This is a new genre of post I’ve just decided I’m going to do which aims to dispel certain misconceptions. Not just any misconceptions, but the ones which are so particularly ignorant that a little thought immediately before saying them might have caused them to be a tad less offensive to the hearer (that would be me). On the other hand, they might not seem immediately ignorant, but were definitely offensive in the way they were conveyed. This one, for example, has been stewing for months, and is therefore about a month late to join that flurry of Christmas-themed posts which hit the blogosphere in early December. It’s possible that these posts won’t end up just being rants.
Picture, if you will, the scene almost three months ago, when myself and the chaplain with whom I work were sitting down to nut out the details of Term 4. Given that, after working around all the various activities the school was holding for the end of the year, we only had about six or seven weeks in total with the kids, the choice of theme was obvious: Christmas.
The chaplain had decided to take it upon herself to educate the children in Christmas carols. “Australians don’t know their Christmas carols,” she told me, “Not like we do in England.”
She’s English, by the way. I wonder if being from Yorkshire is a stereotype of brusqueness, or whether it’s just her? I haven’t met many people from Yorkshire.
“I know Christmas carols!” I protested. “I sang Christmas carols as a kid!”
“Yes, but your father’s English. It’s part of your heritage.”
I should probably make some comment about the majority of the school populace being white and it therefore being their heritage, too, but in this area, it’s just as likely that they’re of German extraction. Perhaps not at an Anglican school, though.
But that was where the conversation was left, because I couldn’t think quick enough to think up a comeback. But it was also the bit that particularly stung me.
Because, what made her think that two Christmasses (one that I can remember) with my tone-deaf father’s side of the family had more influence on my musical heritage than every day with my mother’s?
My mother’s Cornish-Australian side of the family, at that, and Cornish-Australians were the ones who invented Carols by Candlelight, a tradition which the ever-reliable Wikipedia assures me doesn’t occur outside Australia.
My mother’s side of the family, with whom I heard and sang “The North Wind” and “The Three Drovers” and “Six White Boomers” and “Christmas in the Scrub”, and who I watched sing “Orana” in four-part harmony. (Or do I just imagine I watched that because Mum talks so much about how it used to happen before my grandmother’s lungs packed up?)
Because Australians do sing Christmas carols. Or, at least, they have songs which they sing at Christmas, because “Six White Boomers” and “Santa Wear Your Shorts” mightn’t be about the Christmas story, but there are carols in the mix, too.
And yes, maybe it’s not “Little Donkey” and “We Saw Three Ships” (both of which, incidentally, I find insufferably annoying), and maybe pop artists over here don’t release a pop Christmas song every year like they do over there, but Christmas carols are sung.
It might be that they’re sung more by some segments of the population than others. I know, for example, that the chaplain in question spent most of her time in Australia before moving to this area two years ago in a part of the city that the rest of us think of as – how shall I put it? – a bit bogan. I also know that it’s the area where most of the Ten-Pound Poms ended up, so if the kids in schools up there didn’t know their Christmas carols, it’s their English immigrant parents who are at fault, not their Australian-born identity.
So, I have to agree. Singing Christmas carols is part of my heritage. But it’s almost laughable to imagine that it’s part of the heritage given to me by my father, whom I’ve only ever heard sing a carol occasionally at a carol services. No, it’s part of the heritage given to me by my mother, who sings at the drop of a hat (or the verbalisation of something that resembles a song lyrics), whose family have been in this country for six or seven generations, and whose ancestors were part of the culture which made Australia’s carol tradition what it is today.
It’s that part of my heritage that walked along the main street of the village singing “The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town” with my friends as we walked through the sweltering midsummer heat to a picnic.
It’s that part of my heritage that spent long summer evenings sitting on the local school oval, getting rashes from the grass and bites from the mosquitoes but watching small children dressed in tinsel singing “Deck the shed with bits of wattle! Stick some gum leaves in a bottle!”, joining in on the chorus of “Six white boomers, snow white boomers, racing Santa Clause through the blazing sun!”, and waving the glow sticks which at some point during my childhood replaced the tea-candle-in-a-jar arrangement I can remember.
It’s that part of my heritage which, several years ago, posted a post with YouTube clips of some of my favourite carols you won’t find in any other country in the world.
It’s that part of my heritage which, a hundred years ago, held up its Christmas carol tradition as a political battering ram and then, twenty years later, shared it with the nation.
And it’s that part of my heritage which was upset and offended at the suggestion that my knowledge of carols has nothing to do with this continent at all.
I should stop it there, but there was a similar sort of ignorant and rude comment from the same person a few weeks later. Christmas Day, actually, as we discussed the meal awaiting for us after church. We both had hot meals (which is something I will blame on my British heritage), and she said, “Oh, yes, I’m doing the full English thing: turkey and lots of Brussels sprouts!”
Seriously, what is the English obsession with Brussels sprouts at Christmas? Dad says it’s because they’re in season, which is fair enough, I suppose, but… They’re not in season over here! I haven’t seen them in the shops for months! Where does she even get them?
“We’ve got a duck,” I said, by way of return, “We haven’t enough people for a turkey.”
“A duck!” she said scornfully. “That’s not British!”
Since we were on the receiving line after the service, we had to move on fairly quickly, and I managed to get in, “Well, we wanted a goose,” as my sister and I went on in something of a huff.
That’s true – we had wanted a goose, which is something which my grandfather – who lived in Hampshire by the time I knew him – had most Christmasses. But geese cost about $150 apiece here, so that wasn’t happening and it’s at Hills tradition to have duck instead (according to the local shops, anyway), which are much more reasonably-priced around the Christmas season.
“A duck’s more British than a turkey!” I said to my sister. “Turkeys are American!”
I won’t say people should forget their background, heritage, and traditions when they immigrate to a new country, but… they should at least shed the idea that theirs are superior.
Don’t interact with the traditions of the locals of your new country in an, “Oh, you do that, do you, you ignorant savage? Let me tell you how it’s really done,” sort of way.
Instead, when one of the locals presents you with something you think is a bit odd, approach it in a more, “Oh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought it could be done like that. Here’s how we do it,” sort of way.
Mind you, I can say from my own experience that if an Australian went to the UK with the same sorts of attitudes about Australian Christmas traditions as the woman in question has about “British” ones, the response from the locals there definitely would be, “Oh, you do that, do you, you ignorant savage?”