It’s Christmas Eve in Australia and I really, really wanted to have this posted much earlier in December. But as always, when the holiday season begins, everything happens all in a rush. While one of my jobs ends in November, the other ramps up in December and sees me out on the road delivering gifts to clients for the better part of the month. When I can catch a day off, I am running from appointment to appointing and squeezing in far too many visits to the crowded shopping centres, racing to have coffees and catch ups with friends, spending endless, endless hours in the kitchen baking, and trying to capture as much of the festive spirit as I can.
But actually, it’s fitting that tonight is the first spare moment I’ve had to sit and process two really good chats I had in the last few weeks for the Retro Cooking Project. Regular readers will know I’ve been chasing down people with memories or traditions that span further than my thirty-odd years on the planet, and the start of Christmas seemed like a good time to investigate what life and food was like. I spoke to Val, who is the mother of one of my very best uni friends and who is in her eighties, and my pop, Bern, who turns 90 next month.
The answer to what life and food was like ‘back in the day’ from both Pop and Val, was that life in December was not as hectic as it is for us today.
Our Christmas menu includes lots of things; roast turkey and some ham, prawns and salads, a Christmas pudding for dessert (and a special ice-cream pudding for me). There are appetisers and biscuits, fruit and lollies to munch on before and after lunch and endless amounts of leftovers. But when Val was growing up in Queensland, Christmas lunch was one meal. It was a big highlight, with roast chicken on the menu - the only day in the entire year that her family had a roast chicken.
For my pop, who grew up in Tasmania in a small town called Myalla, a roast leg of lamb was the centre of the Christmas dinner table. They both talked about the Christmas plum pudding, which was steamed well before Christmas and left to hang until the day. Plum pudding was baked with coins that would bring luck to the people who found them in their slices. Val also told me they had special favours to bake into theirs. ‘They all had their own special meanings,’ she said. ‘Most of them to do with marriage I think.’*
While the meat differed between states, both Pop and Val told me that Christmas when they were kids was much simpler. It was one special family meal without all the fuss and bother. Pop says they would put out their Christmas stockings and in the morning they might have a ha’penny stick (which was a lolly) and sometimes a banana (remember, without the means of transporting produce back in the 20s and 30s, tropical fruit had no way of making it all the way out to small Tasmanian towns).
Later, after the War, Christmases changed. As people got more prosperous, traditions got more elaborate. Pop says that he and my nan wanted to give their kids what they hadn’t had when they were younger (and both of them came from large families where there wasn’t much to go around everyone). But the culture also changed - people were socialising more, having visitors and entertaining. In the 50s the era of the housewife began, and Christmas dishes got more elaborate, the parties much bigger, and went from being one special day to a special season.
Pop said that while things got more elaborate, ‘we never really went overboard - not until we had grandkids of course.’ He talked a lot about the things they did to make it fun; making everyone model the gifts they received (and if you got undies, you modelled them on your head), or everyone sitting down to play with the kids when they got toys. While he was talking about Christmas when my dad was little, lots of these traditions are things that were passed down to us.
I love Christmas. I love the traditions that my parents have passed down to my sister and I, many of which started with their parents. I love the big elaborate dinners and the way I spend hours in the kitchen baking homemade gifts for my family and friends. Traditions are for me, what makes Christmas special.
But I also really like thinking of Christmas as one day. This year, I’ve tried really hard not to use Christmas as an excuse to overindulge all December long. And tomorrow, when we sit down to the massive feast I know we’re going to have, I will think of how lucky we are to have roast chicken whenever we like.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone!
*I looked them up and she was right:
- Bachelor's Button: If a single man found it, they would be a bachelor for the following year.
- Spinster's/Old Maid's Thimble: If a single woman found it, they would be single for the following year.
- A Ring: If a single person found this, it meant you will get married in the following year! It can also mean you will be rich for the following year