Australians celebrate Christmas with gusto. Despite a declining proportion of the population identifying as Christian (just over 60%) Christmas is everywhere in Australia in December.
The lead up to Christmas is a busy and exciting time, as children finish their school year, the weather heats up and the atmosphere becomes incredibly festive.
People often send greeting cards to their friends, either delivered in person or by snail mail, at this time of year. It’s a chance to remember all the people who have touched their lives in the past year, and keep in touch with people who are far away.
Advent calendars count down the period of Adventus, traditionally the coming of Jesus. They are special, sometimes handmade calendars with a window or pocket for each day of December up to Christmas. Each window or pocket holds a small trinket, often a lolly. Many Australian children enjoy opening a window or pocket each day in the lead up to Christmas.
The lead up to Christmas is a time of festivity in Australia. December also marks the end of the school year, so many children are involved in events like graduation ceremonies and end of year performances.
Carols by Candlelight, a night time event where people gather with candles to sing Christmas songs, is celebrated in just about every Australian town and suburb. Both traditional religious carols like The First Noel and modern, Australian themed ditties like Six white boomers, a song about Santa Claus exchanging his tired reindeers for kangaroos in Australia, are included.
Many organisations and workplaces hold end of year or Christmas gatherings, and many offices and universities close for the Christmas to New Year period.
Australian Christmas decorations have traditionally followed British traditions, for example holly may be placed on doors, wreaths of (often fake) ivy hung and pine trees decorated (sometimes with fake snow despite the soaring summer temperatures). However, indigenous plants and flowers which bloom at this time of year, for example Blandfordia nobilis – popularly known as Christmas bells, have also become popular decorations.
Many Australians also take pride in decorating the exterior of their house for the pleasure of passers-by. Lights, trees, Santa sleighs, nativity scenes and just about every other imaginable Christmas item can be found adorning the front of a house somewhere in Australia in the lead up to Christmas. Some streets or neighbourhoods hold competitions for the best decorated house, sometimes fundraising for charities at the same time.
Buying gifts and food
Exchanging Christmas gifts is common and in the lead up to Christmas Australia looks something like a nation of shop-a-holics. Shopping centres and strips compete to attract shoppers with Christmas flair like gigantic trees and opportunities for kids to have their photo taken in Santa’s sleigh. Australians spend billions of dollars on food and gifts in the lead up to Christmas.
Most families have their main Christmas celebration on the 25th of December. Christmas Eve is not a public holiday in Australia (although many people finish work early), so many workers spend at least the morning on the job.
People working in shops however may not finish until midnight, as many of the big stores now stay open late, competing for the business of last minute Christmas shoppers.
It’s common to spend the evening before Christmas catching up with friends or family. Some families may spend Christmas Eve with one set of grandparents and Christmas day with the other.
Midnight mass is held by some churches in Australia and others hold a midnight Carols by Candlelight.
Preparing for Santa
Santa Claus visits many Australian children on Christmas Eve, leaving presents they find when they wake up the next morning. Kids often leave a Christmas stocking, an oversized sock made especially for the purpose, for Santa to stuff with toys. They may also leave carrots for Santa’s reindeers and a beer and cake for Santa on the kitchen bench.
The main Christmas celebrations in Australia occur on December 25th. However, many ethnic groups in the country who follow religious traditions for example Ethiopian and Russian Orthodox churches, celebrate on different dates (e.g. 7th January) as they use a different calendar compared to the standard calendar.
Going to the beach is something of a ritual in Australia, and Christmas celebrations at Sydney’s Bondi beach are perhaps best known. However like Bondi, many other beaches around Australia swarm with families and friends on Christmas day. It’s not uncommon for Santa to make an appearance; arriving from the water in a surf lifesaving boat.
Many families in Australia also tell stories. They may share traditional tales like the Christmas Story, of how baby Jesus was born in a manger. However there are also many modern, Australian-themed Christmas books for children and young adults.
Many families follow the British tradition of hot roast meat (especially ham and turkey) and vegetables followed by fruit pudding with custard on Christmas day. This traditional lunch is served as a sit down meal at a table set with Christmas decorations including Christmas crackers.
But given the hot weather, many have come to the conclusion that cooking indoors with the oven is a waste of the great outdoors. There is a growing trend to cook meat or seafood on the barbecue in the backyard or at the beach. These Christmas lunches may be followed by an Australian favourite dessert Pavlova (stiff egg white meringue shaped as a cake covered with whipped cream and sliced fresh seasonal fruit).
There are many church services on Christmas day, and different Christian groups celebrate at different times of the day. Some church groups also organise Christmas lunch for underprivileged Australians, for example people who are homeless.
Indigenous traditions that occur around Christmas
Christianity was unknown in Australia before colonisation, and the time of year we now know as Christmas marked other important events for different groups of Indigenous Australians living in different parts of the country. For example in Arhnem land in the far north, home of the Yolngu people, late December marked the beginning of wet season rains and the start of the last season in their six-season calendar, known as Gudjewg.
Boxing Day is a day to relax after Christmas and in Australia is famous for some serious sporting events. Hundreds of yachts sail out of Sydney harbour on this day, which marks the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. In Melbourne sports fans can always be guaranteed a game of cricket between Australia and an international team.