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.