Note: South Australia has a part-day public holiday for Christmas Eve from 7 pm to 12 midnight.
Like most countries, Australia recognises Christmas as a public holiday. This annual commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ has been observed and celebrated for hundreds of years around the world.
While historians estimate the year of Jesus’ birth to be somewhere between 2 and 7 BC, no one can pinpoint the exact month and day. Meanwhile, the Bible does provide other specific details deemed more important.
According to the Christian Scriptures, Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary inside a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger, and surrounded by farm animals. Upon hearing the news of the his birth and led by the Star of Bethlehem, a few wise men came to visit the newborn bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. To this day, Christians and non-Christians carry on the tradition of gift-giving during this special holiday season.
In Australia, Christmastime (or the Season of Advent) is also the weeks and months leading up to Christmas which, over the last century, have become a season of family holidays, shopping for food and presents, and the sending of cards. For retailers it is the boom season.
Christmas in Australia is a bit of a curiosity. The country is in the southern hemisphere meaning that 25th December falls in mid-summer, rather than in mid-winter like in Europe, the UK and the USA. So it is not unusual for shop windows to be full of toys and displays that are covered with fake snow spray and for there to be icicles in the windows, even if it is sweltering outside.
The insides of homes are decorated with decorations during December, usually with a pine tree covered in trinkets, tinsel and fairy lights in red, green and gold, and often with a small nativity scene under the tree or on a coffee table. And on the outside, many homes are transformed with amazing displays of light and colour.
Traditionally, Christmas lunch is a gathering of large family groups who eat roast turkey, ham and vegetables and finish the meal with hot plum pudding, fruit mince tarts and cream or custard. But many Australian families now opt for the more comfortable means of cooking in hot weather – the Aussie BBQ with various meats, seafoods and salads. More likely than not, carols play somewhere in the house throughout the day.
Songs sung in the weeks leading up to Christmas are called Christmas carols. Traditionally, they are songs about the birth of Jesus but other songs are also sung at Christmastime that relate more to the secular features such as Santa Claus and King Wenceslas, as well as other commercialised aspects.
In Roman and medieval times, the songs that we now call Christmas Carols were sung in Latin. Over time, these songs passed through several eras of Christian history and were tweaked by people like Saint Ambrose, Saint Francis of Assisi and Martin Luther. Now, some significant songs mark the spirit of Christmas and are referred to as Christmas carols.
In Australia, shops start playing Christmas music over their sound systems from late November, if not earlier. During December, and more frequently as Christmas Day approaches, carol singers often appear in town centres and streets to bring on the Christmas cheer. Children sing the songs at school and during concerts that often tell the story of Christmas – the birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem.
Some of the most popular carols today are:
- Silent Night
- Away in a Manger
- O Come All Ye Faithful
- Joy to the World
- The First Noel
- Jingle Bells
- Deck the Halls
- Santa Claus is Coming to Town
- Frosty the Snowman
- Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Carols by candlelight
Carols by Candlelight is a custom common in Australia that occurs in almost every town and across every city just before Christmas. This is where people gather together around dusk and into the night on a selected evening close to Christmas to sing Christmas carols. This is usually done by either candlelight or, more commonly now, with battery-operated candles.
Carols by Candlelight is a special time for families to gather together and celebrate Christmas and there are often food stalls and other entertainment before and during the singing to add to the special ‘spirit of Christmas’.
This is a favourite Australian tradition that began somewhere around 1938. These spectacular events are held every year during the week before Christmas Day and were founded by Norman Banks. Story has it that Banks passed by a window lit by candlelight on his way home one Christmas Eve. Through the glow, he saw elderly women sitting in a room and singing along to “Away in a Manger,” which was playing on the radio. This prompted him to wonder how many people spent their holidays alone and so he organized a public sing-a-long of Christmas carols with participants holding a single candle.
Now, multitudes of people gather in their respective towns and cities at public parks, music halls and stadiums to sing Christmas carols while holding candles. The cities of Melbourne and Sydney even host a huge stage event, billing renowned entertainers. Carols by Candlelight events are broadcast live on television and radio across the country as well as Southeast Asia and New Zealand. The song “Christmas Lullaby” by Olivia Newton-John and Manheim Steamroller is a beloved perennial.
Giving to Charity
For those who struggle at Christmas, the generosity of numerous charities, and the people who donate to them, means that crowds of people who would normally miss out are brought together and given a Christmas meal, and that children will have presents to open on Christmas morning and food on their own table that day.
Australia has many charities providing for the poor and needy at Christmas. Many charities are under the banner of Christian or religious denominations and there are other charities and community groups that also help the needy.
Here are some charities working to make Christmas better for struggling people across Australia:
Through the thoughtfulness and generosity of people from all walks of life and all levels of income, these and other charities are able to make Christmas a happy day for the folk across Australia who do not have the resources to celebrate Christmas.
Christmas Church Services
Perhaps the most significant celebrations are the Christmas worship services held on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. According to the Census Bureau, Christianity is the largest Australian religion. Christmas, along with Easter, attracts the most church attendance. Congregants come together to pray, sing and hear the story of Jesus Christ and His message of hope and redemption. For Christians this is the true meaning of Christmas. Some churches throughout Australia begin services around 11:00 p.m. or close to midnight on Christmas Eve, leading into Christmas morning.
The most visible sign that Christmas is approaching is the appearance, usually from early December, of Christmas decorations. By far, the most obvious of these is the Christmas tree followed by the Christmas wreath, Nativity scenes, stars, lighting, tinsel, baubles and novelty children’s toys.
Many decorations have history in the Christian faith and relate to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. For example, the traditional wreath is a circle of green branches, often of conifer origin but also, in Australia, using eucalypt branches. The evergreen of the branches in a circle represents eternity. In churches, the wreath holds four or five candles that are lit individually at intervals during Advent. Many families put wreaths on the front doors of their homes.
Stars are a big feature of Christmas and are symbolic of the star that lead the wise men from the east to visit the new baby Jesus. Baubles have no specific religious significance but seem to have been first produced in Germany by glassblowers in the 16th century. Around that time, Germany also created the first-known tinsel… from very fine, and very real, silver!
Nativities are displayed in homes, businesses, town centres and schools, and in every size and shape. A Nativity is representations of a stable with various figures from the Christmas story – Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus, some barn animals, and often some wise men and camels.
Many families decorate the outside of their homes, often on a massive scale. TV and radio stations often run competitions to discover the best decorated home in a suburb or town. More and more as a new tradition, families embark on Christmas light hunting in the evenings in December, or even follow a recommended path to view the most imaginatively decorated homes.
Although many decorations have lost their original meanings, Christmas decorations still create an atmosphere of expectation and excitement leading up to Christmas Day.
Decorations are usually removed by Epiphany on 6 January, although many are packed away by the end of December.
In December, Christmas falls close in time to the Southern solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and it’s in those chilly northern cultures where the tradition of the Christmas tree first began to form.
Across time, people have used the cycles of the sun and moon to govern the timing of farm seasons and family life. In pagan times, it was common to bring evergreen branches into the home and into places of worship around the time of mid-winter in anticipation of the change of season. The trees that stayed green all year symbolised life and hope, and how life can win over death.
The custom seems to have spread from middle Europe to England and then on to America during the 16th to 18th centuries. Today, in places where Christmas is celebrated, it is common during December to bring a tree, usually a conifer, into the home and to decorate it with trinkets, baubles and strings of tinsel or beads.
In Australia, the tradition of the Christmas tree heralds from the Northern Hemisphere’s customs and rituals to the extent that even in the super-hot December weather, the trees are often decorated with fake snow and icicles to emulate the traditional appearance.
In this day of manufacturing, a larger percentage of people use synthetic Christmas trees that last from year to year and pack down into a storage box between Christmases, but many people still prefer to buy or gather a fresh tree or branch each year.
Suggestions of where to buy your live Christmas tree:
- Brisbane – Real Christmas Trees
- Canberra – Christmas Tree Keng
- Darwin – Unavailable, but imitation trees can be bought from The Christmas Warehouse
- Hobart – Killicrankie Farm
- Melbourne – Christmas Trees on the Run
- Perth – Wilbury’s Christmas Trees
- Sydney – Dural Christmas Tree Farm
Christmas cards and greetings
During the few weeks in December that lead up to Christmas, post offices across the world experience an increase of mail, and most of it is Christmas cards and gifts. Traditionally at this time of year, individuals, organisations and businesses send Christmas cards with a picture, printed greeting and handwritten message to friends, families and colleagues.
These cards are generally called Christmas cards but, for those who wish to steer away from the Christian significance of this period of the year, they are also called greeting cards. Christmas cards usually have pictures of aspects of the Nativity story on them, whereas the more generic greeting cards may have Christmas trees, landscapes, Santa Claus, comic greetings or brightly coloured modern art and usually say ‘Season’s Greetings’ rather than the ‘Merry Christmas’ that is on the religious cards.
‘Christmas’ cards originated in England in 1843 and, at that time, tended to be more related to the coming season of spring and often had pictures of gnomes or fairies. They began their history as a folded card in an envelope, then became more like today’s postcard but have now returned mostly to the folded card. Businesses and royalty soon caught on and began sending out customised cards for Christmas. America followed quickly and rapidly the sending of the Christmas card became an international custom.
Today, the Christmas card is usually a folded card that has a bright picture on the front, which usually includes the colours of Christmas. Inside is a pre-printed greeting that may say:
- ‘Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.’
- ‘May God’s blessings be on your home this Christmas.’
- ‘May the Joy and Peace of Christmas be with you today and throughout the New Year.’
- ‘Happy Holidays!’
- ‘Season’s Greetings.’
To add to the season, post offices often have a range of discounted and Christmas-themed stamps printed for Christmas. Some people are moving away from the printed card to sending an e-greeting at Christmastime but many still prefer the more personal touch of the physical card.
Santa Claus parades and/or Christmas pageants are universally held throughout the country, featuring themed floats and marching bands. However, the grand Christmas parades take place in Adelaide, Melbourne, and Sydney. The Myer Christmas Parade, which is held in Melbourne, is organised by Myer department stores in conjunction with the City of Melbourne and normally draws a crowd of over 40,000 people. The parade starts at Spring Street and ends in front of Myer’s flagship store located on Bourke Street.
Organised in 1933, the Adelaide Christmas Pageant’s humble beginnings included horse drawn floats and only four bands. The pageant has now grown to involve around 63 motorised storybook floats, 10 dancing troupes, 15 bands, clowns and around 1700 performers. One year, the Adelaide Christmas Pageant scored a Guinness Book of World Record for the largest collection of people wearing red noses.