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Christmas in Australia: Famous For Carols by Candlelight

Sydney Town Hall

Australians celebrating Christmas by projecting colorful lights on Sydney Town Hall

What happens at Christmastime when a country steeped in tradition and the history of the Roman Catholic Church just happens to be entirely situated below the equator in the southern hemisphere of the world?

The country pays homage to both realities, from whimsical candle-lit celebrations to sleighs pulled by white boomers (kangaroos) to celebrate what Australians fondly call Chrissie (Christmas), or Christmas in Australia.

When the holiday falls in the middle of summer, as it does in Australia, the heat simply adds to the feverish pitch of caroling parties, picnics and family gatherings around the barbie.

The land Down Under is the proud home of the world-renowned tradition known as “carols by candlelight,” during which people gather in parks, churches and concert halls in the days before Christmas to sing their favorite Christmas carols, their faces softly illuminated by the glow of tapered candles.

This is no isolated celebration; this signature Aussie event has drawn more than 100,000 people to Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens and more than 25,000 people to Speers Point Park at Lake Macquarie. With dozens of boats moored on the lake and ample room for people to spread out on blankets, virtually everyone is guaranteed a prime seat as they watch a jumbo screen broadcasting the show across the country and thousands of candles flicker across the night sky to celebrate Christmas in Australia.

From Wyndham to Melbourne, “carols by candlelight” events are held throughout the country, honoring an annual tradition that began after radio announcer Norman Banks noticed an elderly woman listening to “Away in a Manger,” her face lit by a solitary candle on Christmas Eve in 1937.

Struck and yet inspired by the sight, Banks set out to make people like her solitary no more during Christmas in Australia. Pairing the camaraderie of song with the warmth of candlelight, he organized a “carols by candlelight” celebration in Melbourne that drew only a handful of people its first year. But the idea – and the spirit of the idea – quickly caught the imagination of Australians. Today, the candlelit broadcasts continue to focus worldwide affection on the sixth largest country in the world. Another incentive: some of the proceeds from the events are channeled to children who are vision-impaired.

Some of the affection that Australia naturally inspires also stems from the lovable face of its national mascot – the koala bear, one of the prime residents of the Australian Outback. This vast, remote region – stretching from coast to coast – spans about 2.5 million square miles.

Jacaranda Blossoms, the Decorations of Christmas in Australia

Proud of this distinctive region, Australians decorate their homes for Christmas with branches, jacaranda blossoms and Christmas bushes, or plants with small, red-flowered leaves.

Sentimentality guides this choice, too, for when Australians talk about “the bush,” they refer to wilderness areas outside urban areas. As they move farther away from what they know as “the bush,” they eventually find themselves in the Outback.

No matter where they live, the vast majority of Australia’s 22 million residents are Roman Catholics and so follow religious customs by constructing Nativity scenes and staging plays about the birth and discovery of the baby Jesus during Christmas in Australia.

Like their religious counterparts across the world, many Australians attend midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This is where many similarities end, however, because when the sun comes up, the intense December heat beckons many Aussie families to the beach for a holiday barbecue.

While children open “crackers” – or paper rolls that contain candy or small toys and make a popping sound when pulled apart – many adults follow the British tradition of preparing roast turkey to celebrate Christmas in Australia. This country of meat eaters also may enjoy grilled lamb chops, sausage, roast or pork. Other families turn down the heat altogether by serving a meal of cold meats or seafood and salads. These families are more likely to serve vegemite, a thick black yeast extract that is used as a sandwich filling and an ingredient in many spicy Australian dishes. Vegemite is immensely popular, but smart Australians know to follow a mouthful with a long, cool drink.

Some Christmas desserts can be found on many beach blankets, including pumpkin scones; lamingtons, or sweet sponge cakes; pavlova, a crisp shell of meringue filled with whipped cream, ice cream and fresh fruit; and damper, or a flour and sugar concoction that is mixed with water and cooked on the barbie.

Christmas in Australia is known the world over for the lively beach celebrations that many long-time residents flaunt to the rest of the world – but almost always in a good-natured way. On many holiday cards, Aussie Santas wear swimsuits and ride surfboards and are noticeably slimmer than their northern counterparts.

As for the “real” Santas who comb the beaches on Chrissie Day, they are keenly aware of their proximity to the equator. In fact, they are a rather fitting representation for a country that has learned to meld tradition to geography: they wear red, but their suits are made of silk and instead of heavy black boots, they wear sandals.


Written by Dianne Weller

Works Cited
Australia: Christmas Traditions and Customs. < http://www.thehistoryofchristmas.com/traditions/australia.htm >
Gordon, Sharon. Discovering Cultures: Australia. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2005.
Jeffery, Yvonne. The Everything Family Christmas Book. Avon: Adams Media, 2008.
McCollum, Sean. Australia. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1999.
North, Peter. Welcome to My Country: Australia. Tarrytown: Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2011.
Rajendra, Vijeya. Cultures of the World: Australia. Tarrytown: Benchmark Books, 2002.
Vision Australia’s Carols by Candlelight. < http://www.visionaustralia.org/info.aspx?page=1185 >

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