For Australians serving overseas in WWI, celebrations such as Christmas were particularly difficult, a reminder that the war had laid waste to their routines and taken them away from their families.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
But 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.
Earlier this year, musicologist Joe Bennett took a sample of the top 200 Spotify streams from the Christmas week of 2016 and dissected those that were Christmas-related.
The results, analysed according to parameters such as beats per minute, key signature and lyrical content, were passed to professional songwriters with a pedigree of hits for major artists to produce an “ultimate” Christmas song. The result is rather effective, even for unbelievers.
Aptly enough, that project was commissioned by a chain of shopping centres. But while it distinguishes between lyrical themes, it primarily illuminates the aesthetic dead-centre of the Christmas pop song.
From commerce to campaigns – political Christmas songs
The concept of the “Christmas song” is rife with political contradictions. It marks a day to put aside division and commerce, and yet is aimed squarely at that most blatantly commercial and competitive institution, the pop charts.
There’s a broad umbrella of musical and lyrical tropes that – pardon the pun – rings bells for listeners in constituting a “Christmas song”. The machine-tooled nature of the archetypal Christmas pop song is such a recognisable format, in fact, that it’s been opened up to a hybrid of data analysis and songwriting, as Bennett’s work illustrates.
Other researchers have sought to bring a broader typology to the service of unpicking the ideological resonance behind Christmas songs.
The musicologist Freya Jarman, for instance, uses a framework of overlapping concepts linked to Christmas, including the “traditional/religious” (such as Mistletoe and Wine), “nostalgia” (White Christmas), “romance” (Last Christmas) or “parties/friends” (I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day).
The last of Jarman’s categories though – “good will to all men” – most starkly highlights the complexities around commercial acumen and the political potential of Christmas music.
In the broader canon of “political” pop songs, many of the most well known are, in fact, Christmas songs rather than more overt “protest” songs – a political message smuggled in among the sleigh-bells. John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over is one example, another being Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, a universal soldier’s lament.
Other Christmas songs, notably Do They Know It’s Christmas, have involved direct political lobbying, such as when Bob Geldof tried to get the government to waive taxes on the single itself. This arguably became a more powerful intervention than other more obviously “political” songs – forcing the government to take a position on the tax arrangements around charity singles.
Such tensions around commerce and authenticity in popular music become especially marked around Christmas, with the charts a key battleground.
When Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became Britain’s Christmas Number 1 in 2009, it was the result of social media campaigning against the domination of X Factor releases as seasonal chart toppers. The song’s broad political message was deployed in the specific context of a longstanding debate within popular music consumption.
This method leaked from commentary on popular music’s internal politics into broader political discourse. Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead was pushed up the charts by social media after Margaret Thatcher died in 2013 and, latterly, the similar success of a protest mash-up accusing UK Prime Minister Theresa May of being a “Liar Liar” caused headaches for broadcasters regarding election regulations.
Striking a balance
But while the underlying politics of commercialism and community have now extended into the techniques of political messaging the rest of the year round, there are still attempts to strike a balance.
There’s a raft of Christmas songs that circumvent, without fully avoiding, the Yuletide by taking a sideways (or critical) view of it. These allow ambivalent listeners to participate in the festivities while maintaining their sense of critical distance from the more traditional trappings.
Fairytale of New York is an obvious example here. Where the “traditional” Christmas song is about Christmas, it’s about a love story gone awry, with Christmas as the backdrop. This allows sceptics to buy into the aesthetic, and even the sentiment, while holding firm their anti-Christmas credentials.
Others look at the contradictions head-on. Tim Minchin’s White Wine in the Sun uses the Australian December sunshine as a pivot to focus on family, taking a swipe at commerce – “selling Playstations and beer” – while embracing the sentimentality. Addressing the social context of Christmas is another means of tackling the broader, implicit, politics of class.
More universal ‘human’ Christmas messages
Family, fraught relationships and exclusion can make for a more potent, perhaps realistic, Christmas story than snowflakes and Santa.
In The Kinks’ caustic Father Christmas the narrator, a department store Santa, is mugged by a group of youths demanding practical help.
Give us some money … Give my daddy a job ‘cause he needs on”.
Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy, an isolated and fractious address from a prison cell, packs its emotional punch through mundane details and implied backstory. The story here is both personal and, through that prism, national.
Eschewing the standard Christmas musical and lyrical devices entirely, How to Make Gravy is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the typical tinsel-draped fare, and buries its politics in the personal. Yet it’s still become a Christmas classic.
The search for authenticity and political punch
From outright celebration, through charity to explicit political salvos, there are many ways to musically address the pleasures and strains of the season. Aesthetic tropes – the musical bells and baubles – notwithstanding, the form is actually very broad and embraces a range of genres.
The “ideal” Christmas song in the sense of commercial pop is also open to subversion. Beyond this, there’s a strong draw among some sections of the public towards more cynical, or at least ambivalent, takes on the traditional Christmas customs – even if these often end up adhering to what are ultimately similar sentiments.
As in Dickens’ immortal story of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, there’s room, it seems, for the humbug to carry the day without ruining it.
Nostalgia is now a key strategic consideration for business and retail. The marketisation of our fondness for a remembered past has stimulated the endless reboots of 1980s movie classics and children’s television series, the remarketing of retro videogames and even the re-appreciation of vintage commercials.
Beyond providing us with emotional access to objects and things from our previous and personal “lived” experiences, there are also aspects of today’s “retro revolution” that appeal to imagined experiences of a more distant past. This has been particularly evident in our desires to find inspiration when it comes to eating.
As we approach Christmas, it seems that our insatiable curiosity – and desire – for more real, more authentic, and more fun than even that which we are personally familiar with might mean looking past the Christmas dinner of our own memories to that of the ancestral memory instead.
Christmas dinner as the “real thing”
For many, the contemporary British Christmas dinner conjures up images of turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy, pigs in blankets, sprouts, pudding and, of course, the copious festive tubs of chocolates. The instantly recognisable blend of features of the Christmas dinner are so essential to the holiday experience that they have been appropriated by various businesses on the high street – whether it is Greggs’ Festive Bakes, Subway’s Festive Feast Sub or Pret A Manger’s Christmas Lunch sandwiches.
The very special, moreish (and mass marketed) nature of the contemporary “taste of Christmas” echoes the work of psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek on the dynamics of “surplus-enjoyment” and insatiable, bottomless desire.
It is conceivable that Christmas dinner has become for many, what Žižek might call, “the Real Thing”.
It is not so much that the taste of Christmas dinner has become iconic, or that the food itself satisfies us like no other. It is what Christmas dinner represents – happiness, togetherness, material abundance. These are the “real” things which we can never have too much of and we are forever trying to fill ourselves up with.
As a consequence, people often find themselves always wanting more over the festive period. Ultimately, this insatiability culminates in the copiousness and lavishness of the Christmas Day feast. Though this often is not the end, thanks to the leftovers. And we are destined to recreate the feast without fail every year afterwards. Some might even wish that it could be Christmas every day, as it were.
The notion of a pure surplus of enjoyment surrounding Christmas dinner could mean that enjoyment of it is premised on a ceaseless quest to realise and quench abstract desires. While we might have everything and more right now for a great Christmas dinner, that is still never quite good enough.
Christmas feasting through the ages
The trappings of the modern Christmas dinner originate in Victorian England, between the birth of urban industrialisation and modern consumer culture. The prototype of what we eat now is captured in representations of the Cratchit family dinner in the Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol. Although Dickens did not himself conceive of what would become the modern Christmas dinner, authors such as Cathy Kaufman make it clear that “his story was a road map for middle and working-class pleasures at the precise moment when both meal structures and the nature of Christmas celebrations were changing.”
The changes catalysed by the Victorians are not just seen in their foods of choice but also in accompaniments they introduced to the dinner table (the Christmas cracker,for example). They constructed Christmas dinner as a way of signifying conviviality, playfulness and community – a way of staging desire.
Before Victorian times, feasting at Christmas served a more raucous and crude means of breaking up the hardship and scarcity of the cold winter months. In the late Middle Ages and Tudor England for example, the feasting during Christmas time may have often been organised less elaborately around various pies, whatever game birds were in availability, or the meat of livestock that could not overwinter and needed to be culled. There may also have been a great divide between what the rich and the poor ate during Yuletide Feasting.
A new old desire
To tap into consumers’ insatiable desire for more fun, more authentic and more real festive experiences The National Trust has promoted the opportunity to experience a historic Christmas where visitors can enjoy a period-specific “Tudor Christmas feast beside a roaring log fire”.
Various businesses provide full-service catering based on authentic Victorian-themed food, tea carts and props – and a host of restaurants now offer “Victorian Christmas” menus and themed dining experiences. Elsewhere, the BBC and The Telegraph each provide DIY guides “to making your very own Victorian Christmas”.
The taste of modern Christmas as we know it now certainly fills us up. But ultimately it never fully satisfies consumer desire. We forever want more and consumers might slowly be realising that this little bit extra might not be available to them in the present but rather lies buried in the past ready for excavation.