For those of us from the Northern Hemisphere, Christmas Down Under can be a bit of a challenge. It’s Christmas but not as we know it. Hot blue skies, gum trees, flaming red bottlebrush flowers, beach, barbecues and seafood platters are a far cry from short, wintry December days, mince pies and mulled wine, turkey and the ‘trimmings’.
But this year I had an unexpected Christmas fix. Last Friday night my choir sang at a Christmas Fair and Festival at Ripponlea House, an elaborate (think chandeliers, ornate fireplaces and plasterwork, stained glass, embossed wallpapers, Regency furniture and more) Victorian mansion in Melbourne’s South East. After our performance a few of us took the opportunity to look round the house. By this time it was about 8.30 p.m., the light was fading and there was a slight nip in the air; perfect conditions to appreciate the house in all its Christmas glory.
Evergreen branches and candles adorned window sills, stockings hung in the nursery fire place and half-wrapped boxes of gifts lay on the bed in the master bedroom. In the dining room a formally set table was decorated with gold crackers, silver candelabras with red and green candles and paper napkins shaped like crowns. As if that were not enough to stir up nostalgic, rose-tinted memories of the festive season back in Blighty, carols floated up from the terrace below where a more traditionally minded choir ours were singing all the old favourites. It felt like Christmas and I went home feeling warm, fuzzy, and, well, festive. Deck the halls indeed!
This time last year, I was on my way to Copenhagen where I spent three nights on my way back to England. Christmas has its origins in the mid-winter pagan festivals of Northern Europe – yule comes from the Norsk word Jul – and so mid-December in Copenhagen was the place to be. Leaving Melbourne on a sunny 30-degree day, I arrived to snow and temperatures well below zero. From start to finish it was like being in a Winter Wonderland with stalls selling roasted almonds and mulled wine (known as glog) dotted around, brass bands playing carols in the city’s cobbled streets and squares and lights and decorations adorning every available window and facade.
Although it’s hugely touristy and commercial, I went to the Christmas Market in the Tivoli Gardens. Here, there was no escape from Santa – even in the Ladies’ toilets a piped voice wished us Ho, Ho, Ho, Happy Christmas. It was all a bit twee with a token reindeer in a pen surrounded by gingerbread-style houses selling steaming mugs of mulled wine, fur-lined boots and woollen hats from Lappland, confectionery, candles and Christmas decorations galore, but you couldn’t fail to get into the festive spirit.
The Christmas Fair in Christiana, a squatter community that started in the 1970s on the site of an old military barrack was a complete contrast to the extravaganza in the Tivoli Gardens. Now a self-proclaimed autonomous neighbourhood operating to a nine-rule Common Law, Christiana is scruffy, hip, New Age and eco-friendly with some edgier fringe dwellers into the mix.
In the grey hall, designers, artists and craftspeople from inside and outside the community were selling artisan products ranging from glassware, wicker, wood, ceramics and fabrics to chocolates and gourmet foods. Food Take-away snacks eaten at long refectory-style tables were suitably eclectic and included mulled cider, pancakes, baked potatoes, chilli con carne and Thai noodles.
My last stop in Copenhagen was a Christmas concert at the Helligaandskirken (Church of the Holy Spirit) in the city. The choir sang a varied program (from German and Danish carols to the Messiah) a-capella-style and it was glorious. Sublime even. I was moved to tears by the beauty and simplicity of it all. I was genuinely touched by the Christmas spirit and it had nothing to do with Santa and presents!