Christmas in Australia – not all barbies, beer and beaches

I’m not entirely sure the Australians quite get Christmas, at least not the way the British do. There are very few decorations in the towns. No lights wound around lampposts, draped over trees or suspended across streets. No Christmas Markets where busy villages are pedestrianised for late night shopping, sweet mince pies and hot mulled wine. Perhaps that’s the clue, it’s just too darned hot.

The Australian humour is always there though, poking fun at the establishment as contentiously and provocatively as possible. The best example, or worst depending on your view, religious persuasion and nationality, is a popular Christmas card featuring Santa Claus crucified on the cross.

We were in Sydney for the weekend, and a visit to the Nippers Christmas event on the beach. Nippers is a Sunday morning institution in Australia. Over 30,000 young Surf Lifesavers aged 5 – 14 years get together on the beaches of NSW alone each Sunday to learn lifesaving skills and compete in their own mini triathlon; swimming, running and boarding. So, we joined the 400 kids on Coogee Beach to watch the weekly competition and greet Santa who traditionally arrives on a surfboard.

It was terrific entertainment in the 24 degrees of bright blue skies and sunshine cheering on the kids in their pink HiVis costumes and colourful Nipper Lifesaving caps.

Jingle bells, jingle bells,

Jingle all the way

Oh, what fun it is to ride

When Santa catches a wave, hey

‘Is that Santa on a RIB?’ asked Helene, ‘I thought he was supposed to surf in?’

The broad channel from the sea onto the beach was very choppy, the kids were finding it particularly difficult in their Christmas Triathlon so Santa had decided to come down the channel by boat. Easier than coming down a chimney by sleigh I suppose.

Red robes and white beard billowing in the wind Santa rang his bell and Ho Ho Ho’d through the waves as children cheered and chanted his name. Then it all stopped.

‘Where’s he off to now?’ asked Helene to no one in particular. The RIB turned only metres from the beach and set off back to sea, this was odd. The singing stopped and the younger Nippers began to blubber.

‘Where’s Father Christmas going? We haven’t had our presents yet,’ snivelled one child wiping his nose on his rashie.

‘I think Santa may have forgotten his sack,’ answered mum, obviously a regular at Coogee Christmas for Nippers. Although how Santa usually surfs in with a bag of gifts I have no idea.

Sure enough Santa disappeared around the headland only to reappear a minute or so later, sack in one hand and bell in the other.

‘Here we go again then,’ said Helene.

More Ho Ho Ho’s, more bell ringing and this time Santa reached the beach, almost. The RIB was ten metres off the beach as the kids ran and swam towards their Christmas hero.

‘Why hasn’t he reached the beach?’ Helene asked.

‘That elf at the back shut the engine off for safety reasons,’ I explained.

‘Don’t say it, David.’ I didn’t.

The elves eased him over the side of the boat and the stout Santa started to slowly slip under the surface, bell still ringing and sack held above the water.

‘Blimey, Santa’s drowning!’ said Coogee mum next to me, as her snivelling son looked on in horror.

‘No! It’s okay, Santa’s surfacing,’ said Helene, as a soggy Santa lifted himself from the surf and children cheered, ‘but I think Santa may have a wardrobe malfunction.’

His big black knee high boots were now full of water and seemed to have rooted him to the spot. With little option, the boots were cast aside and a bare footed Santa waded up to the beach to sit exhausted on the sand surrounded by excited and slightly bemused children hoping for a delve into the big brown, and surprisingly dry Christmas sack.

Bizarrely, the Nippers all meet up again on Christmas Day morning to hunt for eggs in a bright green dyed sea. This odd tradition – that seems to me more appropriate for Easter than Christmas – has been performed for so many years no one can really remember why they do it. The adults use gallons of colouring agent to turn the inlet from the open sea bright green, they then throw in eggs by the hundred for the children to try and retrieve unbroken. Why not use hard boiled eggs you may ask, as I did. They’ll sink.

We left the kids having fun at Coggee beach and headed for the Blue Mountains. 5,000 square miles of dense eucalyptus trees encompassing a canyon twice the size of the Grand Canyon. We checked in at the famous Carrington Hotel in Katoomba on a fiercely hot day with the thermometer reaching out for the 40 mark. Undeterred, we sweated our way to the Jamison Valley and peered towards the Three Sisters peaks through the blue haze created by the evaporating eucalyptus oil.

We returned to the wonderful Carrington Hotel where I had the good fortune to meet General Manager Mark. A tall and elegant gentleman who, despite being dressed in a dark formal suit, complete with waistcoat, seemed to be handling the heat better than all of us. His natural gait was standing to attention but with a soft and welcoming smile, so I introduced myself by enquiring about the history and legends of the beautiful building.

‘It once housed the Dali Lama, was the setting of an horrific murder and it’s haunted,’ he said, ‘Oh! and we celebrate Christmas in July.’

‘Can I buy you afternoon tea?’ I offered.

Built in 1883 to cater for wealthy tourists to the mountains it attracted aristocracy from around the world soon becoming the most popular hotel in the Southern Hemisphere, rivalling Raffles in Singapore.

The murder turned out to be the hotel’s chef who was killed by his own filleting knife when his wife discovered him in one of the hotel bedrooms serving up more than an entrée to a guest.

The oddest anecdote from Mark concerned a group of Irish visitors forty years ago who were so struck by the clear crisp winter of the Blue Mountains in July that they persuaded the hotels Manager to host a traditional Christmas dinner. Decorations were hung, a Christmas tree found from somewhere and a full feast of turkey, hams, mince pies and steaming plum pudding was served accompanied by choristers singing the joys of the festive season.

Like all good Christmas events the “Yulefest” as it is now known, became tradition, not only at the Carrington but across the Blue Mountains’ towns, villages and hotels. So, if you want to celebrate a traditional Christmas in July you know where to head for.

Merry Christmas.

David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic. 

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Comments (2)

  1. Phil says:

    I’ve visited the Blue Mountains in July on a very chilly day and there is definitely something Christmassy about the scene. As we shivered, we just hadn’t brought enough winter clothing, our guide slightly cheered us by telling us that this was the best time of year to see the mountains. He was right, the views were spectacular.

  2. Bob says:

    Of course I want to get my share of barbies, beaches and beer but for many of us Brits the dream is a Boxing Day Test at Melbourne – Australia v England. Still haven’t knocked that one of the bucket list.

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