Christmas in Australia and New Zealand comes in the middle of their summer – no white Christmas for them! Most of the time it is blue skies, bright sunshine and temperatures in the eighties (25 C) and above.
The first official Australian Christmas was celebrated on 25 December 1788 at Sydney Cove by Reverend Johnson. Following the service Arthur Phillips, the Governor, presided over a traditional Christmas meal with his officers ending with a loyal toast to King George III. However, there was no special meal for the convicts – they had to make do with their normal rations of bread.
Preparation for Christmas starts in early December when decorations are put up, including door wreaths, artificial trees and nativity scenes. Christmas cards with designs similar to those found in the UK and US (holly, snow scenes, Dickensian Christmas scenes etc) are sent out to family and friends. In many homes, Christmas cakes and puddings will be baked ready to eat on Christmas Day. In the cities and towns, many shopping centres and stores have their own ‘Santa’ for children to meet.
Because it is so warm at this time, flowers tend to be the main form of decoration, particularly the native Christmas Bush (a plant which has little red flowered leaves) and Christmas Bell. However, some people do have a real tree with lights and decorations, which are put up just before Christmas Eve.
Christmas carols are played throughout the country – traditional songs such as ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’ as well as typically Aussie songs such as ‘Six White Boomers’, ‘The North Wind’ and ‘The Carol of the Birds’. Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ is also popular down under!
‘Carols by Candlelight’ is a tradition which started in 1937. It is held every year on Christmas Eve at the Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne when thousands of people gather to sing their favourite Christmas songs, lighting up the night sky with candles. This is now broadcast throughout the world.
In the run up to Christmas there are many professional and amateur productions of Handel’s Messiah performed throughout country. One version in particular is that presented by Radio Community Chest in Sydney Town Hall – a tradition that has taken place for over 50 years, with proceeds going to those in need. A choir of over 500 is drawn from churches throughout Sydney.
The school summer holidays start a week before Christmas with children being off until after Australia Day on 26 January. This is a time when exams are over and results are eagerly awaited!
Many people will attend the midnight service on Christmas Eve before returning home to wait for Father Christmas/Santa Claus to come and leave presents under tree. Before they go to bed, children leave out a glass of milk or coke for him and some carrots for his reindeer.
Christmas Day is a time for families to get together and exchange gifts before either going to church or having their Christmas lunch. Until recently this would have been a traditional meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, ham, pork and vegetables followed by a flaming Christmas pudding with brandy sauce. However, due to the diversity of cultures within Australia, and the fact that the weather is so hot at this time of year, many people now have cold meat or seafood with salads and it is often taken as a picnic either to the country or to the beach.
In some parts of Australia there is a new tradition beginning to take hold – that of ‘Christmas in July’, which is the coldest month of the year as it is in the middle of their winter. Temperatures are still well above freezing but it is cooler than it is in December! This is when families will gather together and have the traditional Christmas meal together with all the trimmings such as including party hats and streamers.
Boxing Day is a public holiday in Australia and many people either relax and watch the annual Boxing Day Test Match or begin travelling to their holiday destinations. Boxing Day also marks the beginning of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race.