This Thanksgiving, Jim served smoked turkey. He had invited me along with some other friends to his six course feast. As an Australian, the ritual puzzled me. I had imagined we would sing God Bless America for grace, and recite the Gettysburg address over coffee and liqueurs. But Jim was more excited at the chance to display his culinary excellence than any patriotic fervor. As my stomach progressively filled up with beer and turkey and ham and corn, I wondered why it all felt so familiar.
“Thanksgiving is like having Christmas without the gifts” I thought to myself as Jim served up more turkey. When I asked, like the youngest kid at Passover, “What makes this Thanksgiving day different from Christmas?” he tried to explain. There was one story, he said, about the pilgrims reinventing Christmas to be something other than a Papist debauch; another about the pilgrims surviving on a meager first harvest in an alien land. Then Jim tried to return the compliment. “How do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Australia?”
Since arriving in the States, I’ve been asked that question many times, so I had at least two well rehearsed responses. I could say, “We celebrate it the same way Americans celebrate Australia Day.” That normally provokes questioning looks and much scratching of heads as my befuddled American friends reply, “But we don’t celebrate Australia Day!”
The other answer drips with more authentic Aussie sarcasm. “Yes, of course, we have a huge celebration, almost as big as Fourth of July, thanking God that the Pilgrims landed safely in Brisbane, and how they shared their lamingtons and boomerangs with the aboriginals.”
Jim got a shot from both of these barrels, and he laughed with embarrassment as he passed the cranberry sauce. He had to admit that contrary to rumors,America was neither the hub nor the epitome of the world. I was quick to add that neither did America hold any monopoly on re-inventing Christmas. Australians since 1788 have done a pretty good job of that themselves.
The first Christmas “Down Under” was just as perilous and primitive as that of the Mayflower mob, but Australians from the start cursed God for their exile rather than thanked providence for their survival. The first recorded acts of white settlement at Sydney Cove were of the Regiment firing a musket, chopping down a tree and getting absolutely rotten drunk. The musket scared away the curious aboriginals, that first Christmas tree was used for a flagpole, and the booze was the closest they could get to being transported home to a cozy English Christmas. They had no other way of forgetting that they were now at what one Prime Minister called the “Arse end of the world!”
The two hundred and twenty five Christmases since have never been Thanksgiving feasts. Rather they have almost always been a pantomime of nostalgia. We’ve sung Christmas carols about “prancing through the snow,” sent greeting cards picturing reindeer, decorated Christmas trees with cotton wool snow balls, and hung our stockings on the mantel piece beside the air conditioner. And we have usually got drunk.
What else was there to do after sitting down to hot roast turkey, spicy stuffing mix, peas, baked potatoes, gravy, smoked ham, and sizzling hot, plum pudding drowning in a steamy lava of custard. At our family Christmas table, the fans would be whirring away under the table, the windows would be wide open to catch some faint zephyr of breeze, flies would be humming over the meat and the “mossies” (mosquitoes) would be readying to bomb dive. Sweat would dribble off everyone’s’ forehead like a sun shower. Having Christmas dinner in that sauna meant you take plenty of fluids, and so you drank and drank and drank until you dropped unconscious, cursing the Queen for inflicting such torture on her colonies, and yelling three cheers for the Australian Republic.
It all sounds so revolting, and it was, but to tell you the truth, I will miss it this year. The comic absurdity of aping our ancestors’ winter customs in the middle of a blazing hot summer make for epic theatre. Strange how we have to be in exile, or away from home to appreciate such things.
After about a hundred years, some of the Aussies sobered up long enough to discover that this wasn’t Mother England, regardless of the Union Jack on our flag, and it wasn’t a land of barren exile anymore. It was home. That’s when our artists started to paint gum trees that looked like gum trees rather than English elms, and the hills of their landscapes started to look like the hills of Parramatta rather than the hills of Old Erin. It wasn’t long before even Christmas would become the “dinky die” genuine Australian article.
Santa became a “Jolly Swagman,” his slay became a dray pulled by six White Boomers, kangaroos. The homesteads were decorated in eucalyptus branches and sprigs of wattle. We’d hitch up our swags instead of our stockings and put them beside the fan, so that Santa would have a chance to cool off. He was doing thirsty work so as kids, we had to leave him two cold bottles of beer with Santa’s name on them, and a glass ready on a side tray.
We told Santa he had to bring us Frisbees for the beach, a new bikini for big sister, a surf mat for little brother, and a beach towel for Dad, a beach hat for Mum, and a new tee shirt for me. Christmas for most families meant a beach holiday, a horrendous time for parents battling crowds, sharks, jelly fish stingers and sunstroke. For us kids, it was two weeks of liberation. Santa always helped us get ready for the holidays. He also had to equip us for the Christmas afternoon game.
For that reason, Santa always gave each of the boys, some new piece of cricket gear; a shiny red 12-stitch ball, a Norm O’Neil bat, and new pads or gloves so that all was in readiness for the Christmas afternoon Test match in the back yard.
The oldies would sleep off their alcohol poisoning first, and come late to the game. Uncle Martin might try his half-sober wrong-uns on us, or Dad might try to boost his ego and his batting average at our expense. But that was much later in the innings. The rest of us kids would leap unceremoniously from our half-eaten plum pudding and custard, and go straight out the back for a pitch inspection followed immediately by team selection. Next doors’ back yard became part of the cricket common, and all the kids on the block would arrive wearing their Chrissy tee shirts, sporting their new pads and gloves and bats and wickets. Inevitably somebody else would be brandishing a Norm O’Neil special.
It was one day of the year when you had to let the girls play. Christmas largesse had to even extend itself across the great Australian sexual divide. If they mis-hit the ball or dropped a catch, which they invariably did, they’d be hounded out of the game with our cruel jeers, “Go play with your dolls.” If they did manage to catch and score, which they also invariably did, then they became honorary boys. When you had sorted that out, the game was on in earnest, with no second chances or soft bowling. The Dennis Lillees and the Ian Chappels were allowed to rampage on the back yard oval of my boyhood home. No quarter was asked, as they say, and none given, unless Dad or Uncle Martin called for a drinks break to down another coldie.
The game was a precursor to the big cricket game- the Boxing Day Test match live on TV from Melbourne. Mum would pack a spectator pack for the living room- tea, “sangers” or sandwiches, made from the leftovers of Christmas dinner, and fruit mince tarts so we didn’t even have to leave our lounge chairs during the action. If we played the West Indies or New Zealand, it was absorbing enough but only if we were playing the English, (the Poms) for the ashes was it really truly Christmas.
On the hallowed green turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the MCG, eleven Aussies in white flannels were fighting Australia’s War of Independence, with bat and ball instead of gun and sword. The orders were to take no prisoners as the whole country held its breath while Lillee or Hughes or MacDermott pounded in from the Members end to bowl the first ball.
If Australia lost, it would be because the pitch was crook or the umpiring was crooked. But if we won, and we mostly did, or we mostly remembered we did, then Christmas took on an extra glow. From the Christmas Test, we would have a host of new heroes to emulate in the back yard, and we would feel peace on earth and goodwill to all men, even towards our old enemy whom we called the winging Poms. They too would blame the pitch or the umpire for their defeat, but we classed that as just being poor losers. We felt we had expunged our shameful past. The convict rebels had whipped those Pommie Royals.
I must have been dreaming all this as I heard Jim offer me some coffee. “Love a cuppa tea,” I said instinctively. After we had washed up the dishes from his Thanksgiving feast, we sat down to watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Denver Broncos. The ritual of sport completes the American feast just as it does in Australia, except that the football feels like pure diversion rather than an outpouring of national spirit. As I let the pumpkin pie settle, I thought again of Jim’s question and my too cynical reply.
How do Australians celebrate Thanksgiving? All my reminiscing has startled me into the discovery that my well rehearsed answers were wrong. On Boxing Day, Australia experiences a metamorphosis that supplants Christmas as surely as Thanksgiving was intended to supplant it in America. It can only happen every two or three years, like this year, when Australia plays England for the Ashes in Melbourne. If the Aussies win, Australia celebrates Thanksgiving. From the Prime Minister up, every Aussie will pray rather than curse through the left over Christmas beer with a litany of “You bloody bewdy mate!” The turkey for the feast is the English team, and it officially begins when the Aussie attack has dislodged the final Pommie wicket.
This Christmas, Australia may be celebrating Thanksgiving, and then again, we may not. But in a mysterious way,Australia wins back its national soul on the hallowed turf of the Melbourne Cricket Ground the day after Christmas. The Australian teams like the Pilgrim Fathers stake their claim to a new world and summon up a new gratitude for what they proudly call home. Of course we have no Pilgrim Fathers in our history, but only a rabblerousing bunch of convicts. We have no War of Independence or Boston Tea Party, and the British colors still fly (not so proudly) on our flag. But the convicts and convict sons learned to play cricket so that what we lack in history, we make up for in cricket and Christmas and the battle for the ashes. That becomes our own unique celebration of Thanksgiving, when we thrash the Poms.