by Eda Payne
My first Christmas in Australia was spent in 1959 in Renmark, a South Australian town on the River Murray. We erected a big marquee in the middle of a paddock. The heat was intense, every fly in Australia had settled there and the food was spread out in abundance on the groaning trestles. My aunt and uncle meant this to be a special time for me and they succeeded.
Leading up to Christmas the sight of fairy lights on Christmas trees vying with strong sunlight seemed odd. The scattered glitter over items in shop displays meant to represent frost was so out of place as to be ludicrous. I marvelled at a country where the sun shone in a way that most people living in the northern hemisphere would give their eye teeth for, attempting to imitate less fortunate cousins 12,000 miles away. Everything appeared to be out of kilter. There was no holly, not with berries on anyway. People rushed from work to the beach; they did not go home to bake cakes, make mince pies or boil puddings. When did these things get done, I asked my aunt. She said that the most sensible time to make such preparations was at night when it got a bit cooler.
No part of my being could accept that this time approaching was Christmas.
We sweated as we packed all the necessary gear for a camping holiday. The thing that astounded me was the amount of ice that was needed and that we had to stop en-route to Renmark to top up eskies in case the ice melted. There was so much food and my uncle emphasised how easily it could spoil if the heat got to it.
I was wearing shorts, a short sleeved skimpy blouse and canvas shoes, sensible dress and the only way to cope with the heat. This was heat like I had never experienced and it was happening at Christmas time. My family have shown me the letters I sent home at this time and they are full of astonishment and exclamation marks.
As we drove through ‘the bush’, which my uncle explained meant the countryside and not a jungle of bushes as I had imagined, he regaled me with Australianisms. The only one I remember is that he said that Australia was the only place in the world where a black horse could be called a fair cow. The land was dry and dusty, the leaves on the trees were leathery and I looked in vain for familiar landscapes or flora. This harshness did not appeal to me, it took a long time for me to recognise its beauty. I was conscious of the vastness, the uninterrupted sky line, the open space. That was a bit scary, it appeared too large to accommodate humans.
We arrived at the designated spot and unpacked the cars. There were several because we were sharing with other families. The marquee went up first and the tables were set up inside. Next the individual sleeping tents. When things were done to my aunt and uncle’s satisfaction, we were free to explore the area. Several of us young people climbed into a car and drove to Renmark. We started at the hotel where women were not allowed in the bar, had our cold drink and headed for the swimming pool. There we spent the remainder of Christmas Eve, talking, swimming and trying to keep cool.
The marquee was a great gathering place and we chatted on into the early hours. We wished each other a Happy Christmas and I tried to sleep but it was all so strange and exciting. Despite the precautions we took to keep them at bay the mozzies buzzed in the tent and had a feast. Insects flung themselves against the tent making interesting little noises throughout the night but there was relief from the heat. The morning saw us dressed for church in cool cotton and sandals. I could not help harking back to the previous Christmas where I was bundled into a woollen coat, scarf, gloves and boots and still felt the cold in my bones. This was so much better. Our entire Christmas dinner was cold and delicious. We had turkey, ham, duck and salads galore, champagne, pudding and cream, followed by cups of tea, boiling hot and very, very welcome. We had two more days there before returning to Adelaide from, what was for me, a very different Christmas.
Eda Payne is a retired teacher living in Adelaide and is now a creative writer in both Irish and English. Eda was born in Dublin, and grew up in Edenderry, Co. Offaly. Her family emigrated to London when she was 15 and she worked in Lloyds Bank prior to her leaving for Adelaide in 1959. It was in Adelaide that she met her husband Brian. She has published poetry and short stories and written a memoir for her grandchildren about her early life in Ireland.