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12/23/2016

Christmas Where It’s Hot

Australia — Our Christmas smells like pine needles and chlorine. My children help decorate the traditional tree at their grandparents’ house, then run outside to leap into the swimming pool. They sun themselves in the humid air of an Australian summer.


Back at our place they have been building a gingerbread cottage and adorning it with snowdrifts of icing while batting away flies. On Dec. 25, we will be baking a whole ham studded with cloves and roasting a turkey, but unlike most roasts served on the other side of the Equator, ours will be served with cubes of fresh mango, stirred through with lime.

Such is the ridiculousness of Christmas in Australia — and throughout the rest of the Southern Hemisphere. A festival made for a snowy winter in Europe or North America, to celebrate an ancient birth in the Middle East, translated into summertime in a largely godless country. Someone else’s culture taped down onto a hot, dry continent. As Paul Kelly notes wryly in his song “How to Make Gravy,” which has become something of a secular hymn in Australia, “They say it’s gonna be a hundred degrees, even more maybe, but that won’t stop the roast.”

Though it may seem strange to people more familiar with enjoying a white Christmas, the reality is those who celebrate Christmas are increasingly doing so in the heat.

If you consider the changing demographics of the Christian world, it is clear that Christmas is no longer necessarily a winter festival. As the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life noted in a 2011 report: “Christianity has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century.”

Back in 1910, two-thirds of all Christians lived in Europe. Now there are nearly as many Christians in sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent of the world’s Christian population) as there are in Europe (26 percent), according to the Pew report. From Lagos to Manila to Kinshasa, this weekend, hundreds of millions of people will be celebrating Christmas in tropical heat.

Still, why cling to the food, imagery and decorations from another place? Why not create Christmas traditions that are authentically your own?

This is not a new question for Australians, being torn between love and lament for how we do Christmas here. Indeed, fighting in the kitchen over how to celebrate the holiday, as fat spits in the oven and kids race through in swim suits, is itself part of our Christmas tradition. Being anxious about being second rate and derivative is part of the Australian experience.

There are plenty of ways we do make Christmas our own. These days, the Christmas menu is about seafood and salads as much as it is about turkey and ham. The florists are full of big armfuls of Christmas bush, a native shrub that turns red this time of year and that is now commonly used to decorate the Christmas table. The holiday has developed into a summer festival of family and rest, the day itself followed by a week of eating leftovers, to the soundtrack of cricket commentary on the radio. Each day is layered like a summer trifle: eat, nap, swim, repeat.

I’m happy with the contradictions. After all, some of the most enduring cultural phenomena come about by accident. Consider the tomato, which is so central to Italian cooking, and is in fact a fruit from South America.

If authenticity means being singular and pure, then we can’t be. Australia never can be. Most of the world can never be. We are too many cultures, from too many places. But what if authenticity is about laying all the messy, confusing, contradictory history bare?

This year, as with all the others, I will be embracing it all with my Christmas menu. As well as all that roast meat, my parents will bring shrimp, oysters and crab from the fish market down the road. We will serve fresh cherries but also traditional dessert with caramel brandy sauce from an old family recipe. And at some point during the day I will curse it all.


The menu may seem strange to others but it will make sense to us, a journey tracing back more than 2,000 years, along spice routes, through colonization, aspiration, migration, cultural anxiety, class mobility, religion, loss of religion, family, all of it contained upon one heavily laden table.

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