Christmas in Europe and North America is celebrated as a winter holiday, and includes imagery of snow, long nights, and warm clothes and fattening food to fight the cold. Australia, however, is in the Southern Hemisphere, where Christmas falls in the middle of summer. Often a blazing hot summer! But Australia was settled by immigrants from many countries who brought Christmas traditions with them. Some of these traditions stay the same, some were adapted for the weather, and some customs have emerged that are clearly Australian. Image by Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman.
In Australia, the summer Christmas is too hot for reindeer. At least that's what they tell me. Instead, Santa makes his run pulled by six big kangaroos. This photo of the Australian Embassy was taken in Washington, D.C. Santa look pretty good on a surfboard!
Rolf Harris wrote a song using this scenario, called "Six White Boomers."
Carols by Candlelight
Carols by Candlelight is a Australian tradition in which townspeople gather together to sing. Radio announcer Norman Banks held the first municipal gathering in 1938. The story goes that in 1937, as he was walking home from a late shift in Melbourne, Banks saw an elderly woman singing "Away in a Manger" alone by the window in her home, her face illuminated by a candle. Banks thought about the many people who must be celebrating the holiday alone, and organized the event for the next year. It wasn't easy, but he enlisted the help of his employers and the mayor to get the approval of the city council. The first Carols by Candlelight in 1938 saw 10,000 participants singing along with a choir, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade Band, and two soloists at midnight in the Alexandra Gardens. It went over so well that 40,000 people attended in 1939. The video clip above was recorded at Melbourne's Carols by Candlelight in 2010; it gives you an idea of how large the event is today.
From there, the tradition spread to other cities. The Carols in the Domain event held at the Domain Gardens in Sydney is broadcast across Australia and around the world. It takes place this Saturday night. Image of the event in Adelaide 2007 by Flickr user Hazel Motes.
The Christmas Feast
What do you eat for Christmas in the middle of summer? Australians seem to fall into three categories for Christmas dinner. Some stick with traditions from the old countries: Roast ham or turkey with dressing and cooked vegetables. Others serve traditional ham and turkey as cold cuts with raw vegetables, sometimes eaten late at night or as a picnic to beat the heat. A third segment embraces the holiday weather with seafood or other types of barbecue and plenty of beer. Which is still traditional, but thoroughly Australian. However, when families and friends gather, all three traditions can be observed! Image by Flickr user bess grant.
One holiday dish that is completely Australian is the Christmas Damper. Damper is a soda bread that could be made with simple ingredients by those traveling the vast expanses of Australia. The holiday version is a remembrance of tough times on the continent. For Christmas, damper is made into a wreath shape and decorated in Christmas motifs. It is not universally served, though, because of the heat of baking. Bakeries will provide it if you want.
Christmas in July
There's another solution to the lack of winter weather during Christmas: celebrate it again at another time! Christmas in July has become tradition down under. The story goes that some Irish visitors to the Blue Mountains in New South Wales saw a snowfall in July of 1977. That's not out of the ordinary for mountains in the Southern Hemisphere, but the tourists were reminded of Christmas out of season. They requested a traditional Christmas dinner from their hotel, which they enjoyed so much they returned the following July. The celebration of Christmas in July was repeated in the Blue Mountain region as a tourist draw, but locals loved it, too.
Now people from all over Australia and beyond come to the area for Yulefest, to enjoy a Northern Hemisphere Christmas with skiing and snowmen when the weather is right for it -which spills over into June and August. The tradition has spread to the cities as well, as you can see by the Santas in Sydney Harbor.
Image by Flickr user aussiegall.