I don't want to feel like scrooge this time every year
November 26, 2011 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Help an American engineer a good Australian christmas.

I'm an American expat, and have lived in Australia (Adelaide) for about three years now. I used to really like Christmas, but increasingly have come to dread this season, and I need to figure out how to get over this, because we're going to have many Christmases here.

Here's why I dread it:

1. It all just feels wrong. It should be cold, dammit! There should be lots of darkness so the Christmas lights feel warm and caring and beautiful, rather than just strange. The Christmas decorations of snowmen and Christmas trees feel awful and discordant. Basically, Christmas is the time that all of my culture shock comes to the fore (and otherwise I hardly feel it at all - I love Australia). I feel like more of an outsider now than at any other time of the year.

2. All the Christmas rituals from my husbands' and my families therefore either are impossible to enact (e.g., having a big snowball fight) or kind of suck (e.g., waking up and having mugs of hot chocolate). Christmas trees look really bizarre in the middle of the 40-degree heat and blazing sun, so I never want to set one up.

3. This is actually probably the main one -- no family is in Australia with us, and we don't have the money to travel all the way to America or the UK (where my husband is from). Both my husband and I miss our family intensely then. We skype but it's just not the same, and actually often makes us feel worse. It also makes matters worse when I know all our local friends here are doing things with their families, even though I don't begrudge them that at all; but it does make me feel lonelier.

My husband and I have tried to replace the old traditions with new ones, and make the two of us be enough "family" for us. Instead of a snowball fight, we end up going on a nice hike somewhere (which is pretty cool). We make Christmas dinner for just us. But it still feels like a pretty lonely and sad day, and not so different from any other day that is the two of us hanging out together (which is most weekends). It doesn't feel like a holiday, and that's depressing.

I think we just have to try to do more to make it special, without reminding us of everything we miss. However, I'm kind of stuck on what kind of thing that might be. Neither of us really want to travel -- we like our house, the roads and crowds sound like a nightmare, and we have cats so finding a cat-sitter for Christmas would be very difficult.

So, given these constraints, what can we do to make Christmas less grim?
posted by forza to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Can you invite a bunch of friends in, and host a Christmas gathering? There've got to be some singletons/couples that would enjoy coming over and celebrating with you.

As for the decorating: go with the warm-season flow --- instead of a pine tree, how about using a potted palm or big fern as your Christmas tree? After all, anything can be a Christmas tree of sorts --- I myself have fond memories of the two times I decorated a Christmas floorlamp. Instead of Santa in a red fur suit, try Santa in shorts, flipflops and a Hawaiian shirt.
posted by easily confused at 6:15 PM on November 26, 2011

Response by poster: Unfortunately, with one exception, literally all of our local friends have extended family in Adelaide and are doing something with them. The one exception, we may end up doing something on boxing day with (they have a kid and I believe prefer Christmas day with just them and the kid). So, no, we don't have any friends who don't already have plans. Otherwise it would be a great idea.
posted by forza at 6:25 PM on November 26, 2011

YMMV, of course, but for me, the best thing about Christmas is the light amid the darkness. Where I am, days are short and light is a comfort. But you, you *have* light and sun, and everything we long for in the cold climates at that time of year. So make a tree of prisms, or smoothed beach glass, or of anything that will catch and hold light and make you wonder at it. Decorate with ripe local fruits and flowers. Dance in your bare feet. Make flavored ices and fun popsicles. Celebrate the ripeness and life available to you. Sol invictus!
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:33 PM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

It doesn't help you get through next month, but in future, you should have a midwinter Christmas. Pick a weekend in July or August, and do all your usual Christmas traditions and foods.

For this Christmas, here are some "summer Christmas" traditions that we always have. If you do them enough years in a row, you'll build the Christmas associations up.

1. Berries. Lots of fresh berries.
2. A BBQ on Boxing Day. Your friends who haven't travelled too far the day before will probably be able to attend, and it's a great way to use up leftovers too.
3. Go swimming.
4. Stay up really late and drink cocktails.

Christmas music and trees still work well whatever the season. Just avoid the icicle-style decorations if you find them too jarring. And don't play "let it snow" style songs.
posted by lollusc at 6:37 PM on November 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

> And don't play "let it snow" style songs

Can you find songs that celebrate being in the Southern Hemisphere? For example: White Wine in the Sun (although it is about extended family, so maybe not what you want right now).
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:45 PM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding easily confused about going with the warm-season flow, especially using something other than a traditional evergreen as your tree. A big bunch of eucalyptus branches would be a nice homage to your new home country (and smell great too!). And wasn't there an awesome mefite who ended up stringing lights around his/her vacuum cleaner for Christmas every year?

Wake up to mugs of iced coffee with a little cinnamon. Tie red and green ribbons around your doorknobs and drape some silver tinsel garlands over your doorframes. Give your cats some red-and-rhinestone collars. Check out some other campy hot-weather Christmas decor ideas from bloggers in places like Palm Springs or Miami (like L.A-based maison21's fabulous all-white tree) for inspiration. Hang stockings for each other on the refrigerator. Play carols, especially versions done by modern artists, to help put you in the mood (and round out the idea that you're putting your own twist on the holiday, vs. trying to replicate an L.L. Bean catalog). Make fudge or other no-bake treats. Maybe an icy-but-still-festively-red cranberry granita?

Hope you have as merry a holiday as possible!
posted by argonauta at 6:49 PM on November 26, 2011

You can't fake your old traditions, they're just not translating, so i guess you should maybe try and institute some new ones? How about volunteering at the homeless shelter, followed by going to the beach and having a picnic, just you, hubby a bottle of champagne and some cold chook??
posted by wilful at 6:56 PM on November 26, 2011

Southern hemisphere Christmas is totally different, I agree. I don't look at Christmas lights in the same way now I've seen them in a wintry northern hemisphere setting, at all. However, my beloved Santa-as-a-surfer Christmas ornaments would look silly in the north, too.

I want to second the suggestion to have a proper cold weather Christmas in July instead. A lot of places with a decent-ish winter in Australia do so, and enjoy all those cold weather things. You could easily invite your friends and or their families, because there is no traditional celebration that time of year, and they would be THRILLED to share your NH styled celebration. THRILLED, I say. I think Christmas here is about totally different things - family and playfulness, maybe, unless you are religious.

I'd like to encourage you to embrace a SH Christmas with these time tested techniques:

Go to the beach! or buy a paddling pool, and hang out near the water.
Eat a lot of seafood, especially prawns and lobster, and have ham and salad.
Eat pavlova for dessert, I can heartily recommend Nigella Lawson's chocolate pav (which I'm planning for this year too); or icecream plum pudding (good vanilla icecream with booze soaked fruits etc).
Watch bad tv in front of a fan.
Do whatever it is you love to do, and give that to yourselves as a present, maybe that could be your traditional celebration.
posted by thylacinthine at 8:43 PM on November 26, 2011

The thing to remember with Australian Christmases is that they're supposed to be a bit tacky and daggy. I tend to think of it as a half-homage, half-parody of the Northern ones. Since family is the big one, I second the idea of a boxing day party. My extended family live in Melbourne, I'm in Central Queensland so celebrating together was never much of an option. Instead, there was usually a massive street party (we were on acreage so there was space in someone's shed) in the few days before or after christmas. Get everyone round to yours and tell them to bring a plate, get pissed and play cricket. You may think cricket's stupid but it's a game all but hte paralytic can play. You just have to sit in a deck chair and claim you're fielding. The day itself was pretty subdued. Slept till the heat got us, open presents then swim, snack and nap until dinner of cold seafood, ham and champagne.
If you're wanting to be out and about, visiting a good swimming hole/beach/pool or park and picnic.
Take advantage of the summer. Fruit platters, salad, swimming and sport. And if you're desperate for a more Northern Christmas, just do Christmas in July like every social club does.
posted by Saebrial at 12:57 AM on November 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Would you and your husband be able to host a dinner for other people also far from their families? Holidays can be very lonely for those far from home. Perhaps it could help your own homesickness to know that you were helping provide a homey Christmas experience and alleviate homesickness for others. I know for me, taking charge of my situation and helping other people keeps my mind busy and strong and occupied. If you are hosting an event, you will be more focused on that and won't have as much time to sit around and dwell.

The meetup.com expat group here in Melbourne has big events around the holidays, and there always seems to be more people wanting to attend a Christmas dinner than there are spots available. You could contact the local organiser and offer to host a party. Or you could post on couchsurfing to find people to have a party with. Or perhaps there's a local university that may have exchange students who would like to go to a family home for Christmas dinner. Or hey, maybe there's some cool mefites in Adelaide that would enjoy a good Christmas barbecue!
posted by mosessis at 1:58 AM on November 27, 2011

Get down to the beach on Christmas morning with a picnic hamper full of goodies, a bottle of champagne and your togs. Mix it with the santa-hatted masses, get a game of beach cricket in and go for a swim. Even if your friends are out of town, it's easy to get into the spirit of things if you can find others and, at least in Perth, that's usually at the beach on Christmas morning and any park with a BBQ on Boxing Day.
posted by Mil at 2:49 AM on November 27, 2011

I think many Australians have a discombobulated view of Christmas because of our colonial inheritances or multicultural origins. I share your confusion and I was born here. My mother used to spray Santa snow around all the window sills to make it look like we were wading around through snow drifts, and we had big decorations of reindeer and yule logs in a climate totally at odds with this imagery. I hadn't even seen real snow or felt the European cold. I saw on the TV News that other countries did such wonderful Christmas lights so I even 'missed' Christmas when I was a kid. It never felt right, so I share your feelings.

I'm in a similar situation with an Irish husband and when we stay 'home' in Perth for the holidays it always feels a bit of a let down, especially knowing that a helluva lot of family love, tradition, feasting, chilly walks and late night forages to whisky bars are being had elsewhere.

I think others have said it, but you have to start building your own traditions. When we go back to Ireland now, there is a twinge of, "I kinda miss our Aussie Christmas" of an early morning swim and dog run on the beach either on our own or with friends. And some QUIET!
Or a brunch here at our house with friends who drop in on their way to their respective family lunches. [I just serve champagne and strawberries.] On Christmas afternoon we have a tradition of watching our Christmas DVD, some classic we've bought for the occasion. Last year was Rear Window. I admit that my partner and I get loads of presents for each other so that we can have that feeling that there's a lot of paper on the floor and things to play with :)

We also started taking care of Couchsurfers who would otherwise experience Christmas in a closed-down city. Last year we had a community party and brought our two CSers to it. Other people brought their CS guests and it was a great affair. [I just spent 8 days in Paris with our 'Christmas CSers' who were very happy to return the favour].

And as much as everyone loves having family lunches, you wouldn't believe how many people will turn up to a well-oiled Christmas Night party. Lots of people love their families, but they also love to cut loose a bit with easygoing friends afterwards. Some years we have just corralled a cricket team together in a local park or beach and had some beers as the sun sets.

This year we're organising a party up the street from us for all the 'orphans' like us and it's going to be brilliant. Organising it early means that we already feel a bit of psychological relief from that abandoned, lost feeling that we remember from before we took the bull by the horns and started setting up our own joy. Having a Boxing Day party is also a great idea.

The psychological effect of separation is the hardest I think, so set up something early and try to muster up enthusiasm to bring joy to each other no matter if it is just you two on the day. Put on your party hats and pull your bonbon crackers as you eat lunch and come up with some 'markers' to separate this holiday from any other weekend. [I know what you're saying, we had that exact feeling for several years in a row.] Just planning a party is making me feel psychologically stronger about Christmas this year.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:28 AM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

For non-snowy songs, don't ever miss out on the greatest Christmas song ever written: How To Make Gravy.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:25 PM on November 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

My community does BBQs and fireworks for Christmas. It's not better or worse than the Christmases I grew up with, just different.
posted by kamikazegopher at 3:50 PM on November 27, 2011

I've been thinking about what has made Christmas special to me a bit more since my last answer, and the big thing is that ever since I was a kid, Christmas signalled the start of the summer break. Large amounts of free time and lovely weather to spend it in. Usually a holiday away from home shortly after Christmas. Now that I work at a university, this still holds, because it signals a long stretch without any grading :) and a period during which I can schedule my time much more freely. Plus I usually still take a holiday sometime in January.

Maybe these are associations you can build up too by being conscious of Christmas as the harbinger of this sort of freedom? It really annoyed me when I lived in the northern hemisphere that Christmas was such a short break (one or two weeks) before returning to normality. It seemed LESS festive (even if all the other exciting Christmas things were there).

Also, I've been thinking about what my husband's family (who emigrated from Sweden to NZ 30 years ago) have kept and changed from their Christmas traditions.

They still do a late-night Christmas Eve thing with mulled wine and hot treats, but often it is cool enough that time of night that it's not really weird. Then on Christmas day they have more of a NZ-style Christmas, with a champagne brunch in the garden, a game of cricket or petanque, and a lighter meal than they had in Sweden. (There's still meatballs and Jansson's fraestelse, but also cold meats and salads). They decorate the tree in a traditional way, but don't bother with candles. They have traditional carols and choral music playing.

The interesting thing is that every year there are random distant relatives visiting them from Sweden. Second cousins or young cousins three times removed who are backpacking downunder. They don't know the family all that well, but somehow this always happens anyway, and the house is often full, which makes it pretty festive, even if it's not close family. Perhaps if you have the space for it, you could let your extended families know that you would be glad to host relatives or friends who are visiting Australia in the Christmas season?
posted by lollusc at 4:09 PM on November 27, 2011

My sister married an Aussie and hates Christmas there, but has found some things that make it a bit better.

Find out if there is a skating rink near you! It provides cold and they might be willing to give you some "snow" from maintaining the rink to have a really short snow ball fight. Christmas for us means family skating, so she has continued that with her husband.

Go to a church. Even if you aren't religious, it will be a large gathering with a Christmas-y feel. Sing some Christmas songs, meet some new people. They might also have other foreigners who can identify with your homesickness around Christmas and make you feel a bit better.

Spray fake snow on the windows and hang Christmas lights indoor. Put on Christmas music and bake!
posted by inukshabbi at 5:51 PM on November 27, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, these are very helpful answers. My husband and I are fairly introverted so we probably won't be inviting non-close friends or people we don't know well over, but that's a great suggestion for those who are more extroverted.

And there are tons of other things here that I'm going to try:
- BBQ instead of traditional Christmas dinner
- go to the beach or do something involving water
- watch the sun go down while sitting on the deck and having fruit and wine
- see if I can interest friends (more than just the one) in coming by for a boxing day shindig
- going down to a local park or beach and hanging out
- decorate in a way that emphasises the light and the warmth

And the "Christmas in July" idea is brilliant, too. Thanks again to everyone! I feel a lot more excited about the upcoming holidays than I did a few days ago.
posted by forza at 9:06 PM on November 27, 2011

I am late to the discussion, just wanted to pipe in that as an Australian, and I never understood the point of Christmas decorations until the first Christmas I spent in London. And wow, tinsel suddenly became cheerful rather than tacky.

I don't have anything more to add than that as said above, the way I Christmas here is to embrace the fact that it is an Australian summer, and all the swimming and walks and beach that entails. We do a lot of seafood in my family, and frankly your idea of a BBQ in the backyard rather than the house full of 20 relos plus stressed mum sounds damn appealing to me.

As a (regretfully ex) Queenslander, Christmas for me means prawn and mango salad. I humbly submit my recipe.

This will make enough for 4 servings

400g cooked prawns, peeled, cut into bite sized pieces. (I assume you have been here long enough to know what I mean by prawn)
1 mango, peeled, flesh sliced into bite sized pieces (Bowen, preferably, also preferably slightly under ripe)
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbs Sweet chilli sauce
1 small red chilli or 1 teaspoon dried chilli
2 tsp fish sauce (optional)
1 tbs oil
1 tbs chopped coriander leaves
2 tsp grated palm sugar or castor sugar
4 spring onions, sliced
Lettuce leaves if desired.

Mix everything together in a nice bowl, you could mix the wet ingredients first if you are being fancy. Done.

Some people add chopped avocado. I call this heresy but do as you will.
posted by arha at 10:46 PM on November 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

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