Deck the Halls

There was something incredibly endearing about the cow bells and yodelling echoing in stereo around the shuttle train at Zurich airport. With images seemingly lifted straight from the pages of Heidi flashing past the windows, it was a fitting farewell from Europe, and I loved it. I almost shed a tear in fact.

At Vienna airport it was all about the opera. The first thing I saw when walking towards the baggage collection area was a section of the libretto of Strauss’ Die Fledermaus stencilled (or copied – I am not sure of the medium) across the walls. Only in Vienna, I thought.

I’ve been back in Melbourne nearly three weeks now but my head is still full of Europe. I left Zurich on 18th November, just two days before the Christmas lights in the Bahnhofstrasse were officially switched on. How tantalising is that?! I could see long threads of lights hanging overhead and could only imagine how dazzling they would look on a cold winter’s night.

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

Garden at Café Schober, Zurich

And that’s the problem you see. It’s too light and warm over here for Christmas to feel like Christmas. It’s all wrong, upside down, topsy-turvy and back to front – at least, for those of us brought up in the Northern Hemisphere. When I first moved to Australia, I suffered acute homesickness at Christmas time. I struggled to adjust to fir trees and tinsel glittering in the sun (I was amused to see Christmas trees and mounds of look-alike snow in Federation Square this year) and days spent feasting on seafood or lying on the beach. Because I love the Christmas traditions, just as I love antique bone china cups. It’s the classicist in me.

My idea of listening to Christmas carols is not joining in a bun fight in the park with big screens beaming pictures of Dolly Parton-like singers blasting out American carols all about Santa and jingling bells. It’s about going to a church or cathedral and listening to an angelic-voiced choir boy leading in with the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, preferably by candle light. Last night I drove past my local park and the carol fest was in full swing complete with B-list celebrities, lots of hype and pizzazz, hordes of people, food stalls, and very noisy fireworks at the end. Baby Jesus didn’t get a look in…

I read something in Time Out suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t lean so much towards the European-inspired traditions (as in when in Rome…) and instead of fir trees have sand sculptures and other Aussie-centric decorations. Hmm, perhaps. Anything would be better than the pitiful and cheap-looking decorations installed by my local council this year. I thought it was perhaps just me with my snobbish European thing going on but, according to my local paper, ratepayers are up in arms at the cost of this year’s embarrassing effort. “The council has attempted to spruce up shopping strips with gold ribbon wrapped around trees and secured with cable ties, and stars stuck to fences and bins.”

From being in denial one year about Christmas – I simply edited it out and focused on the summer holidays instead – this year I am going all out to get into the Christmas spirit. I’ve collected up all my decorations old and new and added bits and bobs from two dollar shops, Target, Op Shops and my local park. Rather than a tree, I’m spraying twigs silver to arrange in a vase including a few gum leaves (my nod towards the ‘When in Rome’ thing). Then I’ve sprayed some fir cones to dot around my book shelves. I’ve got two traditional advent calendars and a Julelysspil, one of those delightful rotary candle holders that I purchased in Copenhagen (see photo), a few reindeer and lots of candles.


It’s easy to overlook the true meaning of Christmas – a time of peace, joy, celebration with family and friends, and an opportunity to rest and renew ourselves for the coming year. Whether it’s baking Christmas cakes and biscuits, singing carols, going to church or putting up the decorations, it’s about tapping into the wonder of the Christmas story and the aged-old Yuletide traditions. The origins of Christmas are actually something of a multi-layered mishmash of Pagan and Christian festivals. Yule was a Pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Germanic and Scandinavian peoples, an excuse for feasting and revelry to break up the long winter months. Whatever spiritual or religious tradition you belong to – or don’t belong to – it’s definitely the season to be jolly, to be thankful and to have a good knees-up. Go forth and deck the halls. Holly anyone?

‘Christmas… is not an external event at all, but a piece of one’s home that one carries in one’s heart.’ Freya Stark

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‘Fairing’ well at Christmas

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.

Christmas at the Royal Copenhagen shopfront

Shop Window at Royal Copenhagen

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.
Rudolf looks a little lonely

Rudolf looks a little lonely

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. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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!