Home is where the poinciana blooms
The vivid red and green of the poinciana tree represents the traditional colours of Christmas for me because this was the tree that bloomed every festive season during my Kenya childhood.
I grew up on the tropical island of Mombasa on the Kenya coast, with its endless white beaches, offshore coral reef and palm trees. There, Christmas was hot and humid so usually we spent it “up country” on my grandmother’s farm.
We would drive up the day before Christmas Eve, the car boot filled with packages.
On the roof rack was strapped a huge wooden trunk, wrapped in sacking against the dust, that contained all our clothes.
Throughout the long, hot, drive that took about seven hours if the road was dry we sang carols or played games devised by my father to keep us quiet. Better still, he paid us to “game spot”, offering anything from one cent (10 cents Australian) for ground squirrels and mongooses incrementally upwards through baboon and monkeys, zebra and common antelope, elephant and rhino to the “big three” of lion, leopard and cheetah which were worth 10 shillings.
On one memorable occasion we saw a mother cheetah and four cubs, just at daylight, on a slight rise near the side of the road. Another time we came round a corner and found a large bull elephant blocking the road, stirring up the red dust in anger so that my father had to back up.
When we arrived at the farm there would be a specially imported ceiling-high coniferous Christmas tree. We spent Christmas Eve decorating it, with the help of the servants, one of whom would lift up the youngest child to place the large gilt star at the top.
All would gather around the tree to sing carols while the children of the African farm staff would join us from the veranda. My brother, myself and cousins would then distribute small presents to these children.
Our own presents would be laid around the tree for opening with great ceremony before breakfast the next day though we’d have stockings, mysteriously filled in the night with small stuff, to thrill us when we woke.
Christmas lunch was traditional – massive turkey, baked ham, haunch of locally-shot venison, all the trimmings. Christmas puddings filled with silver sumunis (50 cent pieces).
Best of all was the Fortnum and Mason hamper flown all the way from London, full of luxuries including a whole smoked salmon, a huge round Stilton cheese, chocolates, mixed nuts (which all had to be cracked from their shells) and jams not readily available in Kenya.
The Boxing Day meal was as large and sumptuous as the Christmas dinner, except that it was served cold and out of doors and all the European staff and their families attended as well as several neighbours.
And of course there was music; more carols and Christmas songs and old favourites such as You Are My Sunshine and My Old Man Said Follow the Van. Everyone had to perform, my own contribution was usually The Little Match Girl sung with appropriate pathos.
Music was not confined to the farm’s small number of Europeans. The local tribe would celebrate Christmas with their own feast and a tribal dance. These ngomas were fine affairs, attracting people from far and wide.
The crowd would gather on a piece of flat ground about a mile from my grandmother’s house. Beads, skins, feathers and other finery would be put on. Instruments would be warmed up, especially the drums which were left all day in the sun before use.
Preliminary stampings and whirlings would take place among those planning to perform. Old men would gather in one part, old women in another, to urge the dancers on, or else assess the individual performances.
Sometimes they would join in, intoxicated by the rhythm and the increasingly frenzied drumming. But mostly dancing was for the young, as it is everywhere.
For that brief time of the dance the young men would be warriors again, as they had been before the British arrived and the maidens would release themselves in the dancing before submitting forever to a life of servitude and drudgery. We little white kids were encouraged to join in.
Then, suddenly it seemed, I was grown up and married, Africa was behind me and, with my husband and small children, I was about to spend my first Christmas in Australia.
We knew nobody and everyone we loved was thousands of miles away in the days before email and smart phones, when communication was mostly by blue airmail form.
But – oh lucky and generous country – neighbours we scarcely knew rallied round and left small gifts and invited us to parties and made us feel less alone.
And the poincianas spread their familiar branches and scarlet flowers to remind us that home is wherever you choose to make it.
Simple pleasures out on the farm
Growing up on a dairy farm in New Zealand, my first memories of Christmas hark back to one of Mum’s holey nylon stockings hung from the mantlepiece above the lounge room fireplace in a small weatherboard house at Pirongia.
My Dad was a share milker on the farm, with Mum usually helping in the dairy before dawn and in the evenings – and pennies were scarce.
But I still remember the excitement of waking up with my older sister on Christmas morning to find a glass bottle of Fanta, some unshelled nuts and a few sweets in that stocking. And a carefully wrapped book under the sparsely decorated Christmas tree that Dad had cut down with his axe a few days earlier.
We’d crack those nuts with Dad’s hammer on the verandah and snuggle into an armchair with Mum while she read that book. It was a children’s album with several stories, comics and puzzles – and the tale of the lonely little Christmas tree who became the most popular once he was decorated with baubles and tinsel.
In the days before Christmas Day, Mum bought green, red and white crepe paper which we children carefully cut into strips and folded together to make decorations for the dining room ceiling (next to the ever present fly paper!) as well as turning old Christmas cards into little lanterns with snipping and sticky tape.
We had a couple of large and friendly pigs which Dad had unkindly called Pork and Bacon in a paddock near the house. Somehow Bacon went missing on Christmas Day but for our lunchtime feast we had a magnificent leg of pork topped with the best crackling ever. In my youthful innocence I never made the connection and Dad always said Bacon had gone to a neighbour’s house to live.
Fast forward to my teenage years and we were living on another farm that Dad and Mum had managed to save up and buy for themselves near Otorohanga.
Christmas Day there consisted of Mum’s amazing cooking – always a plum pudding cooked in a floured sack to give it a delicious, gooey thick crust and peppered with threepence and sixpences which, if you weren’t careful, could chip a tooth.
The main meal would sometimes be a turkey from the farm, or even roast wild duck which Dad had shot during hunting season from a hide beside the farm dam. Often you would get a mouthful of shot from the shotgun as well.
Sometimes Christmas was spent at my maternal grandparents’ home at Tauranga. It was a long and winding drive there and I was given crushed up tablets in jam so I didn’t get carsick on the treacherous drive over the Kaimai Range.
Cricket would be playing on the old Holden’s car radio and with the tablets and the drone of the commentator’s voice, it was easy to drop off to sleep and not wake up until we arrived three hours later.
Peas were collected fresh from Grandad’s extensive garden, along with spears of asparagus, beans and new potatoes to go with some meat that Dad usually brought over in a Chilly Bin (NZ speak for Esky).
After we had feasted my sister and I would sit together on a stool and play Chopsticks on Grandma’s piano while Dad and Grandad played cribbage.
We would always make an excuse to traipse down the lane to our old neighbour, Mrs Spreadburrow, where we would feign innocence of a friendly visit but always had our hands out for boiled barley sugars from a jar she kept in the kitchen.
Traditions changed a bit when I moved to Australia. Now that I’ve had more than twice as many Christmases in Queensland as I did in New Zealand, the hot roast lunch has morphed into salads, ham, prawns and Moreton Bay bugs.
The excitement of presents under the tree waned with age, but has been renewed with the arrival of grandchildren Lily, Jax, Eva and Arthur.
The anticipation and shining eyes as they lay out cookies and milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, brings all the best childhood memories rushing back and the thrill of finding surprises under the tree the next morning is contagious.
Surrounded by little ones dressed as elves or wearing reindeer ears and Christmas costumes as they rip open wrapping paper and excitedly show off their prizes makes plenty of happy new memories.
Cribbage has been replaced by a swim to escape the heat, along with an afternoon nap to digest the surfeit of ham, trifle and pavlova.
When less is more
Like Greta Garbo, for some reason I just wanted to be alone. And on a steamy Christmas Day, a rented “renovator’s delight” in suburban Brisbane proved an accommodating substitute for the Belle Epoque grandeur of Greta’s Grand Hotel.
I get Christmas and generally play along willingly. Christmas is for families. It’s for friends. It’s for gluttonous gatherings gorging on peace, love and understanding.
But it’s all so crowded and loud – a cyclone of emotional exhaustion. Admit it. Haven’t you, even once, hankered to say, “Sorry Santa” and enjoy a truly silent night?
I’m a minor fraction of a bulging Catholic family, empirical evidence the rhythm method was yet more papal bull. Our Christmas Days are delightfully boisterous.
To our wild bunch, add random kids, in-laws, out-laws and often innocent passers-by. Things quickly reach a level of raucous that can scare family newcomers into therapy. Christmas is “a baby shower that’s gone way overboard”, someone wrote and they have my vote.
Blind faith won’t get me over the line. Religion and I aren’t on speaking terms, in tongues or otherwise.
And instead of warming my heart, the annual procession of publicity-ravenous worthies leaping from limos to feed the needy leaves me as cold as kelvin zero.
“Next to a circus there ain’t nothing that packs up and tears out faster than the Christmas spirit”, noted one wit. It’s the only time of the year I look at Muslims in Australia and think, “You lucky, lucky people”.
So, one year the chance came along to spend Christmas Day alone. All by myself. No crowds of hazy faces with their mystery names. No housemates wanting to do stuff. The energetic offspring off some place else.
This Christmas was going to be all about me and my housemate’s cat could make its own arrangements (we were never close).
Swatting away invitations from well-meaning friends concerned about my “orphan” status, I went Garbo with gusto, albeit a very merry one.
A mate supplied Veuve Clicquot¬ so cheap it was a true Christmas miracle the bottles hadn’t broken when they bounced off the back of the truck; some retro chardonnay, so full-bodied it appeared to have been aged in a butter churn.
My seafood hoard was a masterclass in over-catering (thanks for the genes, Mum!) ¬– oysters, kingies, bugs, sandies – backed up by baguettes, avocado, mango and other must-haves.
At one point I read a bit but for most of the time I sat on that hot veranda, listening to inappropriate music and reflecting on how lucky I was.
There are so many people for whom for Christmas is the worst day in their year-round struggle, emphasising everything that makes them sad.
I’d won life’s lottery – loved ones who loved me back, fair dinkum friends, a steady income and a roof over my head. I felt a tad guilty for demanding less on a day when all our love should be spread around. Mind you, top bloody day it was, though!
Have a great Christmas.
The Grinch doesn’t live here
Despite being a staunch atheist, I admit more than a passing affection for the festivities that celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Like many millions of Australians, I celebrate the occasion while paying lip service to its religious underpinnings, even if I have been to Christmas Eve carols at the majestic St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane. And as I look forward to my 69th Christmas, it’s worth reflecting on the shape of things past.
My earliest memory of something rather special approaching is of Mum and Dad cleaning the chimney of our little wood-burning stove.
I must have asked why because I remember being told that they were clearing the way for Santa to deliver presents.
This would have required a miracle indeed, despite Mum being a slim woman a little shy of five foot in the old money.
Oddly, I recall nothing of those childhood presents apart from my first wristwatch and pushbike, second-hand though the latter was.
Those were the days, when Apples only grew on trees and you could buy a pushbike for less than a wheel costs today, even allowing for inflation.
As soon as my year-older brother and I were up to the task, preparation for the ritual began with trekking to the end of our country road and raiding the pine plantation for a specimen to drag home.
It had to be not much more than two metres tall to fit beneath the ceiling and capable of looking respectable after surviving two or three weeks stuck in a bucket of wet sand. The second attribute was more pot luck.
After I left home, Christmases took on many a hue. Among the more memorable were a hangi at the beach where the pork was washed down with beer on the luke side of warm on New Zealand’s west coast; and an occasion in Port Moresby where we feasted on a basted ham and watched movies on a borrowed television all day to mark the best part of a year without the box.
Of course, my atheism had to take a back seat when children arrived and even more so now that my wife and I have a growing fleet of grandchildren.
She is still very much a believer: Christmas lights start going up at the beginning of December and the sound of carols and her beautiful voice echo through the house.
Last year I even allowed myself to be persuaded to don a Santa suit and have the grandchildren sit on my knee to receive their presents.
This did not go down at all well with the one-month old twins, who bawled their eyes out, and three-and-a-half-year-old Aurora, who instantly picked me as a fake Santa.
How could she tell? Easy. The real one had sent her a personally addressed video from the North Pole.
If I cop the Santa job again this year, and I have fattened up slightly for the role, my only wish is that the twins will tolerate being nursed for the occasion.