Aussies Forge New Christmas Traditions

NO "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," here. It's more like "bodies roasting on a sizzling beach."

Christmas in Australia means hot weather, "cozzies" (swimsuits), watermelon, summer break for kids, and the beginning of a month-long shutdown of many industries. But just because it's summer doesn't mean throwing out all the Christmas customs derived from Charles Dickens's cold, Victorian England. Australians listen to just as many songs about glistening snow, sleigh bells, and frosty noses as Britons and Americans do. They just do it while waving away flies.

And they have a sense of humor about the contradiction. A few weekends ago, a platoon of red-sailed boats shoved off from a Sydney beach, manned by sailors in red Santa hats.

An Australian Christmas is a blend of old and new. The major department store, David Jones, for instance, has a choir singing Christmas carols - while shoppers buy sunglasses and beach towels. Close to 100,000 people gathered in a Sydney park one evening recently to sing Christmas carols while holding candles.

Many still celebrate Christmas with the customs their English and Irish ancestors brought with them, and sitting down to a hot midday meal of roast ham or turkey while wearing a three-piece suit (in 100-degree heat) is still common.

But Australia has been pulling away from its identification with England; more people are developing holiday customs better suited to the native climate and culture here.

In a collection of letters to the popular radio talk show "Australia All Over," Annette Deans, from Wishard, Queensland, writes: "Surely, after 200 years, we have developed some Australian Christmas traditions!" The "red and green traditional Christmas colors are confirmed for me," she says, "not in fir trees and red berries - but in the beautiful poinciana trees that put on such a magnificent show in December."

This is how Chris Hautney, a young Labor party campaign director in Bankstown, a western suburb of Sydney, says he'll spend Christmas with his family: "It'll probably be hot," he predicts, "so we'll all jump in the pool. Then we'll stoke up the barbecue and throw as much seafood on as possible."

Mr. Hautney says that the flow of immigrants to Australia in the last 20 years has also influenced what his family eats for Christmas: Fijian pawpaw, litchi nuts, and nashi pears ("a cross between a pear and an apple").

And instead of jamming big families into the small houses that crowd the endless Sydney suburbs, Australians more and more celebrate the holiday outdoors with barbecues at local parks and beaches. Relatives and friends drive great distances for lunch. After the meal, naps are common. Later, people visit neighbors and swap presents. The supermarkets are filled with small boxes of chocolates for such visits.

On most Sunday mornings in Australia, more families go to the beach than to church. But on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the churches are packed to the rafters. There is a popular outdoor re-creation of the Christmas story, complete with sheep, camels, Roman centurions - and belly-dancers.

Australians are loyal to their own Christmas customs. Mosman resident Rob Worrall, recalling fondly family visits two friends, says, "I've lived in Montreal, Singapore, London, and Los Angeles, and I still think Australia has the best customs. There's such a sense of peace on earth, good will toward men, that I haven't found any other place."

And what would Christmas be here without a typically Australian way of talking about it? "Give the anklebiters their prezzies before brekkie on Chrissie; less aggro in the arvo," is advice from an Aussie parent. It means: "Give the children their Christmas presents presents before breakfast; you'll have less aggravation in the afternoon."

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