Because it is Christmas time I thought I would write with a Christmas theme this time. Unfortunately, I do not have any stories, letters or photos handed down from previous generations that show how they celebrated their Christmases, so I will tell you about Christmas for me as a child growing up in the 50’s and 60’s in a small town in Northern New South Wales.
There was always a tree, a big one, almost reaching to the ceiling. Dad and his mates would go out into the forest and bring back pine trees for all their friends and workmates. The arrival of the tree a few days before Christmas was always very exciting. It was placed in the corner of our lounge room and then Mum and Dad would decorate it when we had all gone to bed. Next morning, we would wake up to the tree looking magical, festooned with colourful balls and tinsel. Of course, as we got older and entered our teenage years we all had a hand in the decorating.
The presents did not go under the tree until Christmas Eve night when all the children were in bed. When we were very young this was because Santa delivered the presents but as the years went by it was to accommodate those of us who still believed in Santa Claus. There was an age gap of eight and a half years between the eldest child and the youngest so there were quite a few years when the eldest three of us knew the truth about Santa but the youngest two were still firm believers. I can remember when I finally came to the awful realisation that Santa was not true, thanks to a friend at school. I couldn’t believe it at first – hadn’t I seen him a year or two earlier walking down our hallway in the dead of night. To add to my dismay and disappointment I discovered that my younger sister already knew the truth.
I don’t remember any of the presents that were under the tree except for one particular year. This was a magical Christmas because under the tree we found beautiful hand built wooden furniture such as kitchen cupboards and benches for our cubbyhouse that Dad had built for us in our back yard. I was only 5 or 6 at the time and a year or two later I came to know that it was Dad who had built the furniture and not Santa Claus. It seems amazing to think I was once so young and innocent.
Ours was a Catholic family so Christmas always involved Mass on Christmas Day. When we were all young we would attend mass early on Christmas morning and it was very difficult to sit through the service knowing that there were presents waiting for us at home under the tree. As we got older we would attend midnight mass on Christmas Eve. This added to the excitement of Christmas. We would go to bed early on Christmas Eve and then get up about 11pm and drive through the streets of the sleepy town to the Church, lit up for the ceremony. My family always got there early and sat in the front pews. The Church would gradually fill up until it was absolutely packed and there would be standing room only by the time the service began. Many of the congregation were Christmas revellers doing their Catholic obligation before going home to sleep in on Christmas morning. Attending Midnight Mass always caused a major dilemma in our family. When would we open our Christmas presents? Should we open them while we were having a cup of tea and a piece of Christmas cake when we arrived home from Mass or should we wait until the morning. “Wait until morning” usually won because the younger children had often fallen asleep on the way home.
My father worked for the Post Master General’s Department and every year there was a Postal Institute Children’s Christmas Party. For me, this was usually the first event that heralded the start of the Christmas season and so, once it was announced by my parents I knew the countdown was on to Christmas and the summer holidays.
The Christmas party was held in the showgrounds and commenced with Santa arriving in the back of an old “ute” which drove around the oval several times with Santa calling out and ringing a bell and all the children squealing and shouting with excitement. Then Santa would give out presents to all the children. It was very exciting to anticipate what present you would receive. Sometimes you got a wonderful present, other times you would be very disappointed. The presents were precisely organised according to gender and age and each gender age group received the same present. I can remember when I was 7 all the 7-year-old girls received a fantastic present. It was a colouring book “Colour by Numbers” and a box of 24 Derwent Lake Coloured Pencils. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I opened that present. I didn’t think I had ever seen anything as beautiful as those pencils and their gorgeous range of colours lying in their box sharpened and ready for me to use. The present giving was followed by a party. The children all sat at long trestle tables and were served cakes and biscuits and lollies and little bottles of soft drinks, all that exciting party food that was only seen at parties and Christmastime in those days. I am sure there would have been sandwiches and other substantial food but of course I don’t remember that. I just remember the delicious sweet food and fizzy drinks.
Many years later when my own children were small my father played the part of Santa Claus at these functions. He was perfect for the part as he sported a big bushy grey beard. He still does. It is very white now and around Christmas time, occasionally, a little child will point and say “there’s Santa”.
Another annual event in my childhood that marked the Christmas season was the Christmas carnival organized by the Lismore Catholic community. This was a huge event in the Christmas calendar in Lismore. As small children, we always just called it “The Christmas Tree” because a predominant feature of the carnival was a huge tree in the park that was decorated every year for the carnival. To us as small children it was so impressive that it overtook everything else at the carnival. However, as I grew older this carnival took on another focus. As students of Catholic schools, we participated in the grand Nativity Pageant that was staged at the carnival each night. The primary schools and high schools would alternate nightly with their performances. A huge stage was erected and large choir stands placed at an angle on either side. Practising for these events went on for weeks and the discipline and precision required was absolute. Most of the students performed in the choir that accompanied the pageants but a sizeable number were selected to play the important characters of the Nativity story. These were coveted and sought after roles. One year I was delighted to be chosen as an angel. I had a long white dress tied with a silver cord around my waist and huge white wings. I felt very honoured and “angelic”. I had to kneel on a ledge with arms folded and gaze adoringly at the newborn baby in the manger. One night, much to my dismay, very early in the performance a Christmas beetle flew under my long gown and buzzed around for the entirety of my time on stage. Luckily, I was not afraid of beetles but the experience was very unsettling and as it buzzed and tickled my legs I got the giggles and thought I would fall off the stage. Needless, to say my less than angelic performance was noticed and I was severely reprimanded and I was not offered the role of an angel in following years.
I searched Trove for some information about the Lismore Christmas Carnival and discovered an article reporting on the decision to hold the carnival for the first time in 1954. Here is the article that appeared in The Northern Star on Wednesday 24th Nov 1954.
The Carnival appears to have been a roaring success as reported in the Northern Star on Friday 3rd December 1954.
Those days are so far off now and Christmas does not seem to have the excitement that it did for me as a child. I am sure that this is part of growing up and getting older and discovering how the world really works. I do hope that there are many children out there who still feel the magic and excitement of Christmas. I suspect that my 5-year-old grandson does. He was overheard telling his 9-year-old sister that Santa Claus can see everything you do and hear everything that you say.
Happy Christmas to you all and best wishes for a safe and fulfilling New Year.