Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Unpublished 9: Dreaming of a Hot Xmas

A few years ago I had a go at selling a seasonal story on Australia's Christmas traditions to a bunch of US publications. 

No-one took up the offer, but in the spirit of the season I'd now like to share my Down Under festive musings with you. Merry Xmas!

Something’s wrong here. It’s the holiday season, and I can see Christmas trees, tinsel, and greeting cards with Santa and snow.

But outside, the thermometer is heading towards the 90s [the 30s in Celcius], the hot sun beats down and there’s not a reindeer to be seen.

Are you dreaming of a white Christmas? You won’t find it in Australia. As the land Down Under has opposite seasons to countries in the Northern Hemisphere, its holiday season falls right in the middle of its hot, dry summer.

Tinsel in the sunshine

But this meteorological fact opens the door to a Christmas with a difference. Many Australian families still celebrate the day with the traditional roast dinner, but an outdoor barbecue and salads are just as likely. Then it’s off to a swim at the local beach after lunch. The majority of people live near beaches of the white-sand variety, so they’re an essential component of summer.

The most famous beach is Bondi, located on Sydney’s Pacific coast. This is where the beach volleyball took place at the 2000 Olympics. Bondi is the classic Aussie beach, with surf lifesavers patrolling an area between two flags, ready to pluck weak swimmers from the waves at the first sign of trouble.

The holiday season contrasts don’t end there. The usual images of a fur-bedecked Santa and his reindeer are to be seen on greeting cards, but he also gets into the beach act, with a team of kangaroos pulling his sleigh, or surfing on a beach in his hat and a pair of bright red shorts. Likewise, snow-like tinsel hangs shimmering above shopping strips in the bright sunlight.

Sporting fixtures

But if you want to experience the full Aussie Christmas, there’s more to it than beaches. Aussies are sports-crazy, and some major events on the sporting calendar take place at the end of the year. Starting on the day after Christmas (known as Boxing Day), the annual Sydney to Hobart yacht race pits sailors against dangerous seas, with festivities at either end of the 628 nautical mile route.

If you’ve ever wondered about the mysteries of the game of cricket, Melbourne is the place to find out. Each year, the Boxing Day Test takes place at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground, a stadium located just outside the city centre. It’s an international match, with Australia playing an opponent in a game that takes several days to resolve.

It doesn’t matter too much if you find the rules incomprehensible - sitting in the sunshine with a drink and a traditional meat pie is a pleasant way to pass the day. Just cheer whenever the Aussies do.

Outdoor performance

Culture isn’t neglected in Australia’s cities, with Sydney’s annual festival of the arts taking place in January. Many of its events are free and held outdoors. Outdoor theater also takes place in parks in all major cities, including light-hearted productions of Shakespeare, and children’s classics like The Wind in the Willows.

Crowds also gather for outdoor carol-singing events by candlelight. In Melbourne, thousands sing along with local musicians, performing both modern and traditional Christmas carols in the Kings Domain park. The carol-singing tradition, begun in the 1930s, has spread throughout Australia, with even small towns staging their own event.

There are even Australian Christmas carols, including an Aussie version of The Twelve Days of Xmas in which “My true love sent to me, A kookaburra in a gum tree”. And The Three Drovers puts an Aussie spin on the more traditional shepherds (drovers are local versions of cowboys).

Chilled out, festive style

And New Year’s Eve is spectacular when viewed across Sydney Harbor on a balmy evening with a beer in hand, while watching fireworks explode over the famous Opera House.

The sort of relaxed, friendly mood you’d expect at holiday time is present, amplified by the benefits of Australia’s warm, dry summers: sandy beaches, barbecues, beer gardens outside local pubs, fresh seafood, good wine and life lived in the open.

But in the end, the holiday season is the same Down Under as in the rest of the world. People ease off from their office work, chill out, spend time with their families and celebrate the hope of a brand new year.

The Unpublished is a random series comprising my never-published travel articles. For previous instalments, click on the The Unpublished Topic tag below, then scroll down.