In 2014, Christmas day will be celebrated on Thursday December 25. Like most countries, Australia recognises Christmas as a public holiday. This annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ has been observed and celebrated for hundreds of years around the world.
While historians estimate the year of Christ’s birth to be somewhere between 2 and 7 BC, no one can pinpoint the exact month and day. Meanwhile, the Bible does provide other specific details deemed more important. According to the Holy Scriptures, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary inside a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, and surrounded by farm animals. Upon hearing the news of the young Messiah’s birth and led by the Star of Bethlehem, a few wise men came to visit the newborn bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. To this day, Christians and non-Christians carry on the tradition of gift-giving during this special holiday season.
In Australia, Christmastime (or the Season of Advent) is also the weeks and months leading up to Christmas which, over the last century, have become a season of family holidays, shopping for food and presents, and the sending of cards. For retailers it is the boom season.
Christmas in Australia is a bit of a curiosity. The country is in the southern hemisphere meaning that 25th December falls in mid-summer, rather than in mid-winter like in Europe, the UK and the USA. So it is not unusual for shop windows to be full of toys and displays that are covered with fake snow spray and for there to be icicles in the windows, even if it is sweltering outside.
The insides of homes are decorated with decorations during December, usually with a pine tree covered in trinkets, tinsel and fairy lights in red, green and gold, and often with a small nativity scene under the tree or on a coffee table. And on the outside, many homes are transformed with amazing displays of light and colour.
Traditionally, Christmas lunch is a gathering of large family groups who eat roast turkey, ham and vegetables and finish the meal with hot plum pudding, fruit mince tarts and cream or custard. But many Australian families now opt for the more comfortable means of cooking in hot weather – the Aussie BBQ with various meats, seafoods and salads. More likely than not, carols play somewhere in the house throughout the day.
Key Christmas highlights:
Carols by Candlelight
This is a favourite Australian tradition that began somewhere around 1938. These spectacular events are held every year during the week before Christmas Day and were founded by Norman Banks. Story has it that Banks passed by a window lit by candlelight on his way home one Christmas Eve. Through the glow, he saw elderly women sitting in a room and singing along to “Away in a Manger,” which was playing on the radio. This prompted him to wonder how many people spent their holidays alone and so he organized a public sing-a-long of Christmas carols with participants holding a single candle. Now, multitudes of people gather in their respective towns and cities at public parks, music halls and stadiums to sing Christmas carols while holding candles. The cities of Melbourne and Sydney even host a huge stage event, billing renowned entertainers. Carols by Candlelight events are broadcast live on television and radio across the country as well as Southeast Asia and New Zealand. The song “Christmas Lullaby” by Olivia Newton-John and Manheim Steamroller is a beloved perennial.
Christmas has not always been such a joyous occasion for some Australians. The holiday was once overshadowed by a very dark period when a massive storm named Cyclone Tracy struck the tropical city of Darwin from Christmas Eve into Christmas Day in 1974. There were nearly 100 confirmed deaths with 15 missing at sea and presumed dead. Approximately 70 percent of the town was destroyed, leaving over 20,000 devastated and homeless. Nevertheless, inspiration came from such great tragedy. The song “Santa Never Made It into Darwin,” penned by pop duo William “Bill” Cate and William “Boyd” Robinson, was released as a fundraiser to provide relief for the people of Darwin. The song won APRA Song of the Year at the 1976 Country Music Awards of Australia and is still sung at Carols by Candlelight concert events as a tribute and reminder.
Christmas Church Services
Perhaps the most significant celebrations are the Christmas worship services held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. According to the Census Bureau, Christianity is the largest Australian religion. Christmas, along with Easter, attracts the most church attendance. Congregants come together to pray, sing and hear the story of Jesus Christ and His message of hope and redemption. For Christians this is the true meaning of Christmas. Some churches throughout Australia begin services around 11:00 p.m. or close to midnight on Christmas Eve, leading into Christmas morning.
Santa’s Appearance on Lake Macquarie
Naturally, kids are excited about Christmas. For them, it is the commercial aspect (toys) that is the most appealing. Aside from the usual posing on Santa’s knee at the shopping malls, there is another special place in NSW where children can see their favourite toymaker. Every Christmas Eve, jolly old St. Nick travels along the great Lake Macquarie on the famous Wangi Queen Show Boat as the ferry’s loud speaker belts out Christmas carols. Children can hardly contain themselves once he makes a pit stop at each jetty along the shoreline to unload his bag of goodies. Later that evening inside their homes, dozens of cheerful children will leave a carrot for Santa’s reindeer (or boomers) while the parents sometimes gift him with sherry or beer, and a piece of mince pie.
The North Pole native’s other alias are: Saint Nicholas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle. Known for his long, white beard, horn-rimmed spectacles and wide girth, Santa Claus is always seen wearing a red jacket and trousers, cuffed in white fury material. Australia’s version of his dress may be slightly cooler given the weather. The average Christian prefers to observe Christmas in honor of the birth of Jesus Christ rather than for the commercialism Santa Claus represents.
The day after Christmas is called “Boxing Day.” Traditionally it was a day when workers received a “Christmas box” from their employers. Contrary to its name, there are no big boxing events taking place on this federal public holiday. Instead, most Australians cozy up to their televisions to watch a cricket match held at the MCG or the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Boxing Day is also considered comparable to the United States’ “Black Friday,” a popular shopping day promising fantastic sales. A poem by John O’Brien and entitled “Tangmalangmaloo” may express how a great many Australians actually feel about Boxing Day. In it, the poem describes what happened when a bishop questioned his class about religion. An excerpt reads as follows:
“And oh, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,
‘That’s good, my boy. Come tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?”
The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew –
‘It’s the day before the races out at Tangmalangmaloo.’”
Everyone Loves a Parade
Santa Claus parades and/or Christmas pageants are universally held throughout the country, featuring themed floats and marching bands. However, the grand Christmas parades take place in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney.
The Myer Christmas Parade, which is held in Melbourne, is organized by Myer department stores in conjunction with the City of Melbourne and normally draws a crowd of over 40,000 people. The parade starts at Spring Street and ends in front of Myer’s flagship store located on Bourke Street.
Organized in 1933, the Adelaide Christmas Pageant’s humble beginnings included horse drawn floats and only four bands. The pageant has now grown to involve around 63 motorized storybook floats, 10 dancing troupes, 15 bands, clowns and around 1700 performers. One year, the Adelaide Christmas Pageant scored a Guinness Book of World Record for the largest collection of people wearing red noses.