I celebrated Australia Day 2010 in Warsaw, Poland, with our little bunch of Aussie expats here, in pretty much the same way I do most years: some of our mates, in this instance Pete and Fiona, fired up the barbie, we got some cold beers, and we played a bit of backyard cricket. We certainly weren’t going to make any concessions for the fact that it was minus 25 outside and there was a metre of snow on the ground.
OK, so we made a few concessions. It turns out that when it’s minus 25 even the top-of-the-range Meat Master doesn’t actually get warm. So the boys took turns at standing by the BBQ until their fingers started to freeze, at which point they brought the snags inside and did them on the stove. And since all the snow and ice made it a bit hard to run for the ball, our cricket game was short and mainly symbolic. Although Pete, the host with the most, built a luge run for the kids in the snow around the backyard. That was cool. And there was mulled wine as well as cold beer. Because, well, that just seemed sensible.
But it was still Australia Day. It was still a bunch of Aussies together devouring unevenly cooked meat, drinking a bit too much beer and arguing over the merits of the Triple J Hottest 100 finalists. It’s tradition, after all. And when you’re away from home, keeping your traditions alive feels very important. Luckily, it doesn’t really have to make sense.
Just after this, I gave a talk to some primary school students here in Warsaw about life in Australia. Since it was just after Christmas, I thought they might be interested in how we celebrate at home. So I took along some photos of my family on a typical Christmas — us devouring plates of roasted meat, shading ourselves from the searing heat under the pergola, dressed in board shorts and a Santa hat (this might be just my Uncle Jeremy), with our decorated Christmas tree blinking in the background.
And then, just for fun, I showed them the photos of us playing cricket and BBQing in the snow for Australia Day in Warsaw. Because it struck me that they’re related. On the one hand, here’s us trying to celebrate Australia Day in Warsaw as though it were summer (with a few concessions), and on the other, there’s us trying to celebrate Christmas in Australia as though it were winter (with a few concessions).
Christmas makes sense in Europe. Which is obvious now that I think about it, since most of what we think of as Christmas traditions have their origins in millennia-old European mid-winter celebrations. Maybe I’m a bit slow, but this never occurred to me before. The enormous hot meal in the middle of the day. The snowy reindeer cards. The lit up pine trees. It suddenly seems clear why you’d do these things when it’s snowy and grey outside and dark by half past three. Despite the advent of heated towel rails, plasma screen TVs and charter flights to the Greek Islands, the fact that you made it half way through the winter and only have half to go still seems like a bloody good reason to have a party to me.
Take those mid-winter traditions and transplant them to Australia, and you do get a bit of a strange outcome. Like the enormous hot meal in the middle of a stinking hot day and the plastic fir tree. Which is probably why we’ve made a few concessions. Like getting together at the beach or a park (or at least under a convenient sunshade) rather than by an open fire. Like adding seafood and (God knows why) sultana salad to the menu. And making Christmas cards with surfing Santas on them.
Which doesn’t mean we can’t also light everything up like, well, a Christmas tree — even though it doesn’t get dark until long after the kids have gone to bed. Or, spray fake snow around and send cards with mistletoe and reindeer. For the people who brought Christmas to Australia, Christmas meant snow and lights and roast meals. I guess they were far away from home, and keeping their traditions alive felt very important.
Which doesn’t mean that you can’t adapt them. Which we have, of course. I mean, does anything say ‘Australia’ like a Santa hat and board shorts? (or this might just be my Uncle Jeremy). But I actually think what’s amazing is not how much we’ve adapted Christmas, but how much we haven’t. Even the bits that intrinsically make as much sense as, well, a mid-winter festival in the middle of summer. But then, when I think of how determined I was to play cricket in the snow on Australia Day, maybe it just goes to show how strong traditions can be.
There’s gotta be some explanation for sultana salad, after all.
Anyway, it’s nearly Oz Day here once more. Of course, compared to Christmas it’s a newcomer. Australia Day in Warsaw is even newer. But I know how it goes. Pete’s going to fire up the barbie and the boys will stand by it for a while, even though we know that doesn’t work. And at some point someone will say, “anyone for snow cricket” and we’ll put on our gloves and have a hit until our noses go red and then we’ll go inside and warm up with some mulled wine and argue over the Triple J Hottest 100 finalists and toast the fact that it’s cool to come from Australia. Even though we’re not there right now. And I’m not sure it will seem all that odd, even though it really, objectively should. It’s tradition, after all. It doesn’t have to make sense.
I hope Pete builds the luge run in the backyard again, though. Nothing says ‘Australia Day in Warsaw’ like a backyard luge run.