How To Make Gravy: Australia’s only Christmas carol?

Like its taste in cars and award show guest presenters, Australia prefers its Christmas carols imported. Some progress has been made in other aspects of the season – my family and I now choose to accompany our passive aggression with seafood instead of turkey – but when it comes time to attend your niece-in-law’s end of year massed recorder recital, it’s the same old songs being attempted: Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Rudolph the Bloody Reindeer.

The Australian carols that do exist are mostly novelty re-workings of existing songs with the holly and the ivy replaced by gum trees and wattle. Santa swapping his fur hat for a corked Akubra and a token Aboriginal word is deemed sufficient to localise the celebration of the day a Middle Eastern tradesman wasn’t actually born.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with a bit of disposable Australiana to end your year, unless it is the seemingly endless 12 Australian Days of Christmas which robs you of the will to live around 10 Lizards Leaping. What disappoints me is none of these carols say anything meaningful about our country and its experiences of Christmas.

Without wishing to confirm every stereotype England cricket fans have about us, the only Christmas carol that can de described as authentically Australian involves a criminal. The Paul Kelly song How To Make Gravy  is about a newly imprisoned man lamenting the fact he will be separated from his family at Christmas. In his 2010 memoir, also called How To Make Gravy, Kelly said the song was inspired by the often-forgotten spoken prologue to Irving Berlin’s White Christmas which ends “There’s never been such day in old LA, but it’s December 24th and I am longing to be up north.” Kelly was struck how Berlin “intensified the feeling of Christmas by writing about not being there”.

Loneliness pervades Kelly’s song with heartbreaking lyrics such as “Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas Eve” and “I’m even gonna miss Roger ‘cause there’s sure as hell no one in here I want to fight”. It is this sense of loneliness which makes the song distinctly Australian.

As a settler society in a remote land, Australia endured Christmas isolation more than most culturally Christian nations. A letter sent from London in December would take close to a year to reach penal colony of New South Wales and, unlike the newly independent Americans, these pioneers would be forced to hold their mid-winter celebrations in the blazing heat of summer. To the First Fleet it must have felt like another world.This isolation set the tone for the next two centuries of antipodean Christmas celebrations.

Speaking to the ABC in 2010, ANU history professor Nicholas Brown said Christmas in colonial Australia was characterised by a “a strong sense of absence”.”A lot of the early imagery of Christmas in Australia is related to isolation and distance,” Dr Brown said. “You’ve got the Sydney Mail in 1879 saying ’The revels of Christmas tide cannot endure the ordeal of immigration’. It’s that sense that it’s alien here and we’re so conscious of being away from family and that figures very prominently in the imagery of Christmas back in that time.”

An example of this yearning for another place is found in CJ Dennis’ 1931 poem A Bush Christmas. A wandering English  hatter named Rogan spends Christmas on an Australian farm and while the owner and his children are welcoming, Rogan still misses the Christmases back home.

“His old eyes glisten as he sees

Half glimpses of old memories,

Of whitened fields and winter snows,

And yuletide logs and mistletoes,

And all that half-forgotten, hallowed joy.”

This Yuletide isolation would also be felt by diggers serving overseas and the “New Australians” who arrived here after World War II.

Most Australians have forsaken the religious undertones of Christmas. The holiday is now about family so the idea of being separated from them is heartbreaking.

Unfortunately many Australians find themselves in this situation each year. There’s the recently arrived immigrant struggling to understand the LBW rule, the digger skpying with loved ones from within the Iraqi green zone and the remote mine worker receiving boss Gina Rinehart’s collected works in lieu of a bonus. Kelly’s lyrics speak of this loneliness and reveal more about Christmas in Australia than any kitschy kookaburra carol ever could.

29 responses to “How To Make Gravy: Australia’s only Christmas carol?

  1. Blimey, some heat in this discussion about something not quite consequential.

    For the first part of his treatise, it’s fair enough to say that we don’t have any genuine home grown christmas carols in Australia. I can’t remember singing any xmas carosl of recent times, or distant past, that could be described as carols.

    As much as people might remember songs sung at school, the fact that they didn’t ‘take’ clearly shows them not to have made the grade.

    So is ‘Gravy’ our only xmas carol? Maybe.

    Sorry though, busy now, have to go count how many angels on the head of this here pin!

  2. Perhaps the main fault of Ben Anderson’s thoughtful piece on Paul Kelly’s “How to make gravy” is to use the word “carol”, and to suggest it is it is a one-of-its-kind in the Australian canon. It is clearly not the case. As many others have commented, there are many Australian songs over at least a century that are both Australian, and “carols”.

    Carols, for better or worse, are songs that express joy and hope, and are very much part of Christmas, and are often associated with the patterns of hymns (though obviously “Six white boomers” and “Santa Claus never made it to Darwin” are a long way from hymns!).

    There are nevertheless traditions of music emblematic of particular times of the year—both sacred and profane—that can be intensely moving, but which are hardly “carols”, nor intended to be so. Don’t forget one of Kelly’s greatest songs is about an archetypal event that occurs each Boxing Day in Melbourne—a song that also evokes hope amidst possible tragedy such as drought and hardship.

    Yes, Kelly’s “How to make gravy is a great song”, but was never a Christmas carol per se–never the stuff of end of year primary school concerts, for example.

    That it should be honoured as a wonderful song, and played at this time of year, is obvious (and I would suggest compulsory). It is a million miles ahead of the Christmas muzak dross we are otherwise subjected to. Just as we should also be listening to “By the bowler’s arm”. That should probably also be compulsory.

  3. I love the Australian Carols mentioned in previous posts, The Carol of the Birds, The Three Drovers etc and have fond memories of listening to them growing up. Some are uniquely Australian, while some are like the The Three Drovers which is the Australian version of We Three Kings, which is the premise of Ben’s article. I enjoyed your article Ben, and the thought provoking comments as well!

  4. I’m a huge Paul Kelly fan living in Scotland. I insist on my favourite radio show playing ‘Gravy’ at least once throughout this interminably long season. While very shop is belting out the monotonous likes of jingle bells, I wear my ipod and listen to what I want to listen to. This means I don’t have to put on a painted smile as I queue.

  5. How to Make Gravy – the only Australian Christmas carol? How very Gen Y of you to ignore over a hundred years of Australian carols (secular and religious) that were written before you were born.

  6. I neglected to include in my list one Australian Christmas composition that really connects with the Australian landscape: Bright Stars by Stephen Leek

    1. My thoughts too bringing back a distant childhood at our home. But Rolf is probably not recommendable at this time (surely it couldn’t be ignorance from the author…).

      Or is it because it is kitsch and not in a way designated cool by the smugerati?

      But very nice that Paul Kelly appears to be designated cool by at least one. For a long time he has been designated uncool.

      ‘How to make gravy’ is a very good song, but still slightly mawkish. Or perhaps that is appropriate for a man contemplating his idiocy in stuffing up and missing Christmas? Anyway, I won’t be singing it.

      I disagree that it is the sense of loneliness that makes it Australian – that is universal – but the vernacular. And there is nothing wrong with that…

      1. Loneliness is universal, spot on. UK and US soldiers in Afghanistan, etc. Anderson makes far too much of the tyranny of distance. The Oz flavour comes from the “100 degrees”, the “bros from Qld”, etc.
        I googled “Junior Murvin”. Reggae singer, first album- “Police and Thieves”.
        Great example of another layer inserted into a song.
        Listen to the song carefully, and notice how the words match the melody.
        Brilliant songwriting.

  7. perhaps these suggestions are not as “academic” but have a listen to
    “The Carol of the Birds” if you can find it. I had to sing it in the choir in year 3 at school. Currawongs, Brolgas and the repeat of an Aboriginal word “meaning” welcome. Its more of an actual “carol” than your “how to make gravy”, “white wine in the sun.. (both great songs mind you.
    And at the risk of of rolling your collective eyes – swallow a sense of humour and listen to “Christmas Photo” by JOhn Williamson (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctvh9GVckTE ) . Forget “loneliness” and stereotypes of a distant land. In reality, most of us have just what we need right here and this song is a celebration of that. Wouldn’t have it any other way.

  8. Nice article. But it skips over christmas songs that are neither imported, not kitsch Australiana. Many of which have just fallen out of current musical tastes. For example, “Santa never made it to Darwin” by Bill Cate and Boyd Robertson. (Admittedly Kiwis, but the song is definitely Australian.)

  9. How to Make Gravy is an all year Christmas “special” in our place.

    We are actually planning a White Christmas this year for the first time (I’m 43) and I reckon I might have to make sure we have this song. While I’m keen to see how Christmas is “supposed” to look I reckon I’m going to missbeing in a singlet peeling prawns, blowing the froth off a couple and playing cricket in the street with 30+ degrees.

    I really liked your post.Well done.

  10. This article came to me by a meandering path and I am so glad it did because it touches a subject close to my heart, Christmas music (or holiday music).

    I have always harboured a desire to record an original Christmas song and I consider How to Make Gravy one of the great compositions in that genre.

    I invite you to glance at my completely different original Christmas composition created this year with Melbourne harmony group The Pacific Belles.

    I am selling this song internationally with all profits going to Blue September, raising funds and awareness for cancers in men.

    Video of the song here: http://www.youtube.com/AlanFletcherVEVO

    Regards Alan Fletcher

  11. Margaret Sutherland’s Company of Carols? (especially Boy We Follow A Star)?
    Christopher Willcock’s Southern Star?
    Paul Paviour’s Merry Makers Carol?
    Colin Brumby’s The Spirit of Christmas?

    just for starters

    there’s plenty if you’re willing to look past what’s available at JB Hi Fi

  12. “How to make gravy” is a truly marvellous and very Australian song deserving to be better know. For me it evokes the deep wistfulness and memory of times when, for reasons of cost and distance, I spent Christmas in far flung parts of Australia away from my family. Thanks for your story,

  13. Colin Buchanan’s version of Jingle Bells is a start;

    also Dave Steel from “The Hardest Part”
    Everybody’s singing songs about snow…Christ it’s 30 degrees outside

  14. In thr 70s my girls sang in treble voices about brolgas dancing out on th plain, orana to Christmas day. Where is that carol now? Are primary children still singing it? if not why not?

    1. I don’t know if they are still singing them in primary school or not, but my choir is still singing them when we perform carols again this year. Carol of the Birds, The Three Drovers, Deck the Halls with bits of Wattle [Fa la la la la etc ] all a Capella in four part harmony. I’m going to google others mentioned in the replies to see if I can find more!
      I can’t remember the title of the other one I learned in primary school 50 years ago; but I still remember the words and the tune…
      The north wind is tossing the leaves
      The red dust is over the town
      The sparrows are under the eaves
      and the grass in the paddocks is brown.
      As we lift up our voice and sing to the Christ-child the heavenly King.

      It’s a pity when you google ‘how to make gravy’you find Ben Anderson’s ignorant article immediately but you must create an account to read the replies which are much more illuminating. We must be creating a woeful image of Australians for the international scene.

  15. How can you overlook John Wheeler and William James’ collection of Christmas songs: The three drovers, The silver stars are in the sky, Carol of the birds, Christmas Bush for his adorning etc? Nothing evokes a hot Christmas Day more than that collection.

  16. What a serious musical unawareness this author shows amidst his drive to be unremittingly “clever” in his writing. When you don’t have much serious knowledge, it’s best not to let your fingers walk across the keyboard.

    1. That’s the Christmas spirit, John. Let’s not make a few suggestions, let’s just abuse the author.

      Whether you’re fully informed Ben, or not, I enjoyed the premise. Merry Christmas.

    2. Thank you John for taking time out of your very busy schedule to bless us with this enlightening comment.

      How foolish of the author to attempt to write anything without first checking his facts with you. He obviously won’t make the same mistake twice.

  17. Whilst “How to make gravy” is a year round favourite in my house, Tim Minchin’s “white wine in the sun” is another that is worthy of consideration for Christmas Day… Although I recall some individuals found it to be a bit too provocative.

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