Friday essay: dreaming of a ‘white Christmas’ on the Aboriginal missions

Laura Rademaker, Australian Catholic University

This story contains images of people who are deceased.

Aboriginal missions, which existed across Australia until the 1970s, are notorious for their austerity. Aboriginal people lived on meagre rations – flour, sugar, tea and tobacco – and later, token wages. At some missions, schoolgirls wore hessian sacks as clothes or skirts made from old bags.

Christmas, however, was a joyful time on them. Old people remember Christmas for food, gifts and carols. But the celebration had a sinister edge. For years, missionaries hoped the joy of Christmas would replace Aboriginal traditions. But Christmas actually became an opportunity for creative cross-cultural engagement, with Aboriginal people adopting its traditions and making them their own.

The food was a respite from the usual diet of damper, rice or stew. On the Tiwi Islands in the Northern Territory, missionaries would shoot a bullock, and the old women remember feasting on beef and mangoes on the beach.

Oenpelli Mission (Gunbalanya) Christmas, 1928.
National Archives of Australia

Missionaries used food to attract people to church. Christmas might be the only day of the year that it was distributed to everyone. Cake was a favourite. On Christmas Day at Gunbalanya in western Arnhem Land in 1940 the superintendent called it “the happiest we’ve experienced here. Ten huge cakes for Natives – no complaints – 106 at service” (suggesting that church attendance was linked to cake quantity).

For elders on Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, turtle-egg cake was a highlight of Christmas in the 1940s. As Jabani Lalara recalled:

We used to have a lovely Christmas … In front of the church, that’s where they used to put the Christmas tree and that’s where we used to get a present. Especially like cake, used to make from turtle egg. I love that cake. True.

Gifts were another drawcard. On Christmas 1899, the Bloomfield River Mission in far-north Queesland was said to be “overflowing” because Aboriginal people “heard there would be a distribution of gifts”. These included prized items such as handkerchiefs, pipes and knives. At some missions, Santa (often the superintendent) distributed gifts.

Father Christmas arriving at Mt Margaret Mission in a rickshaw, 1945.
State Library of Western Australia

However looking back, old people have mixed feelings about the gifts. As much as they loved them at the time, they discovered their treasures were only toys that white children had rejected. As one person told me:

We didn’t have much in them days, it was tough, but we were happy. We were happy with those secondhand toys at Christmas from the Salvation Army. We didn’t know they were secondhand toys at the time. I found out in my later years.

Christmas rally church service, Fitzroy Crossing Mission, 1954.
State Library of Western Australia

Missionaries and Aboriginal people alike loved carols; they were an opportunity for shared enjoyment. Tiwi women look back fondly on their time singing with nuns. Said one woman:

Sister Marie Alfonso, she used to play organ and all of us girls used to sing in Latin, but we still remember… Every Christmas [the old women] sing really good. They all can remember that Latin. It’s really nice.

There were also nativity plays, with Aboriginal children proudly performing for their communities. Said another:

When there was Christmas or even Easter Day there was a role-play… On Christmas Day I used to read. Three of them was the Wise Men and the other one was Mary and the other young boy was Jesus.

Christmas at Nepabunna, C.P. Mountford, 1937.
State Library of South Australia

Behind the lightheartedness came an agenda. As one priest commented, Christmas was to be a “magnet” to draw people into missions. Ultimately, missionaries hoped the celebration of Jesus’s birth would prove more attractive than Aboriginal people’s own ceremonies.

For those who would not settle on missions, Christmas was used against them. At Yarrabah in Queensland the “unconverted heathens” were invited to join the festivities, but their exclusion was symbolised by them walking at the back of processions, sitting at the back of the church and being the last to be served their meal.

Aboriginal Christmas

In missionaries’ eagerness to use Christmas to spread Christianity, they started to use Aboriginal languages (with Aboriginal co-translators). At Ngukurr in southern Arnhem Land and Gunbalanya, the first church services in Aboriginal languages were Christmas services (in 1921 and 1936).

Aboriginal people loved carols, so these were the first songs translated. On the 1947 release of the Pitjantjatjara Hymnal, Christmas carols were the most popular (The First Noel sung in parts being the favourite). On Groote Eylandt, translation began with Christmas carols, nativity plays and Christmas readings in the 1950s. At Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island in Arnhem Land, the annual Christmas Drama was in Yolngu Matha from 1960.

Translation was meant to make missionary Christianity more attractive, but it opened the way for more profound cultural experimentation. Aboriginal people infused Christmas with their own traditions. On the Tiwi Islands, in 1962 there was a “Corrobboree Style” nativity on the mission told through traditional Tiwi dance. Dance traditions missionaries had previously called “pagan” were now used by Tiwi people to share the Christian celebration.

At Warruwi on the Goulburn Islands in western Arnhem Land, Maung people began “Christmas and Easter Ceremonies” from the 1960s, blending ceremonial styles with Western musical traditions as well as their own music and dance. At Wadeye, in the Northern Territory, “Church Lirrga” (“Liturgy Songs”) include Christmas music, sung in Marri Ngarr with didjeridu. The Church Lirrga share the melodies of other Marri Ngarr songs that tell of Dreamings on the Moyle River.

Many who embraced Christianity sought to express their spirituality without missionary control. At Milingimbi in the NT, Yolngu people developed a Christmas ceremony with clap sticks and dijeridu outside the mission and free of missionary interference.

Mt Margaret Mission Christmas, 1933.
State Library of Western Australia

At Ernabella Mission in South Australia in 1971, people began singing the Christmas story to ancient melodies, with the permission of their songmen. Senior Anangu women at Mimili, SA, later sang the Pitjantjatjara gospel to their witchetty grub tune, blending Christmas with their Dreamings and songlines.

Christmas was woven into community life. Just as introduced animals found their way into Aboriginal songs and stories, Christmas became part of the seasons and landscape, as Therese Bourke explained at Pirlangimpi on the Tiwi Islands:

They used to have donkeys [here] and the donkeys used to come round in December. And my mother’s mob used to say, “they’re coming around because it’s Christmas and Jesus rode on the back of one.”

The missions transformed into “communities” under a policy framework of self-determination in the 1970s, although missionaries themselves often remained active in the communities for decades. Meanwhile, many Aboriginal people have mixed memories of the missions – fondness for some aspects, anger at others – including Christmas.

The ConversationBut regardless of the missionaries, Christmas became an Aboriginal celebration in its own right. Some missionaries even came to appreciate Aboriginal ways of celebrating Christmas in line with their Dreamings. Though missionaries had wanted to replace Aboriginal spirituality with a “white Christmas”, it became a season of deeper meetings of cultures.

Laura Rademaker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Modern History, Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Airfares to Darwin, Alice Springs to get Senate scrutiny as airlines ‘take advantage of monopoly’

Top Enders forking out for sky-high airfares will get the chance to air their frustration when a Senate inquiry visits Darwin next year.

The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is calling for first-hand experiences of flight prices in regional, rural and remote locations and will scrutinise the factors that determine pricing.

“It’s looking at regional routes and seeing what can be done from a federal perspective, from a regulatory perspective, to try and improve our connectivity,” Member for Solomon Luke Gosling said.

The funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities

On 16 November 2017, the Senate moved that the following matters be referred to the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee for inquiry and report by 30 March 2018.
Submissions should be received by 5 February 2018.

The operation, regulation and funding of air route service delivery to rural, regional and remote communities, with particular reference to:

1. social and economic impacts of air route supply and airfare pricing;
2. different legal, regulatory, policy and pricing frameworks and practices across the Commonwealth, states and territories;
3. how airlines determine fare pricing;
4. the determination of airport charges for landing and security fees, aircraft type and customer demand;
5. pricing determination, subsidisation and equity of airfares;
6. determination of regulated routes and distribution of residents’ fares across regulated routes;
7. airline competition within rural and regional routes;
8. consistency of aircraft supply and retrieval of passengers by airlines during aircraft maintenance and breakdown;
9. all related costs and charges imposed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority; and
10. any related matters.

Committee Secretariat contact:

Committee Secretary
Senate Standing Committees on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport
PO Box 6100
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Phone: +61 2 6277 3511
Fax: +61 2 6277 5811

Sea Swift & EARC Team Up for Recycling Initiative

Sea Swift has joined forces with East Arnhem Regional Council to help reduce landfill waste and increase recycling in the Northern Territory’s remote island communities.

The Northern Australia shipping company will be sponsoring the Council over the next 12 months by transporting recycling materials from the East Arnhem Land communities back to Darwin for processing at no cost to Council.

The initiative aims to reduce the combined 215,641m² area of all landfills in East Arnhem communities, and help the Council reach their target of 25 per cent waste recycled by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2025.

Sea Swift Chief Executive Officer Fred White said Sea Swift’s philosophy has always been to support every community where it operates.

“We have always understood the importance of supporting local communities, because we realise that a company like Sea Swift isn’t just a passive passer-by,” he said.

“The communities where we operate rely on the services we provide, and giving back is a core value of our company.

“We fully support the Council’s aim to minimise landfill expansion and the negative environmental impacts to their communities, making them more sustainable into the future.”

Sea Swift will help transport recyclable waste to Darwin for processing from communities including Gove, Groote Eylandt, Bickerton, Umbakumba, Elcho Island, Lake Evella, Milingimbi and Ramingining.

The following items will be recycled:

  • Cans and bottles
  • E-waste (old electronics including TVs and computers)
  • Hard mixed plastics (wheelie bins, pipes etc.)
  • Plastic shrink wrap
  • Batteries (automotive and domestic)
  • Aluminium, brass, and copper wire
  • Fluorescent tubes
  • Waste engine oil.

All recycling will be strapped down on pallets, with Council estimating up to four pallets from each community per month.

East Arnhem Regional Council Chief Executive Officer John Japp said Sea Swift’s sponsorship would greatly help the Council and its 8,500 residents to be a more sustainable region.

“There are nine communities located across the East Arnhem region, and five of these communities are island based which adds to the remoteness and logistical issues in proving council services to the communities,” said Mr Japp.

“The support from Sea Swift will assist Council in achieving the actions set out in our Waste Management Strategy by reducing the ecological footprint of our nine communities.

“Council is focused on improving environmental management of our landfill operations and creating a more sustainable future for this generation and for generations to come.

“The sponsorship reduces the financial burden of transporting recycling back to Darwin and frees up Council funds that would otherwise be spent in the resources recovery process.

“It also allows Council to use the saving on other important programs that support the wellbeing of the East Arnhem communities.

“Sea Swift’s support and sponsorship is helping the East Arnhem Regional Council recycle the past to preserve our communities’ future.”

Sea Swift also sponsors several other recycling initiatives in the Northern Territory as part of its overall community support and engagement program.

Sea Swift has depots in Darwin and Gove, as well as in Far North Queensland, and continues to expand its provision of services into the Northern Territory.

Sea Swift is one of the largest employers in Northern Australia with more than 400 staff and 30 vessels, and makes a significant contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the region.

If you have a freight enquiry and would like to speak to Sea Swift, contact its Darwin office on (08) 8935 2400 or email

For more information on Sea Swift, visit

Community Recognised in Official Opening Ceremony of Wathawuy Merge Project

Official Opening Ceremony of Wathawuy Merge Project Completes Community Recognition!

On Thursday 19th October Dhimurru held an ‘’Official Opening’’ event to acknowledge the community organisations and funding bodies that supported the project over the past 12 months. It was also a chance to thank Traditional Owners of this area for their support as well. Respected Rirratjingu elder Bakamumu Marika had the honour of cutting the ribbon and declaring the new crossing to Goanna Lagoon OPEN.

It was a great day of speeches, manikay, bunggul, recognition and most of all, reflection. Dhimurru believes an important part of our work culture is to make our staff feel proud of all their great achievements. Sometimes the staff need to take a step back and acknowledge their achievements because sometimes, they just move from one project to another without acknowledging this!

This project has achieved a management strategy to protect the river biodiversity for long term protection for future generations to enjoy.

Dhimurru would like to thank again Rio Tinto Gove Operations for sponsoring the event through the Sponsorships and Donations Programme, and the supporting organisations listed below for their contribution to the successful outcomes of the Latram Goanna merge project.

Organisations and people who supported the project were:

1. Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics NTG
2. Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangement Unit, Department of Treasury and Finance
3. Disaster Recovery Branch, Emergency Management Australia
4. Department of the Chief Minister Regional Network – East Arnhem
5. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
6. NORFORCE – Arnhem Squadron
7. Datjala Work Camp
8. Ngalakan Billy Wanambi – Learning on Country Program
9. Madawurrk Marawili – Learning on Country Program
10. Bayini Yunupingu – Learning on Country Program
11. Marayala Yunupingu – Learning on Country Program
12. Gudatjpirr Yunupingu – Learning on Country Program
13. Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation
14. Rio Tinto Alcan Gove Operations
15. YBE (2) Pty Ltd
16. Tecker from WJP Structural
17. Gumatj Aboriginal Corporation

More Images

Dhanbul Djamarrkuḻi’

A History of Bi-lingual Education at Yirrkala School

A short documentary about Yirrkala school’s strong and long history of bi-lingual education.

Please enjoy watching Dhanbul Djmarrkuḻi (Spirit Children) and share it with your friends – this amazing community are eager for their story to be heard!

Dhanbul Djamarrkuḻi’ from Sarah Hope on Vimeo.

Deltareef Gumatj Workers to Lose Jobs

DELAYS in awarding remote housing contracts will cost 15 Yolngu workers their jobs, a joint venture company has warned.

Delta Reef Gumatj has finished the construction of nine houses on Galiwinku but is still in the dark on at least one tender due to delays within the Territory Government.

DRG general manager Michael Martin said his workforce was in limbo while they waited for decisions.

“There are two tenders we are waiting for some form of official notification,” he said.

“There are only two contenders: us and a Darwin company. So I don’t understand why it is so hard.

“It seems such a shame that the local guys worked so hard to try to get ahead, and get some training, only … to have it all taken away by the short-sightedness of Government, and its program delivery methods. This current Government seems to be particularly hard to deal with, slow in its actions, and basically downright disrespectful in its attitude.

Djarrak Football Club supporters celebrated finals glory with both the Women’s and Men’s teams winning their respective Grand Finals in fine conditions at Yirrkala Oval on Saturday. The club won the first Gove AFL Premiership contested in 1975 and the Women’s team wrote themselves into the history books by winning the first Gove AFLW Premiership by virtue of a dominant display of accountable football to beat a tough Gopu Football Club by 9.11 65 – 5.9 39.

In the men’s final that started at 3:30pm, the Djarrak FC side faced a late onslaught with a desperate Gopu FC taking the lead with 5 minutes to remain. Matthew Campbell, named Best on Ground, claimed a late intercept from the defensive zone to repel a Gopu raid and the following passage of play into the Djarrak forward line allowed the Brown and Gold Army to raise the pressure. Lee Mununggurr played the role of the hero as he calmly slotted an angled shot to take the final score to an 11.6 72 – 9.12 66 victory.

Effectiveness of the Governance of the Northern Land Council

Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation Chairman Bakamumu Marika and Senior Rirratjingu Traditional Owners met with the Prime Minister in East Arnhem Land, in September 2014, to request a comprehensive review of the operations of the Northern Land Council, which is a Commonwealth Statutory Authority.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has released a report from an investigation into the ‘Effectiveness Of The Governance of the Northern Land Council’, June 2017. The report mentions ‘failed administrative processes’ and identifies ‘considerable work remains for the council to be administratively effective’. The June 2017 report is the most recent of consecutive ANAO reports, into the running of the Northern Land Council, to identify concern. In 2015, an ANAO audit identified ‘serious weaknesses in financial management’.