And so that was Christmas

Posted by Ruth Brown on January 11th, 2011

Christmas in Portland kicked off with a teenager trying to blow up the city’s Christmas tree.

Obviously the kid wasn’t quite right in the head—and there’s that whole “entrapment” thing—but, like most Portlanders, my reaction was a resounding, “Uh, why?” Portland? Really? You can drive to Seattle in three hours. People have heard of Seattle. His justification was that the very fact that Portland is an unlikely spot for a terrorist attack made it an easy target. Well sure, but in that case, you may as well just blow up like, Mosquito Lake, Alaska, or something. Surely degree of difficulty is factored in? I don’t think you can get into heaven by blowing up just anything.

image by camknows

Anyway. He wasn’t successful, and Portland’s sustainable, locally-raised Christmas tree stood proudly in Pioneer Courthouse Square for the duration of the festive season without further incident, and now I’m sure it has been recycled into an organic, vegan co-operative grocery store and brewpub, or something.

Christmas in Australia is a bit weird, when you think about it. It’s the middle of summer, yet we celebrate with heavy food, fuzzy red hats, images of snowflakes, songs about roasting fires and Jack Frost… it all seemed quite normal when I was there, of course, but looking back at it now, a little silly.

photo by Kinho Pizzato

I think Christmas in Australia is a bigger deal than in the US, though. Here, you’ve already had Thanksgiving and it’s getting pretty cold, and it’s really just a one-day holiday before everyone goes back to normal work and routine. Life slows down over summer in Australia. Schools stop, businesses close, people go on holidays, and there’s time for a huge build-up beforehand of office parties, “Christmas drinks”, bad TV specials, neighbourhood picnics and gift markets. Every year, my dad would buy a Lions Christmas Cake for when friends and family would drop round that week. I believe now he’s switched to Panettone.

But more importantly, I think, very little happens for secular Australia between Easter and Christmas. It’s been seven months without any big holiday or event. Christmas is all we get.

image by s2art. Melbourne’s not-at-all sustainable or locally raised “tree”. I still like it, though. as far as I know, it has never been a terror target.

One American friend suggested that if I was in a more Christian city, it would have been bigger. Probably. We have Jews, Buddhists and Baha’is in my family, but no Christians. Christmas is still our biggest family event of the year. Recently, some family members have even started going to Midnight Mass, though mainly because they like the music. I’m not sure how Christians would feel about that, though. It isn’t a free concert. I guess Jesus wouldn’t have minded, and it’s his party.

I know it’s cool to hate Christmas. Not if you’re 12 or 50, maybe, but if you’re 25, it’s cool to talk about how much you’re dreading it, how awful it was or will be. Fuck that. I like seeing my family, I like eating Christmas food, I like giving people presents, I like hearing Salvation Army members Play “Good King Wenceslas” on the tuba, I like watching Carols by Candlelight, I like all those bad American films about Christmas miracles, I like the smell of pine trees, I like my family’s little porcelain nativity set and I like going to the movies on Boxing Day.

Christmas in my family takes months and months of planning. Partially because there’s too many public servants, and partially because it’s big and complicated. There’s my dad, my mum, her sister (her husband, two kids, both of whom are married, one with a kid), her brother (his wife, three kids), my sister (her partner), my half-sister (her partner), my half-brother (his wife, two kids) and their mum, and my partner. That’s a crap-load of people, all with conflicting schedules. Somehow we make it work. It’s always hot. We make lots of salads. There’s usually cold chicken for the carnivores, spanikopita for the vegos, and plum pudding. It’s loud and everyone yells and laughs over each other. There’s a kris kringle and gifts for the kids. Someone gives a long speech about political and world events from the year gone by (no, really) and carols that make all those who’ve married into the family (and me) incredibly embarrassed.

Americans like to give each other cookies at Christmas. Since moving to the States, I’ve become a bit obsessed with learning to make all the Australian foods I never bothered to make when I actually lived there. My family always gave people East Timorese coffee and a guilt trip (long story), but I can’t do that here, so I set about on a rather epic journey to recreate some classic Australian biscuits, and gave them to everyone I know.

Anzacs I’d already made once, but I did it better second time round. Americans love that shit. It’s the golden syrup, I think.

White Christmas and chocolate crackles were hard. Not technically hard (they’re kids’ recipes, really), but they both rely on Copha which, it turns out, is an Australian thing. After much research, I discovered that copha is just solidified coconut oil. It’s not easy to find, but you can get it in jars at fancy grocery stores. THEN I found out the Germans use it too — they call it Palmin — so I hoofed over to a German grocery store where it was cheaper and in a more practical block form and I also bought a pretzel.

Then there’s desiccated coconut which, again, not that easy to find, but I got there eventually. Rice Bubbles are the same as Rice Krispies, so that was ok. Glace cherries aren’t quite as popular here (a credit to the country, really), but I got ‘em. Powdered milk they have, but only the fat-free version, for some reason. That turned out to be fine.

Then there was coconut ice, which was pretty easy, and every bit as sickeningly sweet as I remembered. Mmm.

Yo-Yos were technically the most difficult, but the only problem ingredient was custard powder, which I replaced fine with corn starch. I was pretty stoked to pull them off on my first go.

It was quite weird to look at all those biscuits more objectively. What’s with all the coconut? What’s with all the vegetable shortening? Are Afghans kinda racist?

Other than the Anzacs, the Americans liked the chocolate crackles the most. Really, they’re quite delicious and should be eaten by adults more often, I think. No Americans gave me cookies, but a Turkish friend gave me some delicious traditional sweets.

On Christmas Eve night, I video-Skyped into my family’s Christmas celebration. They put the laptop in the middle of the room and people took turns to sit and eat and chat with me. The sun was streaming in the window. Everyone was talking over each other and eating salads. I believe later there were embarrassing carols, but I managed to miss that part. Thank Christ.

photo by Whateverything. The White Stag sign gets a Rudolph nose every Christmas, which is cute.

  • Ouchmyheadhurts

    I’ll send you some iced vovos and some kingstons.

    • Ruth

      I considered iced vovos, but decided cookie vaginas might freak them out.

      • Ouchmyheadhurts

        I’ll never be able to eat an iced vovo without thinking of vaginas now. Thanks a lot, thats going to make visits to my nanas a lot more awkward.

        • Ruth

          Were you homeschooled? I can’t possibly be the first one to note the similarities…

  • Johanna GGG

    I think christmases in UK made me appreciate our australian christmases. I agree it is a little silly to celebrate the winter solstice while we are sweltering in a summer solstice but I sort of like how we have made some of our own traditions like carols by candle light and white christmas – I made it this year – the slice not the weather – and used white chocolate instead of copha and powdered milk and icing sugar – was v v v good – I have deicded I don’t even like copha

    • Ruth

      I hate white chocolate. I don’t know if I hate copha — it reminds me too much of childhood, even though it makes me a little nauseous. It’s like old school suburban “Italian” pizza or potato cakes or banana-chocolate chupa-chups: I know intellectually that they’re gross, but… too many good times.