Christmas in Australia
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.
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.
Myer Christmas Windows
No Christmas can go by without a visit to the Myer Store to look at the windows.
In Melbourne, this is a local tradition of truly legendary proportions.
We started doing this in 1956—a big year for Melbourne, when television arrived and we hosted the Olympic Games.
Every Christmas since then, the windows have featured a creative display with a different theme each year. The unveiling of the windows is an event in itself. Crowds gather before time (it's not just children who are entranced), television crews set up their equipment and as the heavy curtains are pulled back, the collective oooh! can be heard blocks away.
Australian Christmas Menu Favourites: Yabbies
Yabbies are best treated simply to keep the delicate taste and texture.
- 1 kg fresh yabbies
- 1 avocado, halved, stone removed and flesh chopped
- 4 cups mixed salad leaves
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1/2 teaspoon caster sugar
- 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Put the yabbies in a deep bowl in the freezer for 1 hour.
- Boil a large pot of salted water, add yabbies, cook for 5 minutes.
- Drain and refresh in cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Twist off the head, cut through the centre of the underside of the tail and gently peel the shell away from the meat. Remove the dark intestine.
- Combine dressing ingredients in a screwtop jar. Shake well.
- Place the salad leaves in a large serving bowl. Add avocado and yabbies, pour dressing over.
- This recipe is from and almost like my own Nanna made. She didn't use avocados. Like Grandma Used To Make
Australian Christmas Menu Favourites: White Christmas
From 1965, in Tested Recipes from the Australian Country Women's Association.
- 250g copha (vegetable shortening)
- 1 cup rice bubbles (rice crispies)
- 1 cup shredded coconut
- 3/4 cup icing sugar
- 1 cup powdered milk
- 3/4 cup toasted almond kernels
- 30g mixed peel
- 30g preserved ginger
- 30g glace apricots
- 30g glace pineapple
- 30g sultanas
- 50g glace cherries
- Chop the fruit and peel coarsely.
- Put everything except the cophra into a bowl and mix together.
- Warm copha gently until melted, and pour over ingredients.
- Mix well and place in an airtight container and set in fridge.
- Serve sliced into fingers.
How's the weather down your way on Christmas Day?
A Christmas Greeting
Wherever we are in the world, north, south, east or west, Christmas is a very special time.
For some of us, the emphasis is on religion, for others it's the family. There are also those who grieve at Christmas time.
Whatever your focus may be at this time of year, I wish you the very best of happiness and, if you are saddened, I wish you solace. To all, cheers from Australia.
© 2008 Susanna Duffy