There’s nothing so pathetic as the sight of a traditional Santa Claus, in fleecy robe, hat & fake beard, charity bell-ringing in Australia at Christmas. Sun & sidewalks radiate blazing summer heat, as Trad-Santa’s nylon beard & red velour hat stick to his sweat-soaked forehead. His face is red as he feebly swings his bell, but it’s not the rosy red glow of Northern Santa, but sunburn & imminent heat stroke. Trad-Santa looks so uncomfortable, with that skunk stripe of sweat soaked through the back of his plush red suit, that I throw money into his charity-bucket out of sympathy for him, rather than the orphans.
Growing up in Australia, Christmas seemed weird to me, even as a child. The seasonal trimmings of the holiday don’t match our environment. In the southern summer, Christmas displays show northern hemisphere winter trappings of reindeer & snow, as Australians have backyard BBQs while serenaded by cicadas. Seasonal tunes sing of sleigh bells, & chestnuts roasting on open fires, as we roast in blazing summer sun.
Jolly Christmas traditions were no doubt therapeutic where they began, in the dour depths of a North European winter. However, Christmas at the bottom of the world is celebrated in the middle of summer vacation. We’re already having fun, and there’s no need for seasonal cheer. Hence northern Christmas traditions are sometimes tweaked in Australia. Some prefer to celebrate Christmas in July, and pragmatic summer Santas wear flip-flops and boardshorts rather than the sweaty red rig.
According to Mum, I never believed in Santa Claus even as a small child (much to her great disappointment). She’d eventually get to play the charade with her later children, but supposedly I never bought into it, even when very small. I can certainly never remember a time when I believed in Santa, but have memories of aunts & uncles trying very hard to convince me that he was indeed real. Warning that there’d be no presents if I stayed up late to verify my suspicions, etc.
The first encounter I remember with a flesh & blood Santa Claus was with one that arrived via helicopter at a footy oval. There was a great throng of excited children & parents gathered around as Santa alighted from the chopper with his big swag o’ prezzies. It was a magnificent entrance, but sadly not as much showmanship had been put into Santa’s costume. From my low angle, close to the ground, I could clearly see thick BLACK hair under Santa’s poorly applied fake beard. I was the shrill-voiced child who pointed out this shonkiness this out to everybody else. “Santa” shot me a scathing look that said, “If I was the real Santa there’d be reindeer pellets in your stocking for sure.”
A Christmas tradition in my family was Dad grumbling about Christmas itself, in tirades against crass merchandising. For several years, I helped Dad procure & decorate splendid eucalypts as Baker Family Christmas trees, instead of the standard pine model. Dad definitely liked the Australian native tree slant on a northern tradition. Plus, driving out into the bush around town to nick a gum tree didn’t cost him any money (take that, Xmas Merchandising Machine™.) After the morning kerfuffle of opening prezzies, we often had Christmas lunch outside, at a table under the crab apple tree in our backyard. Most Christmases, my family would then visit Grandma & Pop in Dad’s childhood home, where gifts were exchanged with grandparents, cousins, aunts & uncles.
One year though, we played host to members of the broader clan in the ‘good room’ – the poshest part of our house. This required two tables, one for adults and another for children, where sulky ‘tween me was relegated. I escaped the kiddie table however, when Pop decided to hang with us kids after lunch, and I seized the chance to sit in his seat instead. I’d finally gotten into an exclusive club – THE GROWNUP TABLE. Only marred by those noisy children, trolling for After Dinner Mints when the meal was over.. I haughtily turned my attention to the adults, and tried to follow their conversation..
But the grownup chitchat wasn’t as scintillating as I’d expected.. Plus, it was suddenly strangely peaceful.. ‘Where are the kids? Hmmm..’ I found them in their bedroom, utterly silent, apart from occasional moaning. When I asked what was up, Rob feebly said “The back of my eyeballs hurt.” Mystified, I went back to the good room, where adults relaxed with their cigarettes, beer & port, and reported that the kids had the flu. “Ah yes, The Irish flu..” said Uncle Mike, to chuckles from Pop, who admitted he might have shown them how to make a “shandy or two”.
The little hands that had combed through post-lunch dining table remains weren’t only looking for lollies and Christmas chocolates, but dregs of beer, sherry & port too. Applying new found knowledge in making moonshine.. The adults enjoyed the rare joys of a quiet Christmas Day. While I was left with the sneaking impression that the kiddie table might have been the fun place to be that year.
Years later, in response to Dad’s annual harangues about the oppression of programmed generosity & his obligation to buy stuff, there was a Baker family Christmas where everyone made presents for each other instead. It’s legendary amongst my siblings, but I was overseas by that point, and missed it. Apparently Dad applied himself with gusto, making some truly creative gifts (a mouse made from half a coconut shell was a highlight). This didn’t become a family tradition, sadly. Making gifts by hand requires time, and as our clan grew bigger, gift-making would’ve been a year-around event (Lord knows how Santa’s elves manage it, eh?)
In later years, as his offspring multiplied, even Dad became more comfortable with the Christmas celebration. He put his bah humbugs to the side, and enjoyed playing Santa in an inflatable fat-suit I bought him (the best fun per dollar 8 bucks I ever spent). As for me, I came to see that Santa Claus is indeed the patron saint of capitalist materialism. Because Santa’s gospel is – good people get stuff, and if you don’t get any stuff it’s coz you’re BAD. Something about that philosophy just doesn’t sit right with me.. (so I’m very much my father’s son after all). Let’s downplay the emphasis on stuff, and just enjoy loving each other instead.
Have a Happy Christmas, everybody!