When I first learnt that when the northern hemisphere was in deepest darkest winter, the southern hemisphere was in the height of summer, I remember feeling intrigued but also a little concerned for those dwelling south of the equator, because, ‘how would it feel like Christmas?’
Well, twenty years later I got to find out.
I left my UK winters behind and set up home in Sydney where I have spent most of my Christmases since. Having mostly celebrated with friends also from overseas, even after a decade I still find myself not really knowing what Christmas is supposed to feel like in this country. So, I found myself posing this question to a number of my favourite Facebook groups, full of both Australians and people originally from overseas, who kindly gave me their insights on the matter.
Now, I have to say that when I was initially thinking about this blog I was going to compare how we celebrated Christmas in each hemisphere – focussing on the differences. And there are plenty of differences. Some real but many assumed, such as whether Australians prefer seafood to a traditional roast dinner, opting for pav over pud, and even giving Santa a cold one on Christmas Eve rather than a port or sherry. The reason I say assumed is that people sometimes forget how multicultural Australia is. As a result, many families mix up the traditions so often a little bit of ‘Christmas from around the world’ sneaks in alongside the typical seafood and sun cliché of the Aussie crimbo.
Obviously the hotter climate here makes lighter meals and alfresco dining more appealing, and if Santa really prefers a Pure Blonde to a Harvey’s Bristol Cream so be it. What did become clear was that Christmas, regardless of which hemisphere you’re spending it in, is really about three things. Well, four if you are a Christian but we’ll focus on just the three.
- a little touch of magic.
Yes, magic! What I’ve come to realise is that it’s winter that feels magical to me at Christmas time in the northern hemisphere – all the more so when it snows. I feel the exact sense of magic in the winter here, especially in the Blue Mountains (where it really does get cold) during the winter festival. If anything, celebrating the ebb and flow of the seasons seems more magical to me than the modern day Christmas that the advertising world has conditioned us into believing. Let’s remember that winter solstice festivities date a long time prior to the arrival of Santa Claus and his elves.
But conversely, there is summer magic in the air in the run up to Christmas in Australia which this comment captured perfectly.
“Can’t you all feel that Christmas is coming? The Jacarandas are blooming, the cicadas have started roaring, stone fruit season is just around the corner. The delights of juicy nectarines and peaches. Cherries to have seed spitting competitions with. Running under the sprinkler. The Christmas bushes ready to burst. Carols by Candlelight.
Prawns for Christmas lunch. Cold ham off the bone. Seeing all the kids outside on Christmas Day playing with their bikes, scooters and water pistols.
This is what feels like Christmas to me. I think people just don’t notice half of that or it isn’t sold to them.”
Summer magic is all well and good but it still doesn’t make it feel like Christmas.
Yes, I know… For many people, including those who have called Australia home for years (and including me), Christmas here ‘just doesn’t feel like Christmas’.
Somehow the Christmas decorations and the twinkling lights feel a lot more purposeful in the short, cold winter days.
Some of the British people who participated in my research told me that of all things they miss most, it’s the good old pub – the endless Christmas drinks, leaving work early and the cheesy Christmas hits on repeat.
Interestingly one Irish lady told me that when she took her Australian husband for a family Christmas back home, he complained about putting on weight, having spent all that time eating and drinking in the pub! I guess with all those winter layers, a bit of spare padding over the festive season can go unnoticed – but here in the summer it’s there for all to see!
But do you know what else…
Even some Australians don’t feel like an Australian Christmas feels like Christmas.
Probably the most surprising thing to come out of my research was learning that so many Australians feel that Christmas in Australia ‘doesn’t feel like Christmas’. Who is to blame for this: generations of families arriving from the northern hemisphere bringing their winter Christmas traditions? Is it the media? – I can’t think of a single Christmas movie based in the southern hemisphere. Is it the advertising world? Wasn’t the notion of Santa Claus being dressed in red and white invented by Coca Cola?
I think to a certain extent we are conditioned to believe that Christmas must mean snow. Certainly in the UK it’s a bonus if we have a white Christmas. More often it’s just grey and a bit chilly.
I was also interested to know whether Australians spending Christmas overseas felt homesick, just as many living away from home in Australia do at that time of year. The answer was a resounding no: Christmas in the northern hemisphere felt the way Christmas is ‘supposed to feel’, especially for those who had experienced ‘Christmasy’ Christmases in northern Europe or in the mountains.
Quite possibly the novelty of experiencing a white, or at least a cold, Christmas outweighed most of the potential homesickness. Or maybe it was knowing that that their time away from home was going to be short-lived – often those moving to Australia do so with a more permanent mindset and thus at can be harder to face differences.
Back to 1. Family – without them the homesickness is real
For those of us in Australia with families overseas, Christmas can definitely be a time for the homesickness to kick in. Knowing your family is all together, seeing other families having a great time together here, and knowing what you are missing out on is enough to make even the most resilient a little sentimental.
This is a real and raw feeling, and often something that doesn’t get easier with time. But I think it goes deeper than homesickness. If anything, it is a stark reminder that you’ve made the decision to cut off your ties back home; that life goes on for your loved ones whether you are there or not; to question whether you’ve made the right choice in moving away; to know that your children are growing up without their grandparents and cousins and that you are denying your parents from having their grandchildren around.
This is certainly the hardest thing about living away for me, and something that chokes me up often. Never is there a more poignant time for these feelings to surface than at Christmas.
It’s a time for reflection and nostalgia
Often those who have moved away have a sense of surprise when things do change back home. It’s as if subconsciously we expect time to stand still when we’re not there. While we are being nostalgic about the Christmases of yesteryear, Christmases back home have since evolved anyway.
Yet to a certain extent people can have similar thoughts around Christmas ‘not feeling Christmasy’ whether or not they have moved away, but simply because time moves on. Families change: older members who may have been real corner stones in defining the magical Christmases of our memories may no longer be with us. Children grow up and new members arrive. The dynamic changes.
Whether in your home country or you have moved away, there is a lot to be said for embracing change and creating new traditions. After all, those will be the lasting magical Christmas memories for our children.
Maybe we are ultimately just craving the magic of Christmas, and the magic of our childhoods. But speaking for myself, having had a magical ‘lull’ in my twenties, I certainly feel the magic of Christmas to have been reignited now that my boys are the scene.
So much to love about Christmas in Australia
To those like me who hail from cooler climes, I agree – Christmas decorations, and fake snow do look out of place here in the heat.
But there is so much to love about Christmas in Australia.
I love that the weather is great and there is so much to do outside. I love the scents in the air, the Jasmine, the trees in full bloom, the bird calls. Ten years on it still feels exotic and magical to me.
I love that it’s a lazy, hazy time of year which I think goes hand in hand with the family time that Christmas is all about; parents often taking time off work to spend with kids, kids enjoying their new outdoor toys straightaway.
Someone made the point that after Christmas we have Australia Day to look forward to while Boxing Day back home is the realisation that there is a lot of winter ahead with not much to break it up.
I also love the idea of ‘Christmas in July’ and enjoy getting rugged up and Christmasy if I feel like it.
The best way to be home away from home
For those away from home though, many people, including myself, do like to inject a sense of their home traditions into their Christmas celebrations.
The common theme seemed to be to surround yourself with people who like to celebrate in a similar way.
I love the approach of a great friend of mine, originally from the UK, who celebrates the best of both worlds: decorating the tree and house with the children, starting the day with bucks fizz, prawns as a starter, doing the roast, but mostly sitting at a big outdoor table all afternoon chatting, eating and being merry, while the kids play to their hearts content in the garden.
She tells me that she loves both Christmas back home and here in Australia for different reasons – I think that’s a really positive way to look at it.
Making it work
When all said and done, the biggest message I’m getting is that Christmas for most people is about spending time with loved ones, regardless of the temperature or the food that goes with it.
While for those of us who have more recently called Australia home, the traditions of brightening the cold dark winter days are parts of Christmas that we miss, I think their absence mostly serve as reminders of who we miss and have chosen to live away from.
Certainly for me I am especially looking forward to Christmas this year because for the first time in ten years my parents are coming to spend it with us. I’m sure it will feel more Christmasy than usual (I can almost taste my mums homemade mince pies!).
It does mean that the rest of my family will have to make do without them. But just this week they are all having an early Christmas celebration together. This is actually something our family has done for a long time: my parents live in the Middle East, and so often orchestrated a Christmas Day (we call it Griffmas) at a time and country to fit in around off peak flight prices, work schedules etc. To me, regardless of the date and location it always felt the way Christmas ‘should feel like’.
I hope that wherever you are, whoever you are with and no matter how far you away from your loved ones, that you have a wonderful and magical Christmas.
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