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Letters from Downunder

Have a Really Hot Xmas

Submitted by Lindsay Coker, Melbourne Australia

(12/09) I sit typing in my study in Melbourne, Australia as the galloping hooves of Santa's reindeer make their extraordinary journey to this great south land.

Extraordinary because reindeer wouldn't survive more than a month, and Santa himself would die of heatstroke within days. It's an odd fact that distance from the equator has less bearing on climate than looking at an atlas might indicate - Melbourne, for instance, is just about the same latitude south as Washington DC is north - but we expect, and generally get, a festive season with daytime temperatures around 35-40 degrees Celsius (95-105 degrees F to all you anchorites), no rain, hot northerly winds, flies and bushfires . You folk in Emmitsburg, I understand, have something a little different to look forward to: Snow, cold winds from the north, the odd blizzard and rain? Am I right?

So, imagine if you will a group of northerners arriving here in November expecting to have a typical home-style Christmas, with roast something or other, plum pudding and custard, maybe roast chestnuts, and burning log fires. But getting instead roasted human, dried berries, and burning log fires all around them. Of course, they were only convicts, but even convicts have feelings, and far more used to going without the so-called good things of life. The guards, soldiers and other assorted conscripts had it even worse, for, true to their tradition, wool was the fibre of choice for clothing, and lots of that to keep out the cold. And, true to military service regulations, the wearing of such garb was enforced. Prison might have been an excellent alternative, for in there at least one could remove most of the unwanted apparel. I mean, wearing thick clothing had proved to be right for their occupation of the North American Continent in Winter, hadn't it? So what was the problem?

Well, the problem was, that this, the smallest continent, is a desert surrounded by a strip of mountainous, mostly arable land. And that desert has enormous influence on the climate. Northern Australia is decidedly tropical, hot, wet and humid for much of the year - but by the time any of this pleasant and useful weather has been blown south it is as it is, hot and dry. So have we come to terms with this most un-christmassy of weather? Indeed we have.

When I was growing up the traditional hot roast/plum pudding regime still ruled. (As an aside, when I was fourteen we had Christmas with my father's eldest brother's family. On protesting that I could eat no more pudding, my uncle leered and said, "well, have some more brandy sauce." Ah, Nostalgia.)

And tradition is a hard taskmaster. A hot meal is a sign of celebration when one convention is supported by another, but in today's less formal society we're just a likely to eat whatever can be chilled and to hades with tradition. Cold ham, poultry, salad, ice cream, fruit. Or as a complete break, a barbecue. If it's not a day of total fire ban, which it often is. Followed by the requisite nap for us elderly, a game of cricket (yes, bizarre, isn't it?) for the boys, and a long, luxuriant splash/swim in the pool for all who can still stand and who live more than a certain distance from the best swimming beaches in the world. Yes they are!

But there's one thing that has not changed for most people, and which I fervently hope never will: Christmas is a time for families. Even members who for real or imagined reasons have fallen out with other members of their family try to put such angers away for the day. Yes, even our eldest and second eldest. Our three boys go to their in-laws for The Day, we to our daughter's - and are besmitten again by her first child, daughter Nina, now 4 weeks old. Yes, she's gorgeous, perfect, apple of her daddy's and grandpa's eyes. Then we all get together on boxing day - how's that for civilized? - all 16 of us. (Today's puzzle: How many grandkids do we have?)

And this, dear reader, is the norm here in Aus. Sporting events are not on, hotels do a roaring trade in food and their other staples, carols are sung, traditionalists go to church, and above all presents are opened. And I suppose that this is the norm with you also. We may not pay much heed to the traditional reason for celebrating Christmas, but the above is enough to ensure a day of enjoyment for most, or fortitude for those who have to work, and hope for those who have very little.

Let me leave you with words from one of the greatest wordsmiths to have ever lived, Noel Coward: 'I believe we should all behave quite differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time.'

When you visit us, I'll be happy to show you why.

Have a really hot Christmas,


Read Past Downunder Columns by Lindsay Coker