Friday, November 11, 2005

A Christmas Tale - Aussie Style 1960's

A Christmas Tale.

My sister, next up from me was the first to reveal the truth that Santa looked a lot like Mum, just home from midnight Mass. She urged me...I needed little urging, to lie very still and look through the hole in the blanket we shared... and there it was. The truth. Mum creeping trying not to rustle or rattle, believing that her own little devils were long asleep... A truth never mentioned to adults...because if you admitted it, maybe the extra presents would not be in the pillow case at the end of our bed, and toys were pretty few for most of us then.

We knew the ways of the world before we could read. A precious gift for anyone. One of life’s necessities for survival; that, and fast, hard little feet so you didn’t have to find thongs before you took off running as fast as you could to escape from whatever trouble you had gotten yourself into.  Memories of Dad’s deep voice ringing out, “Come back here, I’ll bloody spiflicate you kids”, which he never did, being quite gentle with all of us, and us laughing away behind the paling fence, with him saying “You’ll have to come home sometime..” which we did, slowly slinking up the long backyard, as night grew over the sky. Sidling up to sit beside Dad on the back steps, his anger long gone, if it was there in the first place at all.

Dad was wonderful at Christmas time. Unlike many of the fathers of my friends, he would do the big grocery shopping only days before Christmas, possibly with a short side trip to the pub on the way home. On our back verandah table he would raise the tree, newly chopped from one of the branches of our own backyard trees. He was one of us. It is a thrilling feeling for a child to have empathy with a parent, while still a child, and this is how I felt about mine.

We have always had rollicking Christmases with more importance being on the people, than on the expertise of the food, or the hours spent over steam filled kitchens. Our Christmases have almost always been cold salads and meat, canned peaches and pears, unwhipped cream and the wonder -  ice cream, brought from the Astoria Cafe, on the Day itself...the only shop ever to open on Christmas day. We didn’t have a proper freezer in our kerosene fridge...thank you Tony and Joan Tosalakis for your ice cream for Christmas. Until this generation that of my sisters and I, I never recall anyone drinking anything other than tea or lemonade, in the house at Christmas or any other time...times have changed...or have we changed?

We always waited till all had gathered fully dressed, after Mass - for some - or after a very long drive for others who had no children, then when all were sitting down at about ten am the presents were opened, one by one, so everyone could see and appreciate, and be thanked. I don’t know where this tradition came from, but I am forever grateful for its ritual. It had to be from Mum or Dad or both...I’ll never know now. But all five of us sisters and our children hold this tradition and we savour it. Its less about the presents than the colour, and the excitement, the people there, and those unable to make it, and now, those who undoubtedly sit up high over all of us making sure we do it right.

Christmas seems to be a time when things happen with us. What doesn’t kill you makes you laugh later on. Our baby sister was born on Christmas Eve, one year, and her namesake our Aunty Annie died on another Christmas Eve. One year a hearse was seen to pull into our neighbour’s back yard. This subdued us all in our merriment considerably.

There was one notable Christmas when my sister, next up and her family came from Adelaide. Both of us being very fond of Bailey’s then, we were hard pressed to provide Christmas Dinner at all, because stupidly we decided to do a roast and use a strange oven and  the darn thing just would not cook, no matter how many times we poked it prodded it, and fell about laughing about it, knowing that stomachs were expecting us to produce a crisp brown tasty offering...thats what women do. Thats what husbands remember and comment on years later. “It was horrible” my husband once commented, I thought it tasted pretty good myself and am easily able to tune out the lack of browning... it was cooked and it was food...perhaps this is an Irish thing not to be fussy about food, just to appreciate the having of it. I have never been able to understand and will never sympathise with fussy pernickety people, and their tyranny. My mum once said, “if its not important in one hundred years then don’t worry about it.” Excellent life skills advice, Mum.  That Christmas my Mother-in-law joined us in poking it and adjusting the heat and laughed as hard as we did about the mystery - that although the oven was now on five hundred degrees centigrade, nothing seemed to be happening. It was to be an interesting day for her as she ended up being taken by ambulance to hospital after collapsing on the floor, with perhaps another stroke, perhaps a little whiskey too much, the bottle level was quite down, but my sister and I were not counting...who knows? She spent the next week in hospital anyway, and was probably glad to go back to her home out of our noise and disorder.

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On the same day, my sister’s husband retired to bed with a bad tension headache, and our teenage kids in common, ambled about the litter of the house, bemused by the fabulous wreck of the day, and no doubt delighted by its memorability. The next day June and I bought a large $40 bottle of Baileys, to help us get over the trauma, and I promptly dropped it on the floor of Woolworth’s, with a cracking sound that made us both hold our breaths in dread, but God was with us and it didn’t crack and we enjoyed it well that day.

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We have had many Christmases when our daughters made special Christmas dresses, of amazing ingenuity. There was one when their costumes included a pair of painted red and green shoes ... but the paint didn’t dry, so they went barefoot, like all true Australians. We had another time when my youngest sister started drinking champagne at about 10am and was doing “Pixie-Ann” imitations by noon, before she passed out on the lounge chair after dinner. The same day I recall sister number four also passing out on the lounge chair...sister number one succumbing to a violent migraine, and myself amazingly feeling very well if a bit overwhelmed, as my mother and Don’s cleared away the spoils. Sister, next up, number two wasn’t there so she has to be excused from that debacle of good fun and memories.

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One Christmas when all the adults were resting the slumber of plenty, the children present and our Mother bopped away in the front yard to Madonna, Elvis and others, with Mum disappearing off the video that they jointly shot, to pop her Anginine tablets, so she could keep going. I vaguely remember hearing the music, but missed out on the fun itself. Ah was so very very know how it is? This Anginine popping was something she became renowned for, at parties and gatherings...she loved to dance.

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This year has not been the best one ever. There has been illness in our little/big family.  Weeks, months have been spent in total despair at the ineptitude of local doctors and of the systems we think are in place for us in times of need , but only exist on paper. Each year brings its sorrow as well as its joys, and this is the way, the sacred way of all of us. Change has come along and pushed us into another gear, and thats okay its just life isn’t it? Our girls, now in their twenties have proved  beyond doubt that they know whats going on, they can take on so called authority and useless Sasenach-style bureaucracy and will carry on the family way. This is important to me, more important than I can express.

One of the major joys was the gathering of all five of my sisters gathered, for our eldest sister’s big fiftieth, and we laughed till our jaws ached, and then some more. And this Christmas, as many of us as can, will gather here at my home for yet another rollicking, lawless, Australian - (with an Irish flavour) Christmas.

For my Christmas tale is about people...not neatly set tables and matching glassware. My Christmas is about the eyeshine, the smile and the laugh. Its about the new baby born to one sister, the children becoming young adults, belonging to other sisters and the young adults, my daughters and one sister’s mixing with us all  as one, conglomerate like the fruit cakes I never made, but bought from Coles. Its about the nut shells crunched underfoot, the M&M’s thrown and caught, from father to child, child to mother and on. Its about colour and love, sparkle and tinsel and it doesn’t  cost a lot.

I see my own father, long gone, putting up our tree, while I watch in the heat of an inland summer,  my cheeks red from sunburn, my hair bleached from the chlorine of the pool. My father! All the Christmases that have followed, are but reflections of the purity in him that I sensed as he, childlike placed the last bauble of ornament on the sparse needled tree that we were so proud of. They are reflections of the hilarity I felt as I watched my Mother secretly play Santa, creeping unnecessarily whilst we giggled silently under that poor little blanket so long ago.

Christmas, is not religion for me, it is people, love, silly clothes, silly cooks, and the threat of impending disaster that never comes. And that is my religion, that is my Christmas Tale. Its the tale of our people.

Therese Mackay  -  November 16th 2000


Anonymous said...

And now all I can see in my black and white grainy mind's eye is a bowl full of tinned sliced peaches - known forever as goldfish - swimming in sticky syrup and evaporated milk, standing centre stage on me Aunty Alice's table, surrounded by all the paraphernalia of a 50s Christmas family dinner in Lancashire. Bedlam with goldfish!

PS You are even bloggier than me - phew!
PPS Good pics!

Unknown said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed your Christmas tales with your made me think about my childhood Christmas's and how delighted I glad you have many sisters still to gather and enjoy....I can't believe it is around the corner..stores are bulging already, but we don't go into town much these days. So I am saved from much. I well send a post to my brother and ask him for his memories too.