Memories of Christmas in rural Victoria, Australia in mid-1960
For the weeks leading up to Christmas Nancy, my Mum, slaved in a very hot kitchen with the old Aga combustion stove making the entire house feel like an oven. My Dad (Cameron) was also busy helping Mr. Parker, who lived on the next door farm, kill and hang one of his sows plus four ducks. Half the pig and two ducks were bought back to Mum who then had the onerous task of cooking them. Not only that, she also baked at least two Christmas fruit cakes, mince pies, shortbread and always gingerbread men for Hugh and me.
All our fruit and vegetables came from the farm’s orchard and garden. It was my job to ensure that Mum had enough apples, oranges, plums, spring onions, tomatoes, lettuce, radishes, potatoes, celery, cucumber and peas to make the salads.
Looking back on it now, I honestly don’t know how she managed! Plus have the time to keep two very excited children occupied. Maybe Dad gave us extra chores to keep us busy and away from their bedroom cupboards which were filled with strangely shaped parcels.
The last chore of Christmas Eve, before we all chugged off in the ancient Holden to a party, was to make sure all the prepared food was cold. In those days our refrigerator was powered by gas and not all that big, so Dad went to the ice-works in Yarram, bought three blocks of ice and sped the 12 miles back to the farm before it melted. Beer, cider, cordial and water bottles were all put on the ice (as well as the food that could not be squeezed into the fridge) and then tightly wrapped in hessian bags.
The Christmas Eve party really was just an excuse for all the local farmers and their families to let their hair down and get completely sozzled! About thirty kids from toddlers to teenagers were let loose and we always ended up exploring the Bruthen Creek and building dams so we could swim in its shallow waters. Our dams were discovered on Boxing Day when the farmers downstream found that their supply of water had been reduced to a trickle! Finally exhausted by our adventures, we returned to the various family cars and slept until driven home in the early hours of the morning by inebriated parents.
Very few farming families had the time for Christmas decorations or trees, so we grew up with Santa Claus leaving our gifts in a pillow slip which was propped against the end of our bed.
Being the youngest, I always woke at the crack of dawn and dragged my pillow slip up the hall to the kitchen yelling at the top of my voice “Santa’s been!” Our very hung-over parents were forced out of bed by all the noise and soon we were unwrapping our gifts. Being a tomboy, I was saved the ignominy of dolls and found that Santa always left things like new riding boots, a sling-shot, a basketball plus lots of clothes. While we were madly unwrapping, Mum was making us toast and eggs. Dad carved the first slices of the chilled baked ham. It was a light breakfast as we knew we needed to leave space for the day ahead.
Work never stops on a farm, even for Christmas! We had a cow to milk, wood to chop, sheep and cattle to feed. Also, troughs to be filled with water to get the stock through the heat of the day. At 11:00 am we were finished and ready to help Mum pack the car. Two enormous eskies were filled with all the food and my old tin baby bath contained the beer, soft drinks and ice. Plus beach blankets, towels, a large sun umbrella, swimming togs and extra clothes as we would not be home until after dark. There was hardly enough room for us in the car to drive the 3 miles to the Ninety Mile Beach, so I would ride my horse, Goblin Gold (aka Gobbie), as he so enjoyed being able to have a swim in the ocean.
The road into the beach at that time was not sealed so the drivers had to be very careful not to bog their cars in the soft sand at the back of the dunes. I can remember there was always a race to park the cars in the shade of one of the three trees in the vicinity of the beach. About ten families joined us and the men carted all the food over the dunes down to the pristine beach. Ninety miles of sand and surf as far as the eye could see with only fifty people to enjoy its beauty. It was like living on a deserted moonscape made of sand with bull rushes in the towering dunes behind.
The women quickly organised blankets, towels and beach umbrellas while the men cracked the tops off the frosty cold beer bottles. We excitedly waited and fidgeted a lot when being assisted into our togs and slathered with sun protection cream. Then the whoops and yells as we all ran for the water. By the age of five I’d learned to swim in the pounding surf of Woodside Beach where waves smaller than three feet were a rare occurrence.
Lunch was usually served at around 1:00 pm and our plates were filled with every assortment of food possible; pork, turkey, duck, chicken, ham, potato salad, egg salad, tomato & onion salad and so much more! All food was served chilled with icy glasses of cordial for the kids and beer for the adults. Back in those days wine was only drunk at weddings and funerals! Fruit salads were provided for those who still had room in their bulging bellies.
The adults took to their towels under a multitude of umbrellas to sleep off the gluttony of the day, while we kids headed for the dunes. Some of us had assembled cardboard sleighs which we dragged up these 150 feet hills! Then jumping on and racing each other, with howls of laughter, to the bottom. Crashes, tears, giggles and joy filled our afternoon until we were called back to the main party and again covered in sun lotion before our final swim for the day. At last our parents seem to be over their self-inflicted headaches and were ready to play with us. Beach cricket to one side, volley ball at the other or sand castle building – with prizes being given to every child no matter who won!
As the sun went down behind the dunes the beach darkened and it was time to light our bonfire. The wood for this fire had been collected, over a number of weeks, from nearby farms. To give you an idea of its size, twenty people holding hands could encircle it. Snacking on the last of the leftovers we all sat around singing carols, reciting Australian poetry and, best of all, listening to stories about World War II. Children fell asleep in the arms of their parents and gradually as the fire dimmed we all said goodbye to our very rural Australian Christmas Day!