My first Christmas in the southern hemisphere took place in 1973 when I arrived in Cape Town after journeying overland from London via India then a ship from Mumbai to the port of Durban. Arriving in South Africa instead of Australia, which was where my destination was meant to be, was a bit of a shock. Having to pay for a ticket by boat out of the country was another shock and left me with very little money.
In South Africa, Christmas is in summer of course. Arriving in Cape Town after several days of hitch-hiking and seeing decorations including snowmen, Christmas trees and robins decorating the city was somewhat strange. Blue skies and sunshine with snowmen felt at odds. It was the strangest of times as I have explained before, in that I was working at a hotel in the city in the florist department, making table posies and helping with the suite decorations. I was staying with my travelling companion’s family until Christmas Eve when it was decided that I didn’t ‘fit’ and was told to leave.
My first Christmas in a warm climate was spent working in the hotel and then returning to the youth hostel where I had been lucky enough to find a bed. And on arriving back at the hostel I was invited to share the Christmas dinner that had been created by other ‘inmates’. It was not the best of days until then, as I was feeling very homesick, but I was made welcome and introduced to some lovely people, including a couple of New Zealand girls that I was able to spend time with in the coming month.
On that particular Christmas there were no presents, no turkey or Christmas pudding or even carol singing and no friends or family. So I am no stranger to an unusual Christmas such as many of us are facing this year.
But there were other Christmases in the sun as I remained in South Africa for many more years. Usually Christmas Day was spent on the beach, having a braai (barbeque) at home with friends or cold meats and salads (at the in laws in the Eastern Cape where it was even hotter). We still had a fir tree and decorations. And once I even cooked a full English Christmas dinner, but it was hot work!
But Christmas in a warm climate never really ever felt like Christmas.
In the northern hemisphere December is the time of year when the darkness overrules the light. When days are short. And sunlight oft in short supply. So it is no wonder that people welcome the chance to celebrate, to fill their gloomy rooms with cheerful lights, open their doors to family and friends to share a drink or two or join together for a meal. Little children giddy with excitement, anticipate the arrival of the big man with the white beard and generous heart. People smile at strangers. Wearing daft hats and even sillier jumpers. Wishing everybody a Merry Christmas.
From October the pressure is on. We are bombarded everywhere you look by adverts always showing happy families together. Telling us that to be happy we should be spending our money on lavish gifts, which are still being paid for when it is time for the summer holidays. Fill our cupboards and freezers with enough food to feed an army for a fortnight or more, even though the supermarkets will be closed for only one day. Grey-faced with tiredness we pile into cars or trains or even planes to join the family. Somewhere. So we are not alone.
But what about those who have nothing to celebrate? Those living on the streets, for whatever reason. The hungry? The poor? Singletons who have no family to share a meal with. People who have recently suffered a bereavement or face Christmas without a certain family member for the first time. Old people forced into often childish behaviour, being treated as though they were infants again. Those who have no religious beliefs and find the whole idea of celebrating a birth that may never have happened a complete anathema. Those who really, truly, honestly, prefer to be on their own, but are made to feel that there must be something wrong with them.
David Jones department store is famous for its animated Christmas window displays. And rightly so. I’m only sorry I didn’t get out in the evening to capture these all lit up, but trust me, they are superb and every child in Sydney ought to be taken to look at them.
Ursula Dubosarsky the award-winning Sydney children’s author was thrilled when asked to write an original story with an Australian flavour for the windows this year.
“I was thinking kangaroos, wallabies and koalas,” Dubosarsky says, but she quickly came around to the idea of using a reindeer. “It suggested a nice story of the Australian experience, which is very often an immigrant experience. Apart from indigenous people, we all appeared here from other cultures.”
Dubosarsky took home the toy reindeer to use for inspiration, as she often does. “You get a bit more personality from a toy. You know how it is, you think your teddy bear is talking to you,” she says. “I still use that technique, so I sat there with the reindeer.”
The tale he told her, Reindeer’s Christmas Surprise, was about visiting all his animal friends with presents, before getting a lovely surprise himself at the end of the story.