The Great Australian Christmas: a feast of food, a game of cricket or a quick swim, finished off with a nanna nap in the afternoon. Some of our Christmas foods have a tradition dating back hundreds of years, transplanted from Mother England. But other influences —including our overwhelmingly hot December weather—have put a twist on our Christmas feast. So how did we get here?
One senior historian says our style of Christmas has its roots in the mid-1800s, when early settlers longed for England but made do with what they had here.
"One of the strong forms of Christmas, from about the early 1850s onwards, was a community or family picnic out in the open air. Outdoor sports start being associated with Christmas or Boxing Day," Dr Brown, a senior research fellow in the Australian National University's History Program, said.
"The notion of Christmas as a family gathering celebrating family values, childhood, sentimentality was very much a product of the nineteenth century.
"It's not that Christmas hadn't existed up until that point. There was Christmas sermon in church, but the notion of Christmas as a public holiday only started in the 19th century."
Families traditionally gathered for a Christmas Day lunch that include decorated hams, roast chicken and roast vegetables. Turkey— being, as you know, native to North America— was not introduced until much later. Generations of Australian women sweated over wood-fired ovens, roasting birds and vegetables, boiling puddings, stirring sauces—keeping up the tradition of eating English winter foods while temperatures outside hit the high 30s celsius.
Dr Brown says even though Australia was largely influenced by this Victorian English Christmas, the local celebrations quickly took on a unique flavour.
"There's a lot of attempt to having something as close to a British Christmas as you can, but it also started to be tinged by 'well, we're in Australia'," he said.
"The first Christmas cards of the 1850s have Santa Claus being pulled by a kangaroo and it's striking because we're painted into the corner of thinking it's a very British derived tradition.
"Australians started to, from the 1850s onwards, go out into the bush, cut down a fairly big swag of green leaves, eucalypts and tie them to the house, to the roof or verandah posts.
"You get Australians trying to do fairly repulsive things in terms of our palette in trying to replicate good old Christmas fare. You get recipes for ham and cockatoo pie or recipes on how to cook a black swan so it tastes like a goose.
"It became a real characteristic of Australian Christmas to bring in some local flora and eat the local fauna."
After World War 2 Australia saw an influx of European refugees and migrants who in turn influenced our Christmas eating habits. In Italy, Christmas Eve dinner is traditionally a light meal with no meat and a lot of seafood. This would include sword fish, tuna fish, salmon, octopus salad and the baccalà (salted cod). Eastern Europeans would have sat down to a meal of fried carp on Christmas Eve (many families buying a live one and keeping it in the bath until it was time to cook it!) This habit of eating seafood at Christmastime seems to have slowly filtered through to the general population. Nowadays the fresh fish markets are crazy busy in the days leading up to Christmas, with prawns an especially popular choice. Being more appropriate to the hot weather of the day, it has become increasingly popular to serve local seasonal produce including cold meats and salad alongside traditional fare.
So too our Christmas dessert menu has evolved: it still includes a mix of traditional winter Christmas food (such as plum pudding with brandy butter, fruit mince pies, and trifle) alongside newer traditions, including pavlova and fresh fruit such as berries and kiwifruit.
Australian Christmases have come full circle, from the days of the early colonialists wishing they were back in Britain having a ‘proper’ Christmas, to the sentiments of Tim Minchin’s song White Wine in the Sun, remembering a secular Christmas Down Under surrounded by family. These sentiments will be shared this year(I expect) by thousands of expatriate Aussies shivering through a bleak northern winter longing for family and an outdoor Christmas filled with laughter, sport and blazing sunlight, some cold ham, prawns with Mum’s ‘special sauce’, plum pudding and one too many slices of pavlova…