During my five years in the USA I’d occasionally be laid low by bouts of cultural malaria, that recurring melancholia triggered by sights, sounds or even things that don’t register on our conscious mind. Once or twice a year, I’d find myself feeling like a stranger in an unfamiliar land, and it was Christmas that was mostly to blame or, strictly speaking, the season in which it arrived. Perhaps due to a twinge of homesickness or maybe because I hadn’t had a sight of real sunshine for weeks, one day around Christmas I found myself looking at the weather data for south-western Australia. In Gingin, the town I’d left to come to the USA, the temperature was just breathing down the neck of 21°, falling from a high of 38. Pretty well normal for that time of year. During the last Christmas I spent there, Gingin registered the highest daytime temperature of any inhabited place on the planet – any place with a weather-recording station that is. The official reading on Christmas Day was a tad over 48° and on Boxing Day a couple of degrees higher. That would have put the temperature in my baby sister’s backyard, where we had the family get-together, at somewhere round the 55° mark, perhaps even higher and Tony Abbott notwithstanding, Christmases will only get hotter. While in Kentucky I didn’t miss the ‘new’ Aussie tradition of a seafood Xssie dinner, not too much anyway, largely because Kentucky cooking can wipe away all cares, but a bit of hot sunshine would have been nice and I reckon I even would’ve welcomed a few flies.
Now that all this reminiscing has got my brain creaking into action, I’m going to add my feelings about other reminders of Christmases past – might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I suppose. Ever since I was about 17, December has always brought the same stupid greeting from the self-styled wits: “G’day Father Christmas.” Though “silly young bugger” and, later, “Are you a beatnik?” and later still “Bloody hippy” joined the list of things that rankled, the Father Christmas tag was the worst. Now that people have forgotten that hippies and beatniks ever existed and now that nobody in their right mind would now call me a silly young bugger, “G’day Father Christmas” has regained its position in first place on the list of clever things to say to Frank; “How often do you get asked to play Father Christmas?” running a close second. This last has become even more common now that what’s left of my beard is mostly white. So right here, right now I’m stating for the record that I’ve often been asked to impersonate the other impersonators of the original impersonator of whomsoever it was they’re all impersonating, but only once have I succumbed – and that for ulterior motives. I want to put that aside to perhaps resurface at another time, it was a one-off event, triggered by a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity.
I don’t mind when kids gawk at me in stores, becoming more wide-eyed as the Big Day draws nearer, it’s the adults’ sniggers I can’t stand and it’s getting even worse now that I know that the pretty mums who give me a big “thank you” smile for tipping the wink and secret hand signal to their staring kids are mostly young enough to be my grandkids, and know it – and know that I know that they know it. Sad it may be, but all this is as a mere backpack when weighed against the dray-load of luggage with which the Christmas season has burdened me and has very little to do with my dislike, hatred almost, of the red-garbed impostor. For you see my first and only childhood encounter with Father Christmas – or Santa Claus or Saint Nik or whatever else you want to call him – was a bitter one and rankles still. I was about knee-high to a bull-ant’s nephew when my beloved Nana and Mum’s best friend Bernie took my cousin John and me to Boan’s Department Store in Perth, Western Australia, to sit on the Yule Figure’s knee and have our photo taken, a commercial bonanza still in the early stages of being mined. There was a big crowd of parents and kids, the latter in mental states ranging from excitement to abject fear, so when it was my turn to be lifted onto the red-trewed knee and crushed against the kapok paunch there was a large audience for what was to happen next.
After an exchange of social niceties, Daddy C. asked the traditional question: “And what do you want me to bring you for Christmas, little man?”
“A cocky,” I replied – in a loud, clear voice it was later said – “A galah.” The “little man” had been bad enough, but his next response was startling.
“A cocky,” he almost shouted, “A cocky,” then, milking the moment for all it was worth, he swept his sherry-tinged eyes over the waiting crowd and in a voice loud enough to be heard down at Perth Railway Station he informed the world: “This young feller wants a galah for Christmas!” and roared with laughter. There was a bit of a giggle from the waiting crowd, I seem to remember, but I wasn’t going to hang around to hear any more. I wriggled out of the comedian’s clutches and fled. Bernie later said it took her 10 minutes to catch me, but she may have been exaggerating.
Like all good melodramas, this one also has a happy ending. I woke up on Christmas Day to see, sitting on the homemade, kerosene box dresser that stood against the wall, a makeshift cage and inside it my cocky in the form of a young, female galah. Grandpa Frank, that gentle man with the faint Welsh accent inherited from his father, and who trapped crocodiles for a living, had gone out and caught me a bird. And more was to come. Sitting on the bare boards of the back “sleepout” was a large and beautiful cage. About 6 x 3 x 3 ft with a Cyclone mesh front and a gabled roof, it had a small feeding door and a larger door I could open to clean the cage and take Cocky out to play with her. Thanks Frank. You were a lovely man and you saved Christmas for me. I had Cocky for more than 15 years, up until the time she died in the 1960s. Father Christmas and I haven’t spoken since. As I said, I’ve been asked to represent him many times and have done so once, but I didn’t really enjoy it, the memory still hurts. And knowing what I do now, I think it’s a bit dangerous for me to impersonate him.
On the other hand, if he really is the Green Man…