple of rugs and beach towels on the sand. These days, it's a more complicated ritual.
The modern Christmas lunch a la plage consists of toting at least one portable barbecue, one Esky for the prawns and salad, and another for the grog, pavlova and sunblock.
No one has ginger beer in their Esky these days. It's all local wines now: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay or a sparkling pinot noir.
You need shade all the time in Australia, and little villages of mini tents spring up all over the beach with barbecues and gas bottles everywhere.
Camping by the Beach
The image from an old postcard of Santa with his surfboard brings instant memories to me of many a Christmas time spent camping in the ti-trees by the beach. The old-style caravans and tents, the singlets on the line and the wooden steps leading down to the sand are just like my childhood holidays—minus the reindeer of course.
Camping by the beach, or staying at one of the numerous caravan parks along the rivers, is still a popular budget holiday for families.
Bondi Beach in Sydney is a popular spot all year round, and especially so at Christmas. It's a very little beach, just half a mile of sand. And when you have 40,000 people turn up on Christmas Day, it's all one big party. There's no room to play a game of cricket on the beach on Christmas Day.
It's traditional for international visitors who happen to be in Sydney at Christmas time to go to Bondi Beach. Backpackers in particular swarm over the sands. If you're thinking of coming along, remember Bondi Beach is an alcohol-free zone.
And don't forget the zinc cream.
Carols by Candlelight Is a Big Event
While in the cold northern hemisphere rugged-up choirs may ring bells and sing on street corners, we take our rugs out into the warm summer night and watch performers lead carol-singing from a stage.
Carols by Candlelight is a big event of the Christmas season. Families and friends get together and celebrate the spirit of Christmas in open air venues. And we all sing!
This Christmas Eve tradition attracts a huge crowd at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, while many more Melbournians join in at various 'live sites' where the festivities are broadcast on the big screen. The extravaganza is also enjoyed by millions of people across the continent through live telecasts.
It wouldn't be Christmas Eve without our Carols by Candlelight.