By Sharron Chatterton
Columbia Valley Arts Counci Memoir Group
I am one of those Canadian immigrants who sees everything through two sets of eyes, the here and the there. I spent 20 Christmases as an Australian kid, and 44 Christmases as a Canadian adult.
Now a grandmother, I have lived in perfect Canadian Christmases terrain: windswept prairie Alberta, wilderness log cabin Yukon, and the fir-forested snow-capped peaks of British Columbia. Yet every year, right about now, memory wanders.
Regardless of snow drifts against the door and snow-laden spruce between my armchair and the lake, I find myself following Dad along a drought-ridden red ridge or dry creek bed, looking for a Christmas tree. It will be a native Casuarina, a faux-conifer with huge soft needles, drooping boughs, and foliage reminiscent of a desert tamarisk.
Some people called them “she oaks” for their whispering soughing in a breeze, but most said “river oaks”, named by some homesick English settler a hundred and fifty years earlier who’d likened its wood grain, mistook its heat when burning, or honoured its resistance to his axe for a tree half a globe away.
Always we would select two to reject before settling on the “best one”, all choices being pretty poor. My father would cut it with the one goliath of a blunt axe we owned, grunting and swinging it affectedly as he bisected its four-inch trunk. Then, freckled and sunburnt in shorts and thongs, I would haul it through the boxthorn that lined the string of water holes called a creek to the waiting “ute” (a little utility truck).
There were no needles to speak of, only gossamer fronds on a thin skeleton. Decoration was the art of hiding the paucity of tree without driving the limp boughs to the floor.
This feathery figure was cemented into a bucket of wet sand and stood in a corner. Tinsel and fragile baubles which crunched under foot, pipe-cleaner Santas and thin crepe paper chains were the norm for trimming the tree.
Lights were unheard of. If the tree was particularly patchy but unusually strong, my mother added Christmas cards to cover the gaps. Casuarinas are feeble substitutes for Scots pines or even for any ragged undernourished conifer sapling. The centrepiece, an overloaded casuarina in a corner, was the main pitiable object at Christmas.
There was no logic to an Australian Christmas. We bought English cards resplendent with snow covered cathedrals and carollers wearing muffs, or with sleighs rushing through crusts of cheap sparkle, and sent them to cousins in tropical Queensland.
We hung mistletoe over the door frame, the parasitic kind in yellow plasticky bunches that ravaged the eucalypts, not faintly resembling the European species, and nobody kissed under it.
A hot Christmas dinner was eaten at about 1 p.m. after the kids came back from the public pool with a fresh case of sunburn, dehydration and a marginal sun stroke from the long noontime walk home.
The festive meat was a treat of baked ham with its brown-sugared rind cut in a checkerboard pattern pinned with maraschino cherry and pineapple slices, or a plump chicken with bread and onion, thyme and giblet stuffing and over-full gravy boats. Both were rare and lavish changes from the minted lamb, mutton stew, or beef sirloin of every other day. Turkey was unheard of and ducks or geese spared.
The meat was accompanied always, sure as the sun rises and sets, by a mountain of baked root vegetables, chokos in white sauce, cold tomato and onion slices in red vinegar, and bright minted green peas.
Next came a chilled English trifle (heavy on homemade custard and clotted cream) followed by a steamed apricot or plum pudding flaming with brandy and hot custard, and lastly the heaviest rummiest fruit cake that a 10-year-old stomach could not hold. Pretty glass dishes of sugar coated ginger, muscatels and almonds, and pieces of fresh coconut flesh were enticing table decorations.
Only our small family would assemble, sweating, while Dad “carved up”. A fan would be angled onto the table to keep the 101 degree Fahrenheit air moving and the flies away.
The meal ended with my mother patting tomato skins or cold milk onto our fried noses and flaming pink shoulders and my father looking for antacids to take with his beer.
My mother would fluff us away with the oft repeated words, “Now you little ones just run off and lie down somewhere. I’ll bring you water melon when you feel hungry”. Which would be after dark, to the sound of crickets and screaming cicadas, sitting on the cold concrete step watching our southern aurora, the milky way, and atavistic fruit bats wheel overhead, while inside the adults, now including a few drop-ins, would drink rum, cold beer, black tea or shandys.
We’d have listened to Rolf Harris sing on the radio, “Snow White Boomers ” ‘on the Australian run’ but Aussie kids never bought that line. We knew Santa would use reindeer. Kangaroos were too bloody mean to harness up.
We’d revisit our “stockings”, two foot long commercial cardboard flat packs bought at the news agency, sock silhouettes with netting fronts bulging with sweet popcorn, plastic whistles on lanyards, balloons, licorice, comic books, noise toys, puzzles, pompoms and small knickknacks. Every kid got one. They were, hands down, the favourite present.
With Christmas out of the way, we’d start to think about the ice cream snowman Mum would make for New Year’s Eve. It’d be around 105 F degrees by then. We’d need something cool.
This year at Christmas, I’ll hang Australian animal tree ornaments on our fine little spruce, put a line of aromatic eucalyptus nuts on the back of the wood stove and draw close enough to redden my old kid’s nose. I doubt Gerry, my husband will notice. He’ll be fresh from a Christmas Eve pageant in a prairie Baptist Church and from his role as sheperd or Joseph, now wearing his sole gift of new pants or socks (toys not being in a 1950s dairy farm budget), singing “Praise Him From Whom All Blessings Come”, awaiting the stuffed turkey and gravy, heaped farm vegetables, and his allowance of one each Black Magic chocolate, hard candy and a nougat yule log sitting among the 50 teetotallers and missionaries at his grandmother’s long basement table, knowing that at dusk when board games began, he would leave to help milk the 30-50 cows in a snowed-in barn.
Together each Christmas we will eat as of old: a fowl with giblet stuffing, a boiled fruit pudding with sauce, and a dark fruit cake (covered in marzipan and soused in rum and brandy for an Aussie), and string the dwindling cards in rows.
These few things we’d shared, unknowingly, 65 years ago and 13,000 miles apart.