There’s more to Australia than kangaroos and koalas, Nicole Kidman and the Crocodile Hunter. And there’s more to an Australian Christmas than tinsel and trees, Santa and snow. Located in the southern hemisphere, Australians celebrate Christmas mid-summer.
It’s sand in place of snow, and surfboards not sleighs. And the only ice in sight is what we use to cool the drinks as we gather around the pool for a barbecue. But Australians share many Christmas traditions with the rest of the world. Here are three of the best.
–Gifts. Frantic shopping, frazzled shopper–what we often first encounter, along with the warm weather and flies, is the commercial experience we endure rather than enjoy in order to give and receive good gifts.
At my place, with three young children, there is a long wait as boxes of various sizes and shapes arrive in the post, or are lovingly wrapped, and collect under our tree. Then, when the sun rises on Christmas morning, we rapidly transform the lounge room into an unrecognizable mix of used wrapping paper, empty packaging and shiny new toys and books and tools.
Christmas cards are popular here, although most show secular images. But along with snow-covered pine trees and flying reindeer, you might also find Santa’s sled pulled by eight white kangaroos, or Santa at the beach dressed in a red T-shirt, shorts and sandals.
This year, one Christmas card we received simply read, “Your gift has gone toward training an Adult Literacy Instructor for a community in Kenya … who will teach others in the community to read and write.” That put the enduring Christmas spirit into perspective: it’s better to give than to receive.
–Grub. Second, there’s the grub. Despite the heat, the European tradition–roast meats, baked vegetables and plum pudding with custard–is alive and well when Australian families gather for Christmas lunch. Younger families may instead serve cold meats, seafood, salads, and a variety of cold desserts.
And in a multicultural community, there are Asian, Middle Eastern and other culinary delights finding their way onto the Christmas table. My favorite is Imam Bayildi, a delicious roasted eggplant recipe that–I like to think–points Christmas toward its Middle Eastern origins.
The downside to this is the difficulty of getting to where you’re going: we experience our share of traffic jams, airport queues, the threat of summer storms and bush fires. But when we arrive, whether the tradition is hot or cold, or from east or west or north or south, we are reminded that good food brings people together, creates fine memories, and encourages thanksgiving.
–The gospel. Third, Christmas in Australia is an opportunity to reflect on the goodness of God in sending Jesus, who showed us how to live well, and who was born and died to give us new life. Through Gospel readings, carols by candlelight, Christmas services, nativity plays, media presentations and acts of loving service, Christians retell the biblical story to friends and family.
It’s about speaking the truth in love, and reversing the spiritual amnesia that saps our lives of purpose, and transforming the culture’s residual Christianity into a vital and vibrant faith. Christmas in Australia is all of this and more.
So spare a thought this Christmas for those in your world who won’t experience the joy of giving and receiving gifts, and who don’t have good food to share with family, and who can’t understand why the story of Christmas is so endearing and enduring.
And for Christ’s sake, do something about it.
Rod Benson is an ordained minister who is the Research Support Officer at the Donald Robinson Library, Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia. He and his wife Emma Goodsir are members of Thornleigh Community Baptist Church.