Growing up in suburban Sydney during the 1970s, Christmases were full of excitement.
We never put our Christmas tree up until December 19, as my sister’s birthday is on the 18th and Mum didn’t want to take away from that. Sometimes the tree was a real pine, drooping and dropping needles in the heat and decorated with tinsel. Other years, we had a wooden tree with silver tinsel branches.
Christmas Day was extremely busy and must have been stressful for our parents but us kids loved it. Christmas morning, we awakened to discover ‘Santa Sacks’ (pillow-case sized drawstring bags) under the Christmas tree, with most of our gifts hidden inside. We always received new clothes to be worn on Christmas Day, new underwear for the year, school stationery and shoes, toys and books. We always seemed to have lots of gifts which we knew were from our parents. Despite having annual Santa photos at the local hall, I don’t remember ever believing in Santa. We didn’t celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday either and only attended church if Christmas Day fell on a Sunday when the service was just like every other week.
Our Christmas Day routine remained unchanged for my entire childhood. After exchanging gifts at home, we piled into the car for the trip across Sydney to our paternal grandparents’ house. I remember sweltering in the back seat, all windows down, and feeling car sick as we battled the Christmas traffic. Cousins and their parents, Great Uncles and Aunts all arrived and we sat down to a full traditional Christmas roast, prepared entirely by Nanna. She loved to cook for her family and wouldn’t hear of anyone else doing anything until the final stages. Sometimes we were allowed to finish setting the tables or stirring the gravy. Pa, an uncle or Dad always carved, as that was considered a man’s job. Portable electric fans were set up around the tables, as these were the days before ceiling fans, and we often sweltered as we enjoyed our Christmas roast. It always consisted of pork, turkey and ham with roast vegetables and all the trimmings – gravy, cranberry sauce, mustard and chutney. As we ate ‘dinner’ (lunch any other day), we joked with our cousins and looked forward to the entertainment. Nanna always made plum pudding for dessert. She hid old coins inside, poured brandy over and set it alight for a dramatic finish to the meal. On more than one occasion, she was a little overzealous with the brandy and once the match ignited the alcohol, the flames spread to the table cloth. Fortunately, they subsided and went out as soon as the alcohol was burnt off but much mirth and sometimes panic ensued in the meantime. We loved these Christmas theatrics and Nanna’s pudding was always the star of the day, even for those who didn’t eat it. Nanna was also famous for her hand-crocheted stockings for each of the grandchildren. We all received handkerchiefs, Imperial Leather talc and soap in our stockings for years. I’m still using some of the hankies Nanna gave me all those years ago. Even as adults, the boys continued to receive Imperial Leather soap, shaving foam or deodorant and there was much discussion when Nanna was no longer able to shop and couldn’t continue with the stockings. Even now, the sight or smell of Imperial Leather brings back memories of her Christmas stockings.
After lunch, we piled back into the car for the next instalment – a drive back across Sydney to my maternal grandmother’s house, the same one my mother and her siblings had been born in. Cousins, aunts and uncles joined us and sometimes Mum’s cousins and Uncle were there too. This was a more low-key affair, with everyone contributing cold foods for ‘tea’. Sometimes we sat out the back in the shade to eat but as we all got older, it was more often inside. There was usually a game of backyard cricket before eating another big meal consisting of chicken, ham and salads followed by lollies, Christmas cake, and slices for dessert. Food was laid out smorgasboard-style on the kitchen table and everyone helped themselves. In theory, this meant we could eat less, but rarely worked that way. This Nanna was a keen sewer and often gave us handmade gifts – embroidered towels, hand towels and patchwork cushions. After the festivities, we all helped with the washing up before heading home.
Boxing Day was a quiet day, but fun in its own way, as gifts were examined and storage places found for them. Mum and Dad always watched the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race on TV, followed by the Boxing Day Cricket Test. It was a day of rest and relaxation after all the hectic rushing around of the previous day.
What do you remember about your childhood Christmases?