Going to sleep on Christmas Eve was difficult. As a child, growing up in Newcastle, Australia, in the 1960s and 1970s, I was unconsciously witnessing great changes in Australian “culture”. The introduction and spread of television, consumer credit and the optimistic belief that increasing prosperity was a national birthright made for bright, shiny Christmases full of exciting material presents. Toys and games, big, brightly illustrated books, dragster pushbikes, Lego sets and endless supplies of sweet foods arrived with December 25, punctuating the long hot summer holiday like the bright star on the top of the tinsel tree in the corner of the loungeroom.
Ours was not a religious family, apart from my grandmother, who was one of those stoic, old-fashioned Christians who would have been sickened, I believe, by today’s dominant prosperity gospel. But my parents never discussed religion and only went to church for weddings and funerals. At school I got my fill of Christmas nativity scenes, and Sunday School lessons in my early years cemented the idea that the hope of humanity might have visited the world through a lowly born child who brought a message of love and peace, for which he was murdered by the state, with the connivance of organised religion.
I remember, with some fondness, efforts on the part of the state schools I attended to promote a secular sense of a uniquely Australian Christmas, along with carols about bushland and hot days and red sunsets and indigenous imagery. An Antipodean “Jul”, with less baby-in-a-manger and more end of year thankfulness for the fine land in which we lived and resonant wishes for peace and goodwill. It was a brave and lovely attempt, but I’m not sure where it led, if anywhere at all.
The idea of Santa Claus teased children like me. A magical representative of a benevolent and all-knowing authority, he was always watching, always judging, always preparing just rewards for the worthy. I couldn’t work it out. He wasn’t real, or was he? I wasn’t quite sure, at least until the year my brother and I put the matter beyond doubt by climbing up and looking in the top of my parents’ wardrobe before Christmas Day and seeing the bright largesse hidden away, awaiting its unveiling.
Until then, Christmas Eve was near-unbearable. Of course it was always hot and steamy, in those days, and I slept in pyjama shorts and not even a top sheet. Sleep didn’t come easily, and the rumour that Santa Claus wouldn’t visit a house where children were awake was a burdensome torment.
When the morning came my brother and I were up with the dawn, bounding down the stairs to witness the colourful avalanche of gifts piled under the tree, then back up to awaken our bleary-eyed parents who would slowly make their way to the kitchen and the coffee percolator before permitting the onslaught of unwrapping to begin. They were years of plenty, to be sure, and much unlike the Christmases of my parents, neither of whom came from wealthy families and both of whose parents’ were indelibly marked by war and economic depression. But that was unknown to us: children of the Great Prosperity, before the one percent started to take back all it had reluctantly been forced to share in the angry aftermath of World War 2.
It’s different now, although on the surface it may look much the same. The 21st Century is, for the middle classes, the Great Unravelling, where the fabric of social safety nets and contracts alike is shredded and fed back up the line to its restless, cruel and hungry traditional owners. The glitz and sentimentality we knew in the 1960s and 1970s is with us still, but the optimism is harder to evoke. That’s change, isn’t it? The pendulum swings back and forth over the decades, sometimes giving, sometimes taking.
Many people have said that the modern Australian Christmas is all about children, and I believe there is much truth in that. As a parent I loved sharing Christmas with our three children, reliving through their reactions some of the joy of my own Christmases past.
In 2003, when I was editing and writing for The Newcastle Herald’s Weekender magazine, it occurred to me to put together a feature article about Christmas in every decade of the 20th Century, as seen through the eyes and memories of just one person for each chosen decade. It was a nice exercise, and I think some of its vignettes are worth preserving. With that in mind, here is what those people told me.
AT 103 years old, Mary Sibley’s memory reached back to Australia’s Federation. One of nine children in her family, she grew up on a property near Seaham where her father raised dairy cattle and grew grapes for winemaking. Mary recalled gathering young gum tree branches around Christmas time and tying them to the posts of the verandah that surrounded the homestead.
The family went to Catholic Mass on Christmas Eve in their horse-drawn sulky. Mary’s father, a marine engineer, used to play his violin to the children.
“We went to bed early so we wouldn’t catch Santa,” Mary laughed. When he did come, Santa left dolls, lollies and some item of clothing for Mary.
A really big Christmas dinner was hosted at the property, with friends and relations coming from miles around to taste her mother’s huge Christmas cake and to sample some of the port wines and clarets which her grandfather made on the farm. There was always baked chicken and a very large plum pudding with white brandy sauce, in which were embedded threepences for the children to find.
Mary remembered Dark Brothers shop at Clarencetown decorated for the season and she recalled taking the steamer down the river to Newcastle with her family on New Year’s Eve.
Her most enduring memory of Christmas was this rhyme: “Christ the Lord was born today, that’s what men and angels say”.
WHEN Bruce Campbell’s Uncle Ern stopped by at the NSW town of Cobar to say goodbye to his relatives he was wearing “soldier clothes”, recalled Bruce, who was just four years old at the time. “I asked my father why Uncle Ern was dressed like that, but he just told me I was too young to understand.”
Bruce’s memories of Christmas were mainly of big community gatherings in the towns of western NSW. “People came from hundreds of miles around at Christmas time. They came on sulkies, on foot and by any means they could arrange to be there. Christmas Eve is probably best forgotten due to the alcoholic overindulgence of many of the menfolk. The pubs would be crowded and the police would try to be cooperative unless the fighting got too fierce. Next day of course many of the menfolk would be missing, and the women tended to run the show. What I remember is the way the people all met up and sang, ate and had a joyous time together,” he recalled. “The party finished up in the early hours when I couldn’t keep my young eyes open any longer and I fell asleep in a corner somewhere.”
Bruce said there was always some man, well-known to adults but unknown to children, who played the part of Santa Claus. Supplied by local storekeepers with lollies and cheap trinkets this character would “very earnestly assure each child that they would be well looked after”. “I used to think what a marvellous thing it was to meet this person and it wasn’t until I’d moved around a few towns that I noticed Santa’s body shape changing and put two and two together.”
Bruce said his favourite presents were not the paper trumpets and so forth that he found in his stocking, but the rare sweets that Christmas brought his way. “I liked bullseyes best. I actually went and hid them all around the place, in birds’ nests and under the house and then I’d make out I’d finished them so I’d be given some more.”
To Bruce’s eyes, Christmas did not reflect the “dire poverty” of much of the countryside. “People were determined to have a good day and the result was a sincere, robust gathering. And what was reassuring was that the wealthier in the community usually managed to find ways to help those who were in trouble. They certainly always made sure there was a little something for every child.”
CHRISTMAS on the Cessnock coalfields of NSW in the 1920s meant two glorious weeks away from work. As often as not, it also meant a trip to Lake Macquarie, on the coast near Newcastle. Hundreds of miners would pull up stumps and head for their makeshift boatsheds on the lake where they’d let their hair down in a communal ritual.
Jim Comerford remembered his first glimpse of the lake when he was fresh from Scotland at the age of 10: “The full moon was lying low over the lake surface and it looked like a sea of molten silver. My brother and I had been taken to the lake in a horse-drawn sulky by a friend of our parents. They had their own boatshed and they treated us like part of their own family,” he told me.
“The next year my mother bought a tent and soon after we got our own boatshed at Scarborough, which is now called Bonnells Bay. The sheds were creosote-painted and we had oil-lamps and tank water. We woke every morning to the smell of frying fish and at night you saw the prawners out on the lake with their lanterns.”
Christmas was not marked by any great religious fervour. “There were some who walked to midnight mass at Morisset, but a lot of the miners were returned servicemen, Gallipoli veterans and so forth, and most of them were embittered and disillusioned with religion.”
There were presents for the children, however, and Christmas lunch was a big affair, with a first-class roast dinner prepared in the primitive camp conditions. Youngsters like Jim were preoccupied with the burning question of whether they’d find threepences or sixpences in the pudding.
“We had a bottle of fizzy drink for each family – that’s all we could afford. But you could tell looking at my father’s face that he’d have liked something other than fizzy drink,” Jim laughed.
For the rest of the break the children swam and played, the teenagers courted and went to the Morisset dances. On Saturday afternoons the men deserted the camp and walked to the pub at Morisset.
“I suppose Christmas and holidays are more sophisticated today, but I doubt they could be more enjoyable,” Jim said.
GROWING up in the Newcastle suburb of Islington in the early 1930s, Dulcie Hartley recalled Christmas as “not a big feature” of life. There were a number of reasons for that.
For a start Dulcie’s father, a bricklayer who had come to Australia from England after World War 1, reacted to what he saw on the battlefields by becoming an agnostic. Secondly, in the midst of the Great Depression there was little money to buy presents.
“Sometimes we’d go up to Nelson Bay and have a picnic in the park,” Dulcie remembered. “For a treat Mum might make a jelly in the park and let it set under a tree in the shade.”
Dulcie recounted an episode that symbolised the disappointing side of Christmas in those tough Depression years:
“When my father was young he had run away to sea and he had learned on the ships how to make things out of wood. This particular year – about 1934 I guess, I was very young – he made me a toy train out of wood and painted it up. He hid it in the laundry and I found it. I was astonished. It was so inappropriate. At different times he’d made me beautiful pieces of doll furniture but for some reason he’d made me a train. Still, he made some kind of effort, I suppose.”
When Dulcie married she found her husband Jack’s family had a greatly different view of Christmas. “It was a bit of a shock. On one hand it was nice to have the family get-together every year but it was so different from what I was used to it was a bit overwhelming,” she said.
Dulcie’s favourite Christmas was sometime in the 1970s when she and Jack just packed up and took off camping by themselves by a stream near Gloucester. “It was idyllic. We went skinny-dipping in the stream and just did as we pleased. I know we hurt some people’s feelings though, and we haven’t been game to do anything like it since. The older I get the more I appreciate the family side of Christmas anyway . . .”
What she never learned to like was the commercialism that surrounds the modern holiday. “I can’t stand all the razzamatazz. I hate the commercial side of it.”
JOHN LE MESSURIER
JOHN Le Messurier remembered the present he got when he was seven years old and living in Dubbo, NSW. It was 1947 – just after the war, and money was hard to find. “We had a cypress pine bomb-shelter in the yard and I still remember our windows being blacked out in case of air raids,” he said.
“My Dad was a labourer on the railways. We lived in a very modest little cottage. We always had pillowcases on the feet of our beds on Christmas night for our presents. They were always just little things but we’d keep them for years.”
One particular year John’s father had made a wheeled toy. It was a sort of cross between a cart and a train, John recalled.
“He had it all painted up and he hid it on the roof of the house, but I was a bit of a climber and I found it. I didn’t know it was meant to be a gift for me. I just thought: ‘Great, this is fun’. Mum and Dad saw me playing with it and took it off me. They painted it up again and changed it a bit and still gave it to me on Christmas morning. I loved it. I didn’t notice it was the same thing I’d found on the roof,” John laughed.
John’s family was Church of England and they used to ride their bikes to the 11pm church service on Christmas Eve. “It was always very hot in Dubbo at that time of year and the grasshoppers used to descend on the town in millions and wipe out the gardens. We used to grow lettuce for Christmas but we’d be lucky to get any.
“We used to kill one of our chickens – my goodness that was a big deal, chicken was a tremendous treat – and Mum used to make honeycomb, so we got a bag of that too. Our Christmas tree was a branch from a peppercorn tree down the yard and we’d stick it in a tub with rocks and decorate it with rings of coloured paper.
“We’d have a pudding with Christmas dinner and we’d buy some cordial. Dad would have a bottle of beer. After dinner it’d be so hot we’d go outside. We had a big old bed we’d put in the shade beside the house and we’d all lie down and go to sleep on it, all five of us.
“At Christmas all our relatives would come over to visit and I put on my red jumper and pretend I was Santa Claus. We had a galah and a sheepdog so they got decorated too.
“One year there was a bloke came to work at the railway depot who had no family in town and who didn’t know anybody so Dad brought him home with us for Christmas lunch. I found a handkerchief that had never been used and I wrapped it up as a present for him. I think he was happy. I was always taught that Christmas was about sharing.”
Looking back, it’s midnight high mass on Christmas Eve at St Mary’s church in Grafton that sticks in Denis Rowe’s memory. It was the 1950s and the Catholic church was overflowing.
“In those days they got enormous crowds to midnight mass but what I remember most was all the nuns. They would come from miles around to sing in the choir at St Mary’s,” Denis recalls. “It was an incredibly powerful experience to hear them all singing together.”
The Rowe family drove to mass. Their car, a 20-year-old A-model Ford, was parked outside the church, packed with luggage for a three-week holiday. As soon as mass was finished they piled into the car and drove down the Pacific Highway to celebrate Christmas with relatives in Newcastle.
“The car’s top speed was 35 miles an hour, whatever that is in today’s language, and it had to be coaxed along. The highway was still gravel in a lot of places,” he says. “We’d turn up in Newcastle about 10am.” The family stayed with Denis’ Uncle Con (short for Cornelius) in New Lambton, but Denis and his brother usually overflowed to his Aunty’s house at Glendale.
“There was a tree and there were presents, but Christmas for us was a refocussing of the family. We were originally from the Hunter Region, but we didn’t get together very often. Christmas lunch was a big affair, with cold cuts, salad, cold pudding, ice cream and jelly. I remember Uncle Con used to stare at the bush opposite and worry about bushfires,” Denis recalls.
The Rowe family would spend about a week in Newcastle, immersing themselves in the salt water of the ocean baths and the culture of the Catholic church at Cardiff, before heading off on a couple of weeks holiday in Canberra, Mittagong or Sydney
Denis’ most memorable Christmas presents included the Enid Blyton books he got in 1954 and which he “immediately read from cover to cover” and (best of all) the tinplate Hornby train set he was given in 1954.
“We lived close to the railway line in Grafton, so railways were a big thing with me.”
IT’S the memory of her Dad, dressed up as Santa, running down the backyard and climbing over the fence on Christmas Day, that comes back to Judy Titchmarsh. “He’d been and taken some presents out of a sack and he jumped the fence to make it seem like it really was Santa Claus,” Judy laughs. “He had me wondering for a little while.”
Judy remembers the excitement of Christmas building throughout December, from the time the Christmas tree was erected. And she remembers carollers in utes cruising the streets and belting out their yuletide tunes.
“I think Christmas for us was much like it is for our children now, but with not anywhere near the number of presents. All I remember about Christmas Eve is that it was a case of early to bed, early to rise.”
Christmas Day was distinguished – apart from presents – by the traditional huge family get-together at her aunt’s house at Waratah. “We had the very traditional menu: roast pork, turkey, ham and pudding. And after we ate we had the traditional afternoon sleep. People crashed out under tables, on the floor, wherever they could find room.”
Judy still has her favourite childhood Christmas present. “It’s a Thumbelina doll. It was a great surprise and I loved it,” she says.
AMONG Amanda Woolley’s most powerful memories of Christmas are the drone of cicadas and the scent of frangipani at her grandmother’s house in Cardiff. “The cicadas were so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think,” she muses.
Christmas was a slow-burning fuse of anticipation that was lit in late November with the Newcastle City Council employees Christmas picnic in Lambton Park. “You had tickets for treats and rides and it was just fabulous.” Then there was the Apex picnic in Speers Point Park, Carols by Candlelight and the ritual of visiting every Santa in every shopping centre.
“My Mum used to play carols on the tape player so loud I’d get embarrassed. On Christmas Eve we had to go to bed early but we’d watch the Christmas shows on TV. Next day we’d be up at the crack of dawn – one year it was 2am – dragging our sacks into our parents’ bedroom.”
Amanda and her sisters were certain Santa had been. How else could you explain the white powder “snow” on the downstairs tiled floor? And the toothmarks in the carrots that had been left out for the reindeer?
“We’d load up the car and go and catch up with our cousins. The phone would be busy all the day with relatives ringing up. Christmas lunch was huge, always cold, with seafood, cold meats and every salad you could think of. After lunch there’d be more presents and then off to another relative’s for tea. The togetherness side of things was very important to us.”
Amanda says her favourite present of all time was her bike, which had “two funny round marks in the seat where I was sure Santa had put his drinks”.
“Christmas was all about the joy of being a kid without a care in the world.”
DANIEL Quinn – born in 1978, the runner-up in a trifecta of brothers separated by six years – remembers the Christmas Days of his early childhood as a blur of activity with a restless snooze in the stifling heat.
He would be up with his “partners in crime”, eldest brother Ben and youngest Jay, at the crack of dawn to inspect the front verandah of the family’s weatherboard Telarah home. His mission was one of imagination unspoiled: to make sure Santa had swilled the beer and the reindeers had eaten the carrots left by his father, Mick, and mother, Glenise.
The Quinns lived in one of four homes between two train lines in the heart of East Greta Junction, a one-time thriving transport hub that had become a sleepy backwater for the raising of families.
“When Santa was still, you know … we’d be up early, giving Mum and Dad no peace until they got up to look at the empty beer glass and chewed carrots,” Daniel recalls. “Then us boys would attack the presents hell for leather until the big back room, a renovated shed, was an absolute mess. Dad would always have something for Mum to open last.”
Ignoring Glenise’s weak demand to sit down and finish breakfast, Daniel would lead the charge down to “Nan and Pop’s place”. “Nan and Pop Bullen and our Aunty Robin and Uncle Keith lived next door to each other, across the bridge near our place. They were only four houses away, and we were constantly running between our place and theirs,” he says.
“After that we would race around the neighbourhood in our new singlets and boardshorts to see how all the other kids had fared with the presents. Then we’d have a big lunch with one side of the family and dinner with the other side.”
Daniel remembers the frustrating period in the middle of the day when “all the parents in Telarah went back to bed and left the kids to entertain themselves”.
“Most Christmas Days I can remember were stinking hot, and until we got a pool when I was about 10 it wasn’t much fun being outside,” he says.
ERIN AND KATHY LEAN
IT was when she noticed that the handwriting on her Christmas gift tags was her mother’s that Erin Lean began to suspect there was no Santa Claus. “Then a girl I knew told me Santa had died 200 years ago,” Erin remembers.
“But what settled it was one Christmas Eve I got up to have a drink and I saw Mum and Dad wrapping up a big boogie board that was supposed to be coming from Santa.” Erin, 19, says she was a bit upset at the time, but that quickly passed.
For Erin and her younger sister Kathy, December began with the ritual of putting up and decorating the tree. “We always had one of those calendars where you eat a chocolate every day.”
When Christmas Eve came the family would go to their grandmother’s for a special dinner and would watch Christmas television programmes. “There was a Christmas tree with presents at Nan’s as well as at home and we always opened one present on Christmas Eve before we went home.”
Once back at home Erin and Kathy had to put out the bucket of water and some carrots for Santa’s reindeer.
In later years their Nan would come and stay with them, sleeping in the girls’ room. “She used to wake us up in the morning and tell us: ‘I think Santa’s been’. We’d go out to the tree and the whole room would be full of presents.”
Erin’s favourite Christmas was about 1990 – the year her father made the girls a stove and a fridge for their cubby house. “They were painted up and fantastic. Just the best present,” Erin says.
Christmas Day started with a flurry of present-opening, followed by a morning of playing with new toys. Christmas lunch followed, usually a cold feast of seafood and ham. The afternoon brought visiting relatives and – more presents.
“I think Christmas is best when you’re very young,” says Erin. “The anticipation is great and your presents are mostly surprises.”