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Summer wonderland

The impossible challenge of getting used to Christmas in Australia

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22 December 2016

I was on my regular lunchtime routine visit to the supermarket, gazing at chocolate and cleaning products, when I sensed it. It was coming from the speakers, emitting the mandatory Christmas playlist over the heads of unsuspecting customers. There it was, once again, at this time of year, that same feeling of unease that you get when it's 30 degrees outside and you hear Dean Martin suggest: "In the meadow we can build a snowman."

No sooner had Winter Wonderland gone off the air but it was followed by Peggy Lee's elegant singing: "I love the winter weather/Because I've got my love to keep me warm."

Sheltered in the cool temperature of the store, the last thing I wanted to do was to go out there and ask my love to provide me with any more warmth. I shook my head and thought of what Babis Stavropoulos wrote, a couple of weeks ago, in Neos Kosmos Greek edition. In case you missed it, here's a rough translation:

"The more I looked into it, 'Christmas in Australia' seemed more like a joke than a holiday … For some reason, since I set foot in this country, in 1970, Melbourne's Christmas ambience was off-putting … I could never believe that I would spend Christmas without snow and children carolling in the streets … The idea of seeing Father Christmas giving away presents in his swimsuit on the beach was enough for me to lose any festive disposition (...) All this to me seemed more like a summer Australian festival than Christmas."

I've only been here for a couple of years, so maybe I'm not in a position to talk, but I can totally relate to Babis' view. Australian Christmas has been one of the greatest challenges I've had to face. Because, for all its progress and wealth and social cohesion and admirable achievements, Australia seems to have got Christmas all wrong. You see, Christmas is first and foremost a winter holiday.

I know some people object to this notion; they claim that first and foremost Christmas is a religious holiday, one that celebrates, as its name implies, the birth of Jesus Christ.

Even if we go along with this idea, and even if, for the sake of argument, we accept Jesus as a historical figure, there are still no records, no historical findings, no accounts of his time of birth.

Scholars agree that the date of 25 December was established about 400 years after his death. According to the most popular theory, the date was chosen to coincide with the winter solstice, thus marking a transition from pagan festivities to a Christian one. So yes, even if you are a true believer, if you have no doubt that Jesus Christ not only existed and walked on this Earth and preached, but he was actually the Son of God, you have to accept that Christmas is mainly a winter holiday.

Centuries of Christmas traditions were built around this concept, making it synonymous with snow, sleighs, layers of clothing, hot concoctions, brandy-soaked puddings, ice skating and a cartoonish mythical parody of a saint wrapped in a fluffy red overcoat, flying a sleigh from the North Pole to bring gifts to children.

Even in Greece, all these were not easy traditions to follow. December is hardly the coldest month of winter − as I recall, the past 15 years, Christmas in Athens meant sunny weather and a temperature of 15-20 degrees. Still, the image of the 'Australian Surfer Santa' is one of the staples of the 'Quirky Christmas Celebrations Around the World' segment on the Christmas Day news bulletins that Greeks watch while digesting ungodly quantities of stuffed birds and sweets.

Raised on a pop culture diet comprised of Sinatra songs and American romantic comedies, in which impossibly cute couples drag trees in snowy streets − hell, even Die Hard, the ultimate 'Christmas Movie' has a distinctive winter theme, which makes the image of Bruce Willis in a singlet, despite the freezing cold, even more iconic − I have associated the idea of Christmas with snugness, with the quest for warmth within the house, while cold looms outside. Christmas is a time for hot chocolate and brandy and rich food and your love to keep you warm. Not for sunny days, hot weather, thongs and swimsuits.
Faced with the prospect of holiday feasts of shrimp barbecues and ice-cold beer, I could only see one option as a migrant: to renounce Christmas altogether. It would be a small sacrifice to make, for me, but having children made this option unrealistic, to say the least. Instead, I subject them to the torture of having to sit on the sweaty lap of a poor bloke soaking in a synthetic red suit, with a nylon beard ensuring that his face will have a rash to last until Easter. They don't seem to mind.

In time, I won't either. I may grow partial to the ridiculous idea of celebrating Christmas in July (and I certainly would not object if Australian Christians suddenly woke up and decided to ditch December Christmas and shift to the July option − though I know the logistics would be impossible), but I'm sure that I will get used to all of this. The shrimp barbie, the Surfer Santa, the sound of cicadas singing in perfect coordination with the lights flashing on the Christmas tree. But until this happens, I really wish that stores would edit Winter Wonderland out of their playlists. It's the Christian thing to do.

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