They don’t go over the top Down Under

It is a big Australian party, but not quite what an outsider would expect. In a Sydney park, there is an evening concert: carols, local youth groups, the cast of Tap Dogs, a Kylie (but not the Kylie). Wearing little Santa hats and jackets, families set up their picnics in the sunny afternoon, turning the park into a field of red. There will be big crowds later, and a few mounted police officers are on the streets nearby, their horses sporting toy reindeer antlers.

One of the many surprising aspects of modern Australia is the way an unexpected 1950s vibe can suddenly manifest itself. One of the organisers of the concert turns out to be the Salvation Army – or the Salvo as, naturally enough, it is called. As evening approaches, the crowd sit patiently through a series of speeches about giving and sharing. One speaker brings a group of wholesome teenagers on to the stage. They had been rescued from the streets, he says – indeed, the lead singer had been ejected from this very event last year because of alcohol-related misbehaviour. The kids line up to sing a rap song. It is about giving and sharing.

Maybe crossing all those time zones has addled my brain but, watching the Salvo’s teen band, it occurs to me that there is much to be said for the Australian style of festiveness. There are a few token lights about the place, and the shop window of the big department store, David Jones, shows a Christmas scene, but there is little sign on the streets of the semi-hysterical seasonal panic one associates with this time of the year back home. It is less marketed, less competitively happy, less aggressively companionable.

A local radio phone-in invites listeners to nominate festive favourites (“Jingle bells, jingle bells, Christmas is a beaut/ Oh what fun it is to ride in a rusty Holden ute”) but not all of those who ring the programme are planning to party. One man, asked how he will be celebrating Christmas, says it will be a day like any other. When the DJ unwisely asks what he will be doing, he lists the ordinary things he will be eating for breakfast, then lunch, then dinner.

At times like this, the Crocodile Dundee image of the Aussie feels like something of a marketing stunt. Most Australians are calmer, less generally excitable than people in Europe. Christmas reveals the Pom, much derided during the current Ashes series, to be more emotional and needy, more likely to escape into an excess of food, drink and family when the opportunity offers itself.

Could it be that the reason why seasonal celebrations in Australia are relatively low-key is that goodwill is pretty much available throughout the year, that in the best sense the radio grump was right – Christmas is just another day? It is not a time to batten down the hatches against that harsh and hostile place, the outside world. Everyday non-festive reality is not so terrible.

An Australian Christmas seems less about self, about families out-yuling one another. The symbols of the season – lights, a tree, decorations – are, on the whole, simple, small and taste-free. There are few signs of anxious consumer excess. The celebrations – teenagers singing a good-hearted rap song to a tinny backing track in a crowded park, for example – are unpretentious.

Near the park in Sydney, there is a light show against the façade of St Mary’s cathedral. People watch in silence as the church is covered in butterflies, meteors, snowflakes, applauding politely when it finishes. In defiance of environmental correctness, an energy company is handing out battery-powered rings which shine blue and green lights.

It seems too fancy a present for a passer-by, but the young woman offering me a ring insists. “There’s enough for everyone,” she says. “Hey, it’s Christmas.” Weirdly, the hand-out does not feel like marketing, but easy and generous, the way it should be at this time of the year. From Australia, I hope that your Christmas, too, is a beaut.

Independent, Friday, 24 December 2010