Proud immigrant and Australian, Ingeborg van Teeseling, retells the shock and awe she experienced at her first Australian Christmas.
The most vivid memory of my first Australian Christmas is sunburn.
I had been sitting under a badly strung tarp and at the end of the day, the left side of my body had to be cooled with a frozen cucumber while the right side was still European-style pale. Obviously not made for this country, I remember thinking a thought that came at the end of two days of culture shock. It had started at 6am the previous morning, with the good old fashioned Aussie tradition of waiting in line at the fishmonger’s. Apparently it was prawns we were after and although that didn’t necessarily say “Christmas” to me, I quickly decided to treat the whole experience as a journalistic assignment.
Tintin in the wilds of Africa, something like that.
The prawn quest took almost four hours: hundreds of people in thongs, shorts and t-shirts with logos like “It’s good to be the king,” half cranky, half resigned, ordering enormous quantities of seafood; the people at the counter like stern primary school teachers directing the throng. Then came the supermarket and the fighting over parking spots, shopping carts and the last turkeys and mangoes on the shelves. Back home, one of my neighbours was in tears because she had missed out on a particular toy she had been planning to give to her 5-year old. But here they were frantic about a lack of sticky tape or corn flour for the “bloody pavlova.” There were carols on the beach, which made me laugh, and Christmas light displays with sleighs pulled by kangaroos.
The Christmas lunch the next day took me further into the African wilderness. There was the heat, of course, and children sent to the fridge to fetch their barbequing fathers a “cold one.” This being Sydney, the talk was mainly of real estate and postcodes, while the little people ran around spraying each other with colourful Super Soakers. You have to understand I am not a religious person. I come from one of the most secular countries in the world, where God hardly gets a mention. But even with that background, it took me a while to make a connection between the scene in front of me and the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Maybe it was the lack of cold and dark, that drives people indoors and makes them somehow more contemplative, more focused on the occasion. Maybe it was the distance again, the island-mentality of the Australians, that makes them remote from bigger concepts like hardship and the promise of hope, that, for me, are the essence of Christmas.
I am not usually nostalgic or prone to homesickness. What, for the migrant, is home anyway, right? But this first Christmas I felt incredibly out of place. Suddenly I longed for my parents’ place at this time of year. Conveniently forgetting family dramas and stress, I remembered the traditions of our Christmas. The Dutch don’t give presents and Santa has only been recently and very half-heartedly introduced. We’ve got Sinterklaas on December 5, which is an altogether different occasion, with gifts presented with the aid of home-made rhymes, hidden in pots of honey or only after completing a scavenger hunt. The high point of Christmas is Christmas Eve. Although there is no love lost between us and the Higher Being, everybody goes to church, with the 11pm service standing room only. It is usually an ecumenical service, with lots of singing and the retelling of the Christmas story, after which everybody rugs up and goes home.
In our family, the party would start then. My father, who during the war had vowed never to set foot in a church again, had set the table. The luxury of white bread and the traditional kidneys-in-Madeira-sauce, first accompanied by tea, then a good red wine. And conversation. Lots of conversation. After an hour or so somebody would put the children to bed, while the others were usually fighting over the best way to bring peace to the world (or knock some sense into politicians, whichever came first). There would be my mother’s famous current loaf, made in a cast-iron, 200-year old, lamb-shaped mould, with indulgent amounts of butter. And the smell of the oil of mandarin peel shooting through the flames of the candles on the table.
The next morning, after a late breakfast, the table would be cleared, so the children could make menus for the Christmas dinner, a lavish, communal and usually long-winded affair, with people dressed up and on their best behaviour. But then there would be Boxing Day, which the Dutch call the Second Christmas Day, where it would all fall apart. Usually, it would start with scraping frost off your car windows and slipping and sliding along icy and packed roads to the in-laws, cranky children in the backseat.
Now this is where my first Australian Christmas came into its own and hooked me on the Antipodean experience. I had never seen a cricket match in my life, you have to understand. In December, the Dutch watch ski jumping and ice skating on television, betting on who will fall and break their legs. This time, I joined a crowd gathered for the start of the Melbourne leg of the Ashes. I hardly comprehended what I was looking at, but after a few hours, I did get the hang of a tradition called “sledging,” a form of psychological power-play that amused me to no end. This was 2006, with Warne, Gilchrist, Hayden, Hussey, McGrath, Cook, Strauss and Pietersen I was watching the masters at work. Suddenly I was very happy with cold cherries and overripe mangoes, even with beers cracked open early in the morning.
There were half-understood history lessons, which connected “The Betrayal of Singapore” to the obvious right of the Australians to get back at the Poms. Even Gallipoli and Gough Whitlam got a mention and every other perceived crime the British had ever committed in the eyes of their offspring Down Under. At the end of the day, Warne had taken five wickets and Ricky Ponting’s team was set to smash the visitors. Through the sound of willow on leather, I had almost become an Australian for the first time.
Christmas and all.