Australian Christmas Traditions – History of Christmas

Aus Card

Christmas is always the most exciting time of the year. School children get six weeks holiday, and many professionals close their office from Christmas eve to the Australia Day Public Holiday on 26th January, so many families are in a holiday season over this period.

Christmas in Australia

Businesses and shops close on Christmas day and Boxing Day, however the major retail centres open after Christmas for clearance sales on all Christmas stock that did not sell. This has become an important part of Christmas for many bargain shoppers. Some people now wait to buy their gifts after Christmas at the sales. Those families that can afford it head for coastal resorts and beachside caravan parks for the holiday period.

December is one of the hottest months in Australia so outdoors sports like swimming, surfing and fishing are common and easy cold meat & salad dominates most meals.

Most Australian Christmas traditions have derived from our British beginnings, European influences and later the American commercial influences

The countdown continues with Carols by Candlelight in a park nearby from mid December. (see below)
On Christmas eve, children leaving out the Christmas stocking, or pillow case (because you can’t fit much into a stocking in this commercial world).


Church services, both on Christmas eve and Christmas Day, although this has developed into midnight services on Christmas eve which covers both in recent years.
Santa still comes silently down the chimney and eats a piece of cake and takes a drink left out for him before he goes.

Santa rides ‘a miniature sleigh’, with eight tiny rein-deer”. (although in the Australian outback it is too hot for the reindeer and Santa is pulled by Six White Boomers.

The small children are brimming with so much excitement that they can’t get to sleep on Christmas eve, and then wake you Christmas morning, when you have hardly closed your eyes, with excitement and wonder as they rip the wrappings to pieces.


Then comes a formal gathering around the Christmas tree as the presents from each other are handed out by the patriarch of the family, wearing a Santa suit or at least a Santa cap and a “tinnie”.

Christmas dinner, served at lunchtime on Christmas day, is at Grandma’s home, (while she is still able bodied).

The dinner table has a special Christmas tablecloth, Christmas napkins and napkin rings that you didn’t know she had. Also bonbons or Christmas crackers, streamers and balloons are added to the dining room and lollies and soft drinks are already on the table. Often the kids are on a separate table on the verandah.

The traditional Australian Christmas dinner had been the English style roast Beef or lamb sometimes also a turkey, with Gravy and baked potatoes & pumpkin followed by plum pudding and custard, which grandma used to fill with little silver thripences or sixpences.

In recent years more and more busy mothers are not subjecting themselves, and the family, to the heavy baked dinner on hot days and go for the cold meat and salads. Cold turkey with cranberry sauce and ham with apple sauce are now the leading Australian meat dishes for Christmas. But the steaming Christmas pudding with hot custard is still common and much, much, beer is consumed in the delirious heat.

Christmas Eve Traditions and Customs

Christmas Eve has many of its own customs and traditions. The most widely practiced one that still exists today is going to a Midnight Mass Church Service. In many countries, especially Catholic ones such as Spain, Mexico, Poland and Italy this is the most important Church service of the Christmas season. People might fast during Christmas Eve (not eat any meat or fish usually) and then the main Christmas meal is often eaten after the Midnight Mass Service in these countries. In some other countries, such as Belgium ,Finland,Lithuania and Denmark the meal is eaten in the evening and you might go to a Midnight Service afterwards!

The Midnight Mass Communion Service (or ‘Christ-Mas’) was a very special one as it was the only one that was allowed to start after sunset (and before sunrise the next day), so it was held at Midnight!

Christmas Eve is also the day when people in some countries, like Germany, Sweden and Portugal exchange their presents. I think Santa must have those countries on his extra early list! Christmas Eve is also Santa’s busiest day of the year when he has to travel over 220 million miles (355 million km) to get to every house on earth!

In many European countries including Germany, Serbia and Slovakia, Christmas Eve is the day when the Christmas Tree is brought into the house and decorated.

It was also traditional to bring the Yule Log into the house and light it on Christmas Eve. It was lit using a piece of the previous years log and then would burnt non-stop until Twelfth Night (6th January). Tradition also said that any greenery such as Holly Ivy and Mistletoe should only be taken into the house on Christmas Eve.

It’s also the time that the wonderful book ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens is set and that going out Carol singing was and still is very popular. In the past, if you weren’t carol singing, in parts of the UK, you might go out wassailing or mumming.

There were lots of superstitions in the UK that said girls could find out the initials, or even have visions, of the person they would marry on Christmas Eve! This was often done by cooking a special cake called a ‘dumb cake’. You were supposed to make the cake in silence and prick your initials into the top. When you went to bed, you left the cake by the fire hearth and your true love was supposed to coming in at midnight and prick his initials next to yours!

Other Christmas Eve superstitions included that farm and wild animals would kneel at midnight in honour of Jesus being born or that they could even talk!

Santa Claus and Coca-Cola

Santa by Thomas Nast in 1863St. Nicholas in Harper’s Weekly: January 1863

There’s a Christmas Urban Legend that says that Santa’s red suit was designed by Coca-Cola and that they might even ‘own’ Santa!

This is definitely NOT TRUE!

Long before coke had been invented, St Nicholas had worn his Bishop’s red robes. During Victorian times, he wore a range of colours (red, green, blue and brown fur) but red was always his favourite!

In January 1863, the magazine Harper’s Weekly published the first illustration of St Nicholas/St Nick by Thomas Nast. In this he was wearing a ‘Stars and Stripes’ outfit! Over the next 20 years Thomas Nast continued to draw Santa every Christmas and his works were very popular indeed (he must have been very good friends with Santa to get such good access!).

This is when Santa really started to develop his big tummy and the style of red and white outfit he wears today. Nast designed Santa’s look on some historical information about Santa and the poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’.

Santa by Thomas Nast in 1881St. Nicholas in Harper’s Weekly: January 1881

On January 1st 1881, Harper’s Weekly published Nast’s most famous image of Santa, complete with a big red belly, an arm full of toys and smoking a pipe!

This image of Santa became very popular, with more artists drawing Santa in his red and white costume from 1900 to 1930.

By 1931, when Coke first used Santa in their advertising, his image was well established. The first ‘Coke Santa’ was drawn by artist Haddon Sundblom. He took the idea of Nast’s Santa but made him even more larger than life and jolly, replaced the pipe with a bottle of Coke and created the famous Coke holding Santa!

Coca-Cola also agree that the red suit was made popular by Thomas Nast not them!

Christmas or Xmas?

Christmas is also sometimes known as Xmas. Some people don’t think it’s correct to call Christmas ‘Xmas’ as that takes the ‘Christ’ (Jesus) out of Christmas. (As Christmas comes from Christ-Mass, the Church service that celebrated the birth of Jesus.)

But that is not quite right! In the Greek language and alphabet, the letter that looks like an X is the Greek letter chi / Χ (pronounced ‘kye’ – it rhymes with ‘eye’) which is the first letter of the Greek word for Christ, Christos.

The early church used the first two letters of Christos in the Greek alphabet ‘chi’ and ‘rho’ to create a monogram (symbol) to represent the name of Jesus. This looks like an X with a small p on the top: ☧

The symbol of a fish is sometimes used by Christians (you might see a fish sticker on a car or someone wearing a little fish badge). This comes from the time when the first Christians had to meet in secret, as the Romans wanted to kill them (before Emperor Constantine became a Christian). Jesus had said that he wanted to make his followers ‘Fishers of Men’, so people started to use that symbol.

When two Christians met, one person drew half a basic fish shape (often using their foot in the dust on the ground) and the other person drew the other half of the fish. The Greek word for fish is ‘Ikthus’ or ‘Ichthys’. There are five Greek letters in the word. It can also make up a sentence of Christian beliefs ‘Ie-sous Christos Theou Huios So-te-r’ which in English means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”. The second letter of these five letter is X or Christos!

So Xmas can also mean Christmas; but it should also be pronounced ‘Christmas’ rather than ‘ex-mas’!

Is Rudolph a girl

Did you know that Rudolph might actually be a girl!? Only female reindeer keep their antlers throughout winter. By Christmas time most males have discarded their antlers and are saving their energy ready to grow a new pair in the spring.

The UK Father Christmas and the American Santa Claus became more and more alike over the years and are now one and the same.

Some people say that Santa lives at the North Pole. In Finland, they say that he lives in the north part of their country called Lapland.

But everyone agrees that he travels through the sky on a sledge that is pulled by reindeer, that he comes into houses down the chimney at night and places presents for the children in socks or bags by their beds, in front of the family Christmas tree, or by the fire place.

A fireplace with a hanging stockings

Most children receive their presents on Christmas Eve night or early Christmas morning, but in some countries they get their presents on St. Nicholas’ Day, December 6th.

St. Nicholas putting the bag of gold into a stocking is probably where the custom of having a tangerine or satsuma at the bottom of your Christmas stocking came from. If people couldn’t afford gold, some golden fruit was a good replacement – and until the last 50 years these were quite unusual fruits and so still special!

The biggest Christmas stocking was 51m 35cm (168ft 5.65in) long and 21m 63cm (70ft 11.57in) wide (from the heel to the toe). It was made by the volunteer emergency services organisation Pubblica Assistenza Carrara e Sezioni (Italy) in Carrara, Tuscany, Italy, on 5th January 2011. Just think how many presents you could fit in that!

How St. Nicholas Became Santa Claus

Santa in different colour outfitsIn the 16th Century in Europe, the stories and traditions about St. Nicholas had become very unpopular.

But someone had to deliver presents to children at Christmas, so in the UK, he became ‘Father Christmas’, a character from old children’s stories; in France, he was then known as ‘Père Nöel’; in Germany, the ‘Christ Kind’. In the early USA his name was ‘Kris Kringle’. Later, Dutch settlers in the USA took the old stories of St. Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle became ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now say ‘Santa Claus’!

Many countries, especially ones in Europe, celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day on 6th December. In Holland and some other European Countries, children leave clogs or shoes out to be filled with presents. They also believe that if they leave some hay and carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas’s horse, they will be left some sweets.

St. Nicholas became popular again in the Victorian era when writers, poets and artists rediscovered the old stories.

In 1823 the famous poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ or ‘T’was the Night before Christmas’, was published. Dr Clement Clarke Moore later claimed that he had written it for his children. However, some scholars now believe that it was actually written by Henry Livingston, Jr., who was a distant relative of Dr Moore’s wife. The poem describes eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became really well known in the song ‘Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer’, written in 1949. Do you know all eight names?


The Man Behind the Story of Father Christmas/Santa Claus

St. Nicholas was a Bishop who lived in the fourth century AD in a place called Myra in Asia Minor (now called Turkey). He was a very rich man because his parents died when he was young and left him a lot of money. He was also a very kind man and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who needed it. There are several legends about St. Nicholas, although we don’t know if any of them are true!

St NicholasImage from the St. Nicholas Center
www.stnicholascenter.org

The most famous story about St. Nicholas tells how the custom of hanging up stockings to get presents in first started! It goes like this:

There was a poor man who had three daughters. He was so poor, he did not have enough money for a dowry, so his daughters couldn’t get married. (A dowry is a sum of money paid to the bridegroom by the brides parents on the wedding day. This still happens in some countries, even today.) One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house (This meant that the oldest daughter was then able to be married.). The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry! This was repeated later with the second daughter. Finally, determined to discover the person who had given him the money, the father secretly hid by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas dropping in a bag of gold. Nicholas begged the man to not tell anyone what he had done, because he did not want to bring attention to himself. But soon the news got out and when anyone received a secret gift, it was thought that maybe it was from Nicholas.

Because of his kindness Nicholas was made a Saint. St. Nicholas is not only the saint of children but also of sailors! One story tells of him helping some sailors that were caught in a dreadful storm off the coast of Turkey. The storm was raging around them and all the men were terrified that their ship would sink beneath the giant waves. They prayed to St. Nicholas to help them. Suddenly, he was standing on the deck before them. He ordered the sea to be calm, the storm died away, and they were able to sail their ship safely to port.

St. Nicholas was exiled from Myra and later put in prison during the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian. No one is really knows when he died, but it was on 6th December in either 345 or 352 AD. In 1087, his bones were stolen from Turkey by some Italian merchant sailors. The bones are now kept in the Church named after him in the Italian port of Bari. On St.Nicholas feast day (6th December), the sailors of Bari still carry his statue from the Cathedral out to sea, so that he can bless the waters and so give them safe voyages throughout the year.