I’ve now spent three Christmas seasons in Australia (2005, 2017, and 2018), and have been lucky enough to experience some of the delightful differences between celebrating an Australian vs. an American Christmas.
This year, even though V and I have just been furloughed in 2018’s third government shutdown, we are still having a nice Christmas. Christmas is what you make it – even if you don’t receive many gifts, even when you live in a Muslim country and have to buy your tree from a commercial landscaper in a blizzard for a king’s ransom (true story!), and even when it’s 90 degrees at your southern hemisphere Christmas brunch and you dread turning on the oven.
Christmas in the Foreign Service can be kind of sad sometimes in general. We are far from home, often can’t get time off due to embassy or consulate short-staffing, and the traditions in the host country might range from Christmas wonderland to… Christmas being just another day.
That is why FSOs get used to putting together celebrations with whatever friends, family, traditions, decorations, and typical American holiday foods we can assemble. And we are great at it! Not making the perfect the enemy of the good brings us back to the gratitude, togetherness, and generous spirit of the season that really matters.
This year and last, we have been pretty lucky to be in Australia where you can find a tree, gifts, and even a real pumpkin pie! Although you cannot expect things to be “just like home,” when you spend too much time fretting about what you are missing at home, you fail to notice that those unique things right in front of you are something you may not see again.
On Christmas Eve afternoon as I drove home from the beach with sand stuck to my toes and the air conditioning on blast, I grinned and thought, I’m going to miss this. And I’m sure someday in the future as I enjoy a brandy egg nog by the fire at Christmas, I will remember fondly the surfing Santas and sunburns of an Aussie Christmas.
Here are a dozen things – in no particular order – I’ve noticed about the holidays in Australia.
1. Obviously, summer in the southern half of the world is opposite to the northern half. Instead of a June-July-August summer, Australia gets a December-January-February summer. That means Christmas falls smack during beach season, and trips to the beach for the holidays are common. In fact, since kids are out of school for summer, it is common for Australians to go on holiday throughout December and January, right through until after the Australia Day holiday in late January.
2. Um, hello! Being tan and not having to bundle up for New Year’s Eve is a real bonus! (On the flip side, the embassy Fourth of July celebration in the freezing cold is super weird, BTW.)
3. Australians tend to say “Happy Christmas,” rather than “Merry Christmas.”
4. If you grew up in the northern hemisphere, Christmas in Australia really sneaks up on you without the telltale signs of fall leaves and football to let you know it’s getting close. Embassy mailrooms’ annual e-reminders asking personnel to mail U.S.-bound packages by Thanksgiving to beat the rush always inspires a little dread and panic. And when it started getting cold last May/June, I had the weirdest urge to Christmas shop!
5. Christmas cookie frosting doesn’t fare so well in 90 degree Canberra heat! On the plus side, don’t we eat less in the heat? The weather may also explain why instead of cookies and milk, Australian kids put out carrots and beer for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve!
6. A lot of Australians seem to prefer artificial trees. I’m not sure if it is more convenient than buying the live trees that tend to be sold very young here, without many firm branches for all my heavy ornaments, or if it’s weather-related. We have had live trees this year and last, and they really need a lot of water in the summer heat. Ours drinks over a liter per day.
7. And picking up our Christmas tree both years was a little different, too. Last year we got it from Bunnings (Australian version of Home Depot), and V had to tie it to the top of the Nissan himself. Quite a difference weather-wise from the year prior in Uzbekistan, when a blizzard hit the week I needed to find a tree!
This year, we went about 40 minutes out of town to a Christmas tree farm. It was hot and dusty, and a bit of a trek, BUT – support local businesses, right? Although the tree farm guy was super cool and helpful (Which one are ya af-tah?), they didn’t have twine to tie the tree to our roof rack (the whole reason we drove the Nissan out there instead of the Holden), and we had to instead put the back seat down and fit a 7’+ tree in the back. It fit fine, but it also got needles and sap all over the place.
Right before we’d walked out the door, my husband had suggested we bring some twine and I’d dismissed it, assuring him any Christmas tree farm would do it for you. Where is that not a thing?? Australia, apparently. My bad. And so my husband went to the carwash, while I decorated the tree in 85+ degree heat.
8. Australians typically enjoy their Christmas dinner outdoors around lunchtime, and steak, cold ham, or prawns are popular serves. Berries, cherries, and mangos are in season, and you’re more likely to see these in bowls than the clementines and walnuts we’re accustomed to.
9. Apparently it is also typical to wear festive hats (“crowns”) and enjoy ‘Christmas crackers,’ small tubes that split unevenly with firecracker-like pops when pulled apart, leaving the winner with the larger share of the tube’s contents (generally little trinkets and riddles). Although we have attended neighborhood parties and exchanged neighborly holiday gifts, I have only heard secondhand tales of the crowns and crackers, but am sure it has to be true! While American kids might spend their Christmas Day sledding or having a snow ball fight, Australian kids are more likely to be in the backyard with water guns or lobbing water balloons.
10. Australians celebrate Boxing Day the day after Christmas. Bonus federal holiday… or, a day to hit the post-Christmas sales (in which Australians are projected to spend USD $12.8 billion tomorrow), watch the test cricket, or follow the Sydney to Hobart yacht race (which started back in 1945).
11. Australians really love Christmas carols by candlelight, and each city holds its own event each December. Neighborhood “Christmas in July” block parties are also common each July 25, and we were sure not to miss ours this year.
12. There isn’t the kind of rampant commercialization around Christmas here that there is in the States. A couple nights before Christmas, I went to run an after-work errand in a Canberra mall, and stores were closing by 7pm. Yes, annoying for us who work, and yet somehow refreshing to see the Australians’ priority on family time.
When I listen to the NBC, ABC, and CBS News evening show podcasts from home, they’re full of advice for “last-minute shoppers,” branding the Saturday before Christmas as “Panic Saturday,” reminding people about parcel mail deadlines, and flagging businesses that will take your online order up until crazy o’clock on Christmas Eve for same-day delivery. I have to say that I really do NOT miss that aspect of the holidays stateside, especially in a major metropolitan area. Catering to busy people and good customer service? Absolutely. Enabling laziness, indecision, impulsivity, and people to work like slaves to the almighty dollar? Less so.
At the end of the day, there are some things that, for me, will always say “Christmas.” Snow, winter sweaters, gingerbread, mulled wine, ice skating, and warming your hands in front of a fire after building a snowman or going skiing are a few. Listening to the Nutcracker on a hot, sunny day just feels… odd. And I have to admit that seeing Christmas cards of a flip-flop wearing Santa building a sand castle and collecting sea shells doesn’t really doesn’t put me in the “holiday” mood!
BUT! I am grateful for the experience three times now to celebrate the holidays in Australia – three times more than most Americans would ever get – and I have made my adaptations! Christmas ornaments featuring parrots, roos, and koalas dot our tree, and this year we traded in a Christmas ham for grilled salmon. I know that someday I will think back on our sunny, 91 degree Aussie Christmases wistfully. #Straya