We’re a mixed bag, we Australians. Bulging with groups of people with a diffusion of cultural interests and backgrounds translating into a million different Christmases. So instead of a sweeping generic piece on how Australians celebrate the festive season, I’ll stick to what I know really well and that is how my Australian family celebrates Christmas.
Like many other Australian families, our Christmas table is a fusion of flavors. Thanks to the influence of our multi-cultural population, many of us celebrate Christmas with food from around the world; cool Asian noodle salads, sticky Turkish baklava, English mince pies, Scandinavian inspired cold salmon dishes, tropical fruits and dense puddings all make guest appearances.
And like many families with European heritage (on my Dad’s side, there’s a smattering of Scottish blood; Mum’s side of the family is Danish), mine has held onto some Northern Hemisphere Christmas traditions, ushering in new ones and tailoring them to fit.
The Christmas season in Sydney is sparked off with evening swims at harbor beaches on warm, hazy summer evenings – the water green and the sky pink. Then by walks home, high on the rich smell of gardenias, whose appearance always heralds the beginning of Christmas, pushing the stems of the flowers so the top-heavy blooms wobble in our wake.
In the lead-up to the big event, we pack picnics and sit in parks for carols-by-candlelight. Our al fresco dinner usually consists of anything from honey-soy chicken drumsticks, crusty bread rolls with potato salad, rocket, pear and parmesan salad, thickly sliced ham, honey mustard, cheeses and cold roasted salmon pieces, all washed down with semi-cold beers and sparkling wine from the eskie (cool box). For dessert there’ll be chewy vanilla meringues sandwiched together with cream, accompanied by mango, berry and peach salad soaked in a boozy strawberry sauce.
A few weeks before December 25, we make the Christmas cake. We make it the traditional English kind, not due to any particular ties to the United Kingdom, but because our Australian food culture still hangs on to some traditions of ‘mother-land Britain’ – and the Christmas fruitcake is one of them.
Every year, the same enormous ceramic bowl is filled with soft brown sugar, butter, eggs, flour, nutmeg and ground cinnamon. A couple of days previously, Mum will have filled two big jars with sultanas, crystallised ginger and candied peel and left them in brandy until well and truly inebriated, turning the jar every morning. The drunken fruit goes into the bowl and we take turns to stir the mixture once each, making a wish and stirring only clockwise. Once baked and cooled, the cake is iced. Marzipan rolled out into a 4mm-thick sheet, drapes the cake with a glossy coating of pure white royal icing smothering the lot.
Of the other rituals every family has for their own Christmas, selecting and decorating the tree is a biggie in our books. On a stinking hot week night, we spend an hour or so prowling the local main street. The green grocers each have rows of trees leaning against their windows, bound to traffic posts, creeping onto the shop next door’s space. After critical examination of every tree on offer, The Right Tree, thick enough, aromatic enough and perfectly shaped, goes onto the roof of the car. We then buy a couple of boxes of mangoes and go home to decorate. After which, there’s a bulging Christmas tree in the center of the living room, drooping with decorations and criss-crossed with Danish flags.
It’s now Christmas Eveand the day has been fraught with preparations. It’s hot,you know, and there are 30 people coming to dinner, and we need the boys to help but they’re still at the beach, and if the rain doesn’t stop we’ll have to pull the tables off the verandah and squeeze everybody into the living room, and …
In a full-hearted nod to the Danish element of the family, we make a fuss out of Christmas Eve. Presents are opened, carols sung and relatives roll in. Christmas Eve dinner used to be a very formal affair, black tie and best frocks. But a few years ago, somebody decided that it was just too hot to wear tuxedoes and since we’ve gone a bit more casual, so has the food.
What was always a heavy roast with mountains of vegetables, finished off with a flaming pudding, is now a cooler, more appropriate affair. But we still begin with rice pudding. This is, and always has been, Gran’s (Mum’s mum) domain. Every year she arrives with her mottled brown rice cooker, plugs it in and produces from it, her creamy, sweet concoction. We eat it with nobs of butter and lots of cinnamon sugar and it’s so good. If you’re thinking that it’s fairly odd to begin a meal with rice pudding, I suppose it is, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. And besides, we only really eat it for the nut. Only Gran is allowed to serve the pudding, and when she does, she obliquely drops a small blanched almond into one bowl (who will it be?). The idea is, if you get the nut not to tell anybody. To keep it there, suck it into the back corner of your mouth, do your best to talk normally but whatever you do, don’t give the game up. Once the plates are cleared, Dad stands up and presents a box of chocolates to the lucky nutter.
Every year the main course is a bit different. Last year was the best: balsamic marinated chicken barbecued with lime halves, all caramelized and tangy. There was sticky Asian tomato relish, spicy and spiked with green coriander, steamed new potatoes and big wet salads on the side. For pudding, a soft, moist chocolate torte with vanilla ice cream and slices of the aforementioned Christmas fruit cake.
Dinner is served on a long table running down the length of the verandah and it’s always stinking hot even when the sun’s gone down. Every one gets nicely sizzled, and we’re all wearing those crepe hats that either stick to your sweaty forehead or slip down over your eyes as you try to read the jokes from the crackers.
Christmas morning kicks off back at the beach, where my Dad reckons he is ‘closer to God’. At this time of year, Sydney Harbour’s famous King tides push the water right up over the sand so it laps and splashes the pathway. We jump, in swim out to the shark nets, and run back to the house where, with coffee, toast piled with thickly sliced ham and mango, all the doors open, our wet bottoms on the nice living room couches, we open presents.
Christmas lunch is always, always the same. Everyone seated at two tables, one for adults and one for kids. Quite when one becomes an adult in this family I’ll never know. I used to think it was when you had kids, but plenty of my cousins have tried that chestnut and here they are, still on the kids’ table, with their kids.
And just as I’m not entirely sure of the origins of rice pudding for starters on Christmas Eve, I’ve no idea why we kick off Christmas lunch with little bowls of grapefruit segments. Anyway – it’s refreshing. Then despite the weather, we embark on the full, traditional European Christmas lunch – roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, fruit jellies, all sorts of vegetables boiled, peeled, mashed, roasted – you name it.
I’m aware that many Australian families have sensible, cold seafood lunches. Friends tell me of enormous glistening platters of pink prawns, lobsters full of sweet moist flesh and green alleys of crispy cool salads. It makes sense. And with the extended family diversifying, growing and spreading out – this is the direction we’re going in too. Soon we’ll join the thousands who make the Christmas pilgrimage to the Sydney fish markets at Blackwattle Bay, whose non-stop trading in the 36 hours leading up to Christmas Day moves thousands of kilos of prawns, oysters and fish.
But in the meantime, our long European lunch is more than good enough – it’s great. At the end of the main course, my uncle disappears to the sideboard to set the pudding on fire, dousing it with more and more alcohol – then spins around, red-faced, pointing to the feeble flicker. After, it’s coffee and chocolates and when we finally leave the table, it’s to waddle down to the lawn for a slow game of cricket. Non-players lie, bloated on the grass, or roll into the swimming pool.
Just as the realization sets in that it’s all over, another one takes its place – tomorrow is Boxing Day, the first day of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race. And most of us will be there standing on Sydney’s South Head cliffs with the helicopters, crowds and picnickers, making bets on who will make it out of the harbor first.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team
Photo: the Sydney Opera House