Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The way we were at Christmas



Christmas is coming. The goose is getting fat. Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a penny, then a ha’penny will do. And if you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!


I remember a great many Christmas seasons. I also remember pennies and ha’pennies, but wonder how many people can. And does anybody remember that particular rhyme, one from a simpler time?

Main image: Two spheres of Christmas, winter and summer. Illustration Chris Johnston

When I was small we spent Christmas camping by a river in NE Victoria. The festivities began on Christmas Eve, when campers and residents of the township of Bright gathered for carols by candlelight. During the singing of my favourite ‘Good King Wenceslas,’ I never wondered about the absence of snow ‘deep and crisp and even.’ I don’t imagine anyone else did, either. At that point I had only a vague idea of what snow was: I had certainly never seen it.

Christmas Day always began early for my sister and me, with the liquid notes of magpies in the trees along the river, and grey light visible through the tent flap. Stubble pricked our bare toes as we reached for the bulging pillowslips that were at the foot of our camp stretchers. We blew our cardboard trumpets with the shredded red and yellow paper spilling out the ends, cracked our teeth on minute rainbow-coloured balls of lollies, pranced along the river bank with excitement, and generally drove our parents and our grandparents mad.

The ceremony of the tree began with the exchanging of modest presents such as home-embroidered handkerchiefs, and culinary preparations followed. At one o'clock sharp we started on the traditional dinner of roast poultry and boiled pudding, sweltering the while behind swathes of cheesecloth and butter muslin, the grown-ups’ weapon against the invading armies of flies. We probably drank lemon cordial, a glass of which Father Christmas had already drunk in the middle of the night. It is all quite vague now, and was very much taken for granted then.


'During my first winter here, I was struck by memories of the warmth and light of an Antipodean Christmas, but now I think every southerner should experience the starkness of a northern one...'


Decades later, I occasionally wonder how Granny produced this dinner: clearly the pudding in its rag and enriched with the mandatory threepenny and sixpenny bits, all silver-minted then, was brought from home, but the chicken? Things change: we left the river, and the new decimal coinage meant we could no longer boil coins in the puddings. Much later, my sister and I both married Europeans, who were naturally bemused by our hot Christmas dinners, nearly always eaten in soaring temperatures at home, and certainly not at the beach, a myth we liked to think perpetuated by envious Brits.

Things changed again, quite radically, when I migrated to Greece, and found myself anticipating my first northern Christmas. It seemed all wrong: the cold, the short dark days, snow-capped mountains, bright orange groves, and the sound of turkeys gobbling their way to fatness and to an inexorable fate. But then there was no commercial bunfight, and my mother-in-law’s forty days of strict abstinence from meat, eggs and dairy products took me back to my youth, when Christmas was still very much a religious occasion, even in secular Australia.

On Christmas morning in Greece, the liturgy starts at 5 o’clock. By six village churches are packed with the faithful, their breaths visible in white puffs as they light candles and kiss icons. A mist of incense envelops the congregation, and the priests and cantors intone the Christmas story. This is the usual procedure, but it remains to be seen what happens this year, as churches are currently closed because of COVID-19.

Of course Greece has changed, too, so that many children now receive their presents on Christmas Day rather than on St Basil’s Day, January the 1st, which is the traditional day for presents. And commercial sprees are, alas, becoming common, with American-accented carols blasting their way along city streets, although children still go from house to house early on Christmas Eve, singing a traditional song:

Good morning, landlords, I have come to herald Christ’s arrival in your household.

During my first winter here, I was struck by memories of the warmth and light of an Antipodean Christmas, but now I think every southerner should experience the starkness of a northern one, with the Birth being the one ray of light and hope, so much needed this year, penetrating the gloom.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: Illustration Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, COVID-19, Christmas, Australia, Greece



submit a comment

Existing comments

Beautifully evocative, especially the 'liquid notes of magpies'. Thank you.

Julie Perrin | 08 December 2020  

Have a peaceful, happy Christmas Gillian and Thankyou for your articles this year which are like personal letters to keen readers. You write about the hot Wimmera days and also camping on the banks of the river in Bright in the NE of Victoria. The heat of those summers would truly inspire “warm memories”. Now you experience the starkness of a northern hemisphere Christmas with “the Birth bringing a ray of light and hope”. You have reminded us how people of faith , no matter the climate or their location celebrate this great event that “penetrates the gloom” and how we are all given the chance to live with hope because of our own rebirth thanks to the birth of theBabe in Bethlehem. COVID 19 , bushfires across the world and other significant events have impressed on us how we are all closely connected in one precious world. The light of Christmas on us all will be very welcome . PS. Our family will be together, first time for months near beautiful Mt. Buffalo and the Ovens River in Bright for Christmas. We”ll “throw a shrimp on the barbie“remembering you and wishing you a happy day with your loved ones ( hope it’s not going to be too hot here for the chefs)

Celia | 08 December 2020  

I'd been living in Japan for some years - an annual two week winter-break time to return to Australia to be with family and friends. It was on one of those returns that I thought - this heat is simply too much - and this traditional hot dinner, too, too much. It must have been discussed - because the tradition changed to a selection of cooked/cooled sea food thenceforth - followed by cold meats and a wide selection of vegetable and salads. And in quick order - air-conditioning came to the in-laws' house - everything was good again - though there was no return to hot cooked! Thank goodness. We had a Christmas in London one year - Chris Kable (my wife) with almost no kitchen utensils - prepared a feast. That was our Christmas miracle! We had only a couple of Christmases in Japan - able to return to Australia for what we knew was its proper season of summer - and didn't we like to argue that point with northern hemisphere friends. But the Japanese friends already knew via middle school textbooks what most of the rest of us Australians did not - that Santa Claus arrives in Australia on a surfboard - indeed there were un-doctored photographs to prove it! (eah, sure, you say - but over the past decades there have really been many surf clubs where for the Nippers and/or children of older surfers Santa has indeed suddenly appeared flying the waves to the shore. I gave up arguing that it was a construct - or at least acknowledging it as a construct become the usual! But yes, Gillian - to see Christmas out of one's own hemisphere - indeed out of one's cultural context - is a way to further appreciate the festival - let alone the checking back to times over 60 years ago - that other country!

Jim KABLE | 08 December 2020  

“the Birth being the one ray of light and hope, so much needed this year, penetrating the gloom”…….Brightest of star in the darkest of night. The Spirit of God revealing His light. Innocence lay on bed of hay. Is this what his gentle eyes do say? All wise men play their part. When searching for His light within the dark. Gold frankincense and myrrh. Within the righteous heart do stir’ Truth is love this must be understood. No manmade decree. It is the action of Truth that sets mankind free. Deception and deceit are trod upon by His holy feet. Humble of heart, placid moon, twinkling star. All mankind shall know who you are….May the light of the new-born Jesus Dwell in our hearts. May its radiance embellish its self within us. And the gift of His joy (Holy Spirit) be ours. This Christmas time and always. kevin your brother In Christ

Kevin Walters | 08 December 2020  

Gillian, I spent a Christmas in the south of England a decade ago; it was horrible, rain , cold and raging gales, so I can resonate with your experience in Greece, so different to the hot, dusty Christmases of my youth in the Riverina of New South Wales. Sadly these days Christmas has lost a lot of its appeal for me thanks to the crass commercialism .We faithfully attended Mid night Mass for years and on occasion in my my role as the Acolyte at Midnight Mass, brought me an added sense of reverence for the occasion. With COVID-19 restriction this Christmas, Mid night Mass will not be on our plans ; so sad.

Gavin O'Brien | 08 December 2020  

Thanks Gillian, for bringing back memories that I can readily share with you, as I also grew up in country Victoria in the same era. I’ve often wondered what a northern Christmas would feel like, though haven’t experienced one yet. I live alone these days so life is lonelier, and accentuates the greater change for me - a far cry from the Australian Anglo Christmases of my youth. Nevertheless I have choices. One daughter has married into a Vietnamese family with a Buddhist orientation, that don’t celebrate Christmas as such, but as a normal family feast while children splash in the pool. A son married an Irish girl, so there is the midnight mass and the traditional hot roast that I grew up with. Another daughter has married into an Italian tradition where Nona cooks a veritable feast. I was there last year and can still taste the pork cracknel. I haven’t made up my mind, but will probably go Irish this year.

John Whitehead | 09 December 2020  

You have brought back the Ghost of Many Christmases Past, Gillian. There is something almost tangible about the memories. This is one of those blessed times I just savour them. It is the inherent decency of those long gone I remember. Christmas would not be the same without the memory of them. Sure enough it is a sad and terrible world, but that's not the whole story. I guess Christmas proves that.

Edward Fido | 09 December 2020  

On May 11, 1659, the following decree was entered into the General Court’s records at Massachusetts USA. "For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. That was the Puritan view. So how times have changed.

Francis John Armstrong | 09 December 2020  

As with most wonderful things in our world the Christian celebration of Christmas has been ruined by commercialisation in the good ol' USA tradition. "Who is this Jesus baby, Honey?'

john frawley | 09 December 2020  

Habit is practised either as instinct or as work. The annual repetition of personal behaviours at Christmas is either instinct or the deliberate re-presentation of principle in response to the surrounding circumstances of the moment in much the same way that the re-presentation of Calvary at Mass is either a temporal experience of a passing obligation slotted between one appointment and another or a mindful sense-experience of another world in comparison to the felt response to the surrounding circumstances, coming as you are implying that you have thought about who, then and there, you are. Instinct is not work because the Father is always working and all his works have been preceded by the rationality of deliberation.

roy chen yee | 10 December 2020  

I'm old enough to remember pennies and ha'pennies and have many Christmases to reflect upon too. Thanks for writing so beautifully about Christmas. We have many magpies here and their 'liquid notes' never fail to lift my spirits.

Stephen Hicks | 10 December 2020  

Christmas was not celebrated in Scotland for a very long time, Francis Armstrong. The Presbyterians didn't like it either. Too much Joy. Some Puritans and Presbyterians were no doubt good people, but sometimes good people can be dreadful wet blankets. I find, in supposedly 'post-Christian' Australia some of the people full of the Christmas spirit are either older, secular or from non-Christian religions. There's a great deal of hope there. Perhaps those who will mount our pulpits to pontificate could draw attention to that?

Edward Fido | 10 December 2020  

Gone now stable, gone now inn , , , is there room in hearts today to let him enter in?

John Kelly | 10 December 2020  

I certainly travelled back to the first Xmas I can remember in Greece, thank you. I must admit the Greek versions of Jingle Bells & Oh Xmas tree still make me cringe ??

Stathis T | 11 December 2020  

An evocative piece from someone old enough to remember halfpennies and pennies! It is interesting to reflect how much the Australian Christmas has been affected by the increasing recognition and increasing number of Australians who are not Christian and are probably very glad that celebrating ‘the holidays’ doesn’t have to involve a large hot meal in the middle of the day! I hope you can celebrate the season happily even if you can’t go to church.

Juliet | 11 December 2020  

It is a pleasure to be reminded of Christmas past and all the happy memories and the things that stick. I have no doubt that even this Christmas in the time of great hardship will be celebrated with happy times especially the birth of grandchildren and the joy of hopefully meeting up with our families.

Maggie | 14 December 2020  

I recently listened to an American female comedian; I don't find very funny. Though, she did say something I do find truthful, she said, "we are to learn to transform our human tragedies into something good", and added, ''When God gives you AIDS, make LEMONAIDS''. This Xmas we should all stop to think how very blessed we are to still be here. And pray for the thousands effected by Covid, and the very many, still in the thick of it. Merry Xmas, and a Very Happy and Prosperous 2021! Hang in there. The birds are still singing, babies, and small children are still crying and laughing! People are still falling in Love! And the beaches are packed on the weekends from 7am in the morning! Life is Good! Thank you God!

AO | 14 December 2020  

Joy is what it's all about Maggie, as in 'Good tidings of great joy' Luke 2: 10-11. I shall be spending part of Christmas Day with my wife in a Dementia Ward. The place is well run but a wee bit soulless, despite the attempts of excellent staff, many not Christian. It's like the hymn 'Joy to the world'. Jesus always makes it despite the (now metaphorical) 'No room at the inn'. I think Gillian might have written a piece on Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' a few years ago. That novel also sums it up nicely.

Edward Fido | 14 December 2020  

Similar Articles

The shepherd wife

  • Jena Woodhouse
  • 17 December 2020

The shepherd wife has one word for her cosmos – isychia: here is isychia, she tells strangers. Without amenities — no water, electricity — her house clings to a small crease in the hills, a tortoise shell; sea forces strips of blue between the planks of outer walls that have no windows to admit the sky, the hills’ harsh beauty.


A very varied Christmas

  • Barry Gittins
  • 17 December 2020

What does Christmas mean for you? What does it have in store? Preceding and in the midst of the annual celebration of life and hope that is Christmas, we will always have those, as H L Mencken noted, are obsessed with the ‘haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy’.