To kick off the festive season, we asked some high-profile South Australians to share their childhood Christmas memories, and a few of the SALIFE team have joined in the festive fun.
Christmas memory lane
Premier of South Australia
Christmas in our household was typical of Christmas as a kid in the 1970s, with me and my younger sisters Kerrin and Jenny.
We always opened presents in the morning followed by lunch with the extended family. We spent Christmas day around our pool with grandmas, aunties, uncles and cousins.
Christmas in our house was a happy family time and it often became a beach time, too. We lived at Semaphore Park so we’d all end up at the beach at the end of the day.
My father always liked to purchase practical presents, the new desk or something like a windsurfer — one year I got a sailing dinghy, a pathfinder, sail number 379. I was a member of the Largs Bay Sailing Club.
Bing Crosby was the Christmas music of choice and we’d have the traditional Christmas roast. My mum, Barbara, was an expert Christmas pudding maker and she’d always hide the three pence in there and we’d fish it out. She’s still got those coins and she still hides them in our Christmas puddings.
When I started having kids it was great — Father Christmas would arrive looking suspiciously like my father Tony, and my children, Charlie and Georgie, who are now 22 and 21, and all the grandchildren would sit on his knee.
Sadly, my father passed away in November 2018 so Christmas is very different for us now but still hugely enjoyable.
In more recent years my sisters and I share hosting Christmas at our places, so after doing all the heavy lifting for decades and decades, for the last 10 years Mum has got to be the guest. We all get along fabulously well, my sisters are hilarious, and we all eat too much and then have a big sleep after lunch. In recent years my ex wife Susan comes along, too. It’s always a great day.
Hieu Van Le AC
Governor of South Australia
People often have special memories of Christmas, and I am no different. As a child and young man, my special memories were indelibly coloured by living in a country at war, Vietnam.
Our home was in a province where some of the fiercest fighting took place but some years a Christmas truce would be declared. The haunting sound of battle stopped. People had a chance to experience peace and a moment to feel safe.
We would enjoy the brief time of togetherness and warmth with family and friends. Midnight mass always attracted a big crowd in spite of the cold and windy weather and, after mass, there would be a delicious Christmas banquet.
The fall of Saigon saw millions of refugees flee Vietnam. My wife Lan and I were among the early boat people arriving in Darwin Harbour in 1977, after a dangerous and arduous sea journey in a flimsy wooden boat, during which we encountered fierce storms and pirates, and sailed past an active volcano.
After a week in quarantine in Darwin, we were sent to Adelaide, where we stayed at the Pennington Migrant Hostel. We were very fortunate to have many locals come to meet, welcome and support us.
Among them were Pat and the late Basil Sheahan and their daughter Suzie, who took us to our first Carols by Candlelight in Elder Park, something we will never forget. Then we were invited by Ken and Daphne Schwarz to spend Christmas with their family in Loxton. While there, we worked picking and processing fruit and spending time in the Loxton community.
On Christmas Eve, we went with Ken and Daphne to the local Bookpurnong Church. I was honoured to give a bible reading, and we were overwhelmed with the welcome we received from the community.
In 2015, we made a special visit to Ken and Daphne and the community and attended the Christmas Eve Mass at the same church, where I was invited again to give a bible reading.
Over my life I have had many different experiences of Christmas Day. However they are all united by the most important opportunity of all: to celebrate the blessing of treasured family and friends, in the spirit of humanity, joy, compassion and gratitude.
Adelaide Crows legend
The annual family road trip to Cowell for Christmas was always met with much anticipation. There was a rush of excitement as we climbed into the car, never really knowing what to expect.
It was a lengthy trip that saw us packed tightly in between luggage, sports equipment, and each other. Often, I was crammed into the middle of my older sister Belinda and younger brother Jason. It was common for my sister to get car sick somewhere between Port Augusta and Whyalla, this was always a cause for spectacle and much complaining — especially after we had to throw away her beloved Abba pillowcase. I distinctly remember Mum and Dad threatening to make us walk after a particularly raucous car ride.
Dad and Mum grew up on the Eyre Peninsula; Mum’s family (Chase) originated from the Cowell district, while Dad’s family hailed from Port Lincoln. It was never any competition as to which town we would visit, but Cowell would always be first, because Lincoln was still 155 kilometres away. My late grandparents Bill and May lived in Cowell for almost all of their lives, they ran the local shop for a time and knew everyone by name, it was their home and the centre of the universe for us kids around Christmas school holidays.
Bill would regularly round up all the kids and take us fishing off the Cowell jetty or out in his little run about, this was followed by a competitive round of cards as a family, a hot drink and bed.
Christmas Day was often spent at Bill and May’s place, or at one of my uncles’ nearby farms, which was very exciting as a kid.The day consisted of swapping presents, having a massive lunch with a game of cricket in the late afternoon.
Occasionally during the holidays, we would also venture up to Lucky Bay. The beach and its surrounds were a hive of activity at that time of year with many families down at the beach for their kids’ swimming lessons.
Fishing, swimming, cricket, footy, boating and snorkelling were the main activities and playing with the other kids from the district was so much fun. We would run around from one end of the beach to the other, only returning to the shack for lunch and dinner.
We would also often visit one of the relative’s farms in the hills surrounding Cowell — usually the Schuman or Curtis families.
The farms were fabulous for exploring the many sheds, vehicles and animals, something us city slickers (the term they used for us) were not used to.
Over the years, as we grew older, the trips to the West Coast became rarer and rarer but the memories are still strong.
It’s Christmas week 1965 and I can count on the fingers of one hand the families on Gordon Road, Prospect, that have salted cod — baccala — soaking in their fridge and a fat, wriggly eel — capitone — doing backstroke in a bucket of water in their laundry room.
Our splendid Christmas feast is held on La Vigilia di Natale, Christmas Eve. It is a day of abstinence from meat: only fish, vegetables and pasta can be consumed.
We begin with spaghetti vongole — spaghetti with clams from St Kilda harvested for us by Uncle Domenic. The dark, gritty sand is painstakingly washed away under many changes of water. Then the order of the meal is the baccala in three different recipes: in tomato sugo, battered and fried, and as a croquette with mashed potatoes.
Resplendent on the table is the shiny coil of eel, basted with a makeshift brush made of rosemary leaves dipped into a fragrant marinade of oil, lemon, salt and pepper. At midnight we walk to mass and come home to a sliver of panettone with a sip of spumante and then fall into bed, all emotions sated.
Christmas Day lunch, by comparison, is a well-rehearsed spread, an upgraded version of our usual Sunday lunch. My mother’s famous lasagna — the centrepiece of our table — is mourned to this day. Its silky sheets of pasta, so delicate that they melted on the tongue, were layered with veal meatballs, no bigger than a fingernail and dressed with just a thin veil of tomato sugo. What followed was braciole and meats from the sugo with salad. There were walnuts and cheese for dessert and later, very much later, spiced biscuits and hot, syrupy coffee.
When we lived on Gordon Road, our neighbours would visit in the afternoon. Joanne and George Skepsis would show off their Barbie doll and air rifle. It was excruciating to announce that Babbo Natale had brought us only a bag of lollies or new school socks. Our presents arrived on the night of January 5, delivered to us by a witch on a broomstick, La Befana. The Skepsis twins didn’t believe us.
When people tell me they love Italian food, I am tempted to ask them what is in their laundry room the week before Christmas!
Director, Art Gallery of South Australia
Christmas in the Devenport household was a noisy affair, with four kids, extended family and friends sprawled on our front lawn in the torrid heat of Brisbane while Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” gave the record player a hard workout, it even ignited one particularly sweltering year.
My father designed our house with glass walls, timber ceilings, terrazzo floors, a Jackson Pollock splatter wall, and gracious hospitality in mind. One of my roles was helping my mother with the floral art; plundering sacred bamboo and frangipani from our garden to create dramatic Ikebana arrangements.
My mother baked sixpences and silver trinkets into the christmas cake and plum pudding and made lashings of trifle, beetroot in jelly, and turkey. My father was dedicated to piano playing, pouring a steady flow of Bundaberg rum and dry, and being rather gregarious. I think my favourite present from him was a Georg Jensen pendant, which I still treasure.
Memories linger of towering eucalypts, kookaburras eating leftover ham, dachshunds skittering around and a haughty cat called Texan catching snakes; a wonderfully eclectic Australian Christmas.
This article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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