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An Emu Up a Gum Tree

A walk through topsy-turvy Australian holiday traditions

First-year GD Trombone


December: the month of holidays. Mention of it conjures up an entire backlog of memories of hot chocolates, scarves and mittens, and perhaps warm nights indoors by the fire in defiance of the cold outside. At least that’s what I think it does for you! Where I come from, December is a month of the outdoors, of late sunsets and early rises, BBQ and cold drinks, tank tops, and flip-flops. Just as my perception of the holiday season is informed mostly by second-hand information from Hollywood and friends, so then would your perceptions be of the land far, far away known as Australia. Allow me to give you a first-hand introduction as to what it’s like to experience a Christmas down under. (Incidentally, flip-flops are not known as such back home. We call them thongs. It makes sense if you think about it.)

Like any child growing up in the nineties, I got most of my education from The Simpsons. The very first episode of the show is a sweet story about how the family receives their dog one Christmas; this was likely my first exposure to the phenomenon of a Northern Hemisphere winter. A couple of things passed through my mind as I watched the episode:

A. What is this magical substance they refer to as snow?
B. Why are they all walking around with lots of clothes on– isn’t Christmas supposed to be hot?
C. Where’s the emu?

I’ll get to that last one soon, but the other questions answer themselves. Indeed, when I finally did experience a Northern Hemisphere winter for the first time at 20 years old, I couldn’t quite shake the nagging feeling that I was walking through a real life movie. None of it seemed like it could be real, as I’d only ever experienced it through the lens of the television.

My family video collection contains footage of a particularly legendary Christmas from when I was a boy. A mischievous uncle had gifted my siblings and me with Super Soakers that year, and he brought along some of his own to make things interesting. What started as three children playfully soaking three burly adults (my two uncles and my grandfather) shortly turned into a full-on war. In my favorite part of the vidoe, my five-year-old self screams, “Hey, that’s cheating!” as my grandfather takes sniper shots out the window from the relative safety of the inside of his bedroom. This is the sort of diversion you can afford to have when it’s 110º outside on Christmas Day in Sydney.

Courtesy of

Still, not all traditional Christmas ideas are thrown out the window in warmer climates. Poor, suffering Santa still labors away underneath mountains of woolen fabrics. Christmas pines are still erected, and often inexplicably adorned with fake snow. Chestnuts are roasted, turkeys are consumed, and eggnog flows abundantly. Ever-popular Christmas songs survive intact. Well, almost all of the time.

A popular push was made in the late 1980s to ‘Australian-ize’ the lyrics to many popular carols. Tunes such as “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” have survived fully as they have no reference to colder weather, but tunes like “Jingle Bells” had all Northern Hemisphere references removed and replaced with Australian sound-alikes. Sometimes the results are better than others; take “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” for instance. After the refrain, “On the ___ day of Christmas, my true love sent to me,” the Australian version goes:

An emu up a gum tree
2 pink galahs
3 jaibirus
4 kookaburras
5 kangaroos
6 platypuses
7 koalas climbing
8 possums playing
9 wombats working
10 lizards leaping
11 numbats nagging
12 parrots prattling

I remember singing this in elementary school, but I still don’t quite know what a jaibiru is!

So, as you sip your warm drinks and curl up away from the cold with family this holiday season, spare a thought for those suffering under the tyranny of a shining sun and endless beaches in the Southern Hemisphere. I’ll be home in Sydney for Christmas for the first time in three years this year, and I have lots of new cousins – I think I know what Santa is bringing them all this year!

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