Like many immigrant families, mine continued to observe traditional customs, even when it seemed obvious that such customs might be unsuitable for the Australian experience. For as long as I could remember, Christmas Day revolved around the traditional roast turkey dinner. This was served in the middle of the day, regardless of the temperature outside – 25” or 40”. Most years, as we feasted on roast turkey and roast potatoes, our Christmas party hats would be wilting in the heat as sweat dripped from our foreheads.
My mum had been preparing the meal since breakfast. After the flurry and excitement of present giving, she would disappear into the kitchen, only reappearing to organise or instruct my three sisters and I. We would spend the morning exploring our new gifts – roller skates, bicycles, model planes, animal books, Barbie accessories etc. Soon, it would be time to put these aside and get ready for the day. This would involve donning our predetermined Christmas outfits – frilly dresses and frilly socks for my sisters; shorts, walk socks and sandals for me (very sexy).
Christmas dinner itself was usually uneventful. We observed the same rituals as any normal Catt family dinner. (My sister, Deborah, ate everything and wanted more. My youngest sister, Joanne, ate nothing. I tried to avoid brussell sprouts.) It was one of the few times of the year that my parents drank any alcohol, although they usually indulged in little more than a glass or two. If we were lucky, the kids also got a taste of the Summer Wine or Cold Duck (yuk).
After lunch, we gathered a few of our Christmas toys and our swimming gear, and headed off to our grandmother’s house. She’d followed us to Australia after divorcing my grandfather some years earlier, and eventually married a large, taciturn man we knew as Bill. They shared a house in nearby Pooraka, which included a large in-ground swimming pool.
Midway through the afternoon, the rowdy Catt clan arrived to ruin their Christmas solitude. But if it was hot the kids spent the rest of the day splashing around in the pool, playing nonsense games about sharks or crocodiles, hidden underwater caves or superheroes, leaving the adults to chat or drink quietly.
My grandmother, or Nanny, as she was known to us, prepared Christmas tea for us all – cold meat, salads, turkey leftovers, chips, nuts, cakes etc. We were usually so full after tea that we were forbidden from re-entering the pool until our meal was properly digested. (My sister, Deborah, always ignored this command, and I waited in horror for her to sink or explode. She did neither.)
As evening loomed, and everyone began feeling a little tired, we came inside, changed out of our swimming costumes, and played board games or cards. The adults usually played their own card games (bridge, canasta), leaving us to look on or pester them with demands for drink and food. By about 10.00pm we all climbed sleepily into our car for the short drive home to bed.
Year after year, our Christmases followed this basic format. There was rarely any drama or variation to the formula. That is, there wasn’t until my nan fell ill. One Christmas, we arrived to find her looking pale and complaining of an awful headache. When her situation worsened, and an ambulance was called, we were asked to visit her one by one as she lay on her bed. It was obvious that something awful was happening.
Our grandmother had had a brain aneurysm, and while she did not die that day (it would be almost a year before she finally passed away) she was never the same again.
Our Christmases were also never the same after Nanny died – no more afternoons in the pool, late night card games etc. We didn’t want to burden Bill with our noisy presence on Christmas Day, but invited him to spend it with us instead. And, most years, he did join us for dinner, sitting down in our tiny dining room to eat roast turkey in the sweltering heat, beads of sweat on his forehead dampening his party hat.