It wouldn’t be an Aussie Xmas without sun, prawns and native birds. Perhaps too many native birds.
By Patrick Lenton
Coming back to Australia after doing most of my primary school years overseas involved a couple of moments of cultural discord – chief among them the bizarre, almost organic stage-musical moment of watching everyone suddenly break into The Nutbush, unrehearsed. But nothing has ever made me feel truly like I’m living in a strange make-believe country than when I first heard an Australian Christmas carol.
I don’t know what it is about our national psyche, this urge to remake Christmas carols that are hyperspecific to our nation. But it probably has to do with climate dysphoria – when almost every Yuletide song mentions the snow, the fireplace, the warm eggnog and Santa getting frostbite and losing his fingers, the contrast between the Australian Christmas experience of a stinking hot summer day and various prawn-related crises becomes stark.
So let’s talk about how baffling these songs are to anyone from overseas, suddenly plonked into an Australian Christmas.
5. The 12 days of Aussie Christmas
Now this song is pretty easy for people to understand: almost a parody of the original 12 Days of Christmas, with the various birds of the original (turtledoves, geese, French hens, etc) replaced with Australian birds (galahs, emus, kookaburras). I think most people would quickly understand what is happening here, a bird-for-bird lyrical equivalence.
However, it did make me realise that the original carol is mostly about being given various birds for Christmas, and some jewellery, before it suddenly escalates into maids, pipers, ladies and lords-a-leaping (which is a surreal and potentially problematic gift). Australia doesn’t really have any of those things, so it kind of sheepishly continues the native fauna motif instead, ending with some numbats. Numbats are confusing for most people (half wombat, half emotionally repressed?), but any questions brought up by this song could be solved by an informative book or an educational trip to the zoo.
Confusion rating: Not very confusing.
Australian rating: Definitely a good list of Australian flora and fauna.
Amount of birds: Almost all birds.
4. Aussie Jingle Bells
Similar to the last entry, Aussie Jingle Bells takes the original beloved Jingle Bells carol and makes it “Aussie”. Instead of snow, we have bush; instead of a sleigh, a “rusty Holden ute”. It’s a game of juxtaposition, inverting the tropes of Christmas as put forward by Jingle Bells, and proposing the realities of what Christmas is like in Australia – hot, “beaut” and featuring someone named Uncle Bruce. Most people from overseas, even if they don’t understand exactly what an “Uncle Bruce”-type figure entails (I would say off-colour jokes and the propensity to monologue at the dinner table), would quickly understand the clever game of replacement that this carol is playing.
Confusion rating: Still not very confusing.
Australian rating: A kind of idealised version of rural Australia is put forward here, which is perhaps a more mythological idea of what being Australian is.
Amount of birds: No birds unfortunately, but there is a kelpie (a dog).
3. Carol of the Birds
Here we have another Australian Christmas carol, which I believe is extremely popular in primary schools around the country and which once again notes Australia’s wealth of interesting birds. However, unlike The 12 days of Aussie Christmas, we are given no inkling that this song is meant to be about birds unless you read the title (which is never mentioned in the song). Instead, the listener is launched into a terrifying world of “brolgas” dancing, “lifting their feet like war horses prancing”. I’ve never heard of a brolga, and they sound terrifying.
Confusion rating: Quite confusing.
Australian rating: I think the most Australian thing about this song is being forced to sing it at school assembly.
Amount of birds: Just so many birds, but also mostly birds I have never heard of before.
2. Three Drovers
“Across the plains one Christmas night / Three drovers riding blithe and gay.” Now this is an old Australian Christmas carol, credited to 1948, and upon close reading, I have discovered that the drovers are meant to be a stand-in for some famous shepherds of biblical myth and are assumed to be recognisable as such. Furthermore, I have discovered that drovers are, in fact, basically Australian shepherds. There is a lot of assumed knowledge in this carol, and without it, it seems like it’s a song about three men who see a UFO and start singing.
Confusion rating: Very confusing.
Australian rating: The word “drover” does a lot of heavy lifting here as an Australian concept. I think it’s great that we get drover representation in Australian Christmas carols; it’s very important that young drovers are able to see themselves in popular art.
Amount of birds: Not a lot of birds, but some black swans are mentioned, and it’s wonderful that Natalie Portman’s tour de force is still being namechecked.
1. How To Make Gravy – Paul Kelly
Not so much a carol, but apparently Australia’s most popular Christmas song – a classic festive tale of a criminal, perhaps even a murderer, who is extremely concerned with the right way to make gravy on Christmas Day and is calling from inside a prison to deliver his recipe.
Now, I don’t know what about this song resonates with the Australian public, other than Paul Kelly’s voice which is that of a laidback bourbon angel, but I would say this is the most baffling to an outsider by far. Does it imply that every Australian citizen has a deep parasocial relationship to correct gravy recipes? Sure. Does it also normalise the idea of most Aussies either having spent a bunch of time in prison or having loved ones in the clinker? Also yes.
Confusion rating: Absolutely baffling.
Australian rating: Geographically, this song is very specific, mentioning some classic Australian locations (Queensland) as well as the great Aussie tradition of talking about how hot it’s gonna be.
Amount of birds: One, a jailbird, who is singing.
Patrick Lenton is a writer and the author of A Man Made Entirely of Bats
This article first appeared on theguardian.com.au website