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Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Christmas imagery

December 20, 2010

As a 50-something Australian, I grew up with a big disconnect regarding Christmas. Our Christmas occurs in summer but the cards we received (and could buy) and the carols we sang (and still do) tended to be winter-focused. And then we discovered the carols by Wheeler and James. John Wheeler (lyricist) and William G James (composer) both worked for the ABC, our government-funded broadcaster. In the late 1940s-mid 1950s they wrote Christmas carols for Australians.

The most famous of the Wheeler-James carols is the “Carol of the birds”. Not only is it a lovely song, but its chorus includes, significantly, an indigenous Australian word, Orana, which means “welcome”. Our (sheet music) version of Wheeler and James’ Christmas carols comes in three sets of five carols:

  • Set 1 (1948): The three drovers; The silver stars are in the sky; Christmas Day; Carol of the birds; Christmas bush for His adorning.
  • Set 2 (1954): The day that Christ was born on; Christmas night; The little town where Christ was born; Sing Gloria; Noel-time.
  • Set 3 (1953*): The Christmas tree; Our lady of December; Golden day; Country carol (The oxen); Merry Christmas.
Paddocks in Lake George, 2005

Sheep in brown paddocks in Lake George, 2005

So, what makes these songs Australian? Most reference the Christian aspect of Christmas, as you can tell from some of the titles, but the important point is that they also evoke Australian colour and sound through celebrating our landscape, flora and fauna. Here are some examples:

The North wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town;
The sparrows are under the eaves,
And the grass in the paddock is brown;
As we lift up our voices and sing
To the Christ-Child our Heavenly King.
(the beginning of  “Christmas Day”)

Friar birds sip the nectar of flowers,
Currawongs chant in wattle-tree bowers;
In the blue ranges Lorikeets calling-
Carol of the bushbirds rising and falling-
Chorus: Orana! Orana! Orana to Christmas Day
(Verse 3 and chorus of “Carol of the birds”)

When the sun’s a golden rose,
And the magpie carols clear,
You can say, and I can say,
On the summer morning,
Here at last is Christmas Day,
The day that Christ was born on…
(The beginning of “The Day that Christ was born on”)

Sheep in fold, Shine like gold,
As the day is dawning,
Riding by, Stockmen cry,
Welcome Christmas morning.
(Middle of first verse of “Merry Christmas”)

Interestingly, Geoff Strong, writing in The Age newspaper, believes that these songs have failed to endure, but I’m not so sure. Just because they don’t feature in shopping mall carol “musak” doesn’t mean that they’re forgotten. They are taught in schools, and recordings do exist of them. Most Australians, I believe, know at least a couple of them.

There are also more humorous, non-Christian-focused Australian Christmas songs. A couple of favourites are:

I hope you’ve enjoyed my little nod to the season. As this is the last Monday musings before Christmas, I wish all those who visit and comment on my blog, a very happy holiday season and a peaceful 2011. Monday musings will continue in the New Year.

* Don’t ask me why the date for Set 3 is before the date for Set 2, but that’s how it is.

POSTSCRIPT: The complete words to all the songs can be found on A Growing Delight’s blog.

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2010 1:59 am

    It wasn’t until recently that I realized Australia celebrates Christas in the middle of it’s “summer.” I don’t know why that never occurred to me before. I thought it was hard enough getting into the spirit of the season in a climant that is fairly moderate compared to that of my youth. But even here, it isn’t beach weather. Well, whatever the thermometer says, Merry Christmas!

    • December 21, 2010 2:00 am

      “climate” of course.

      • December 21, 2010 8:33 am

        Welcome Grad. For us, a white Christmas is exciting and “a goal” we all want to experience one day because, really, of all the cultural brainwashing of our youth.

        It’s interesting isn’t it? Re Christmas, we southern hemisphere types are a minority and so we know the majority culture (white/cold Christmas) as well as our own, whereas many in the majority culture are quite unaware that there is another culture. It helps me realise how oblivious we majority culture types (you know, I’m a white middle class anglo) can be of the worlds around us.

  2. December 21, 2010 5:45 am

    Rub it in, Gummie. It’s freezing here.

  3. Sue permalink
    December 21, 2010 8:36 am

    Yes I love those James and Wheeler Australian carols too and have digitised our World Record Club LP of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and State Conservatorium Choir with Sir Bernard Heinze from about 1960. Wouldn’t be Christmas without them. I’m surprised they’re not more popular, but surely we do still hear them around at Christmas time? Err possibly not one of my former favourites though – “Three drovers riding blithe and gay”

  4. December 21, 2010 10:34 am

    I had *no idea* about the Australian carols! Thanks for a fascinating post.

    • December 21, 2010 10:40 am

      Thanks kimbofo … that’s really interesting. Perhaps Geoff Strong is right? I can’t remember how long I’ve known them – particularly the Carol of the Birds – but it’s been around 3 decades or so. I think the first recording was around 1960/61 but clearly they didn’t stick.

  5. December 21, 2010 12:20 pm

    So many fond memories of these songs! Singing them in choir, to you, to myself… in fact, I might’ve just started singing Christmas Day before remembering that these offices aren’t soundproof…

    • December 21, 2010 12:59 pm

      Good for you … I’m sure people in the other offices would have loved to hear it.

  6. December 21, 2010 1:26 pm

    I swear I have never heard Carol of the Birds before. I am however familiar with Six White Boomers so I do know at least one Australiana Christmas song!

    • December 21, 2010 2:04 pm

      Oh good Marg. I’m so glad! But clearly I am wrong and Strong is right. They are way less known than I thought. What a shame. I recommend you hunt them down now, forthwith and immediately!!

  7. December 21, 2010 9:32 pm

    Oh dear. I haven’t ever heard of Wheeler-James or Carol of the Birds, or even Aussie Jingle Bells. Shame, shame, shame. Six White Boomers I know. Hardly a rounded education. Naturally we enjoyed your nod to the season, and I at least learnt something. Merry Christmas to you and your lovely family.

    • December 21, 2010 11:23 pm

      Thanks Louise for commenting. I am truly gobsmacked that so many Aussies here didn’t know these. It’s clearly not something you need to be ashamed of. Anyhow, makes me feel it was worth doing this post. Did you listen to the Carol of the Birds youtube? It’s not the best youtube but it gives you a sense.

      Merry Christmas to you three too…hope you have a lovely family time.

  8. December 22, 2010 4:50 am

    Of course! There’s another half of the Earth that celebrates Christmas too… and we’ve been so ‘northerly biased’. Thanks for sharing with us your experience of having Christmas in mid-summer, where there’s red dust and brown grass, and sparrows, Lorikeets, bushbirds sing their carols. How lovely! No snow, no blizzards, no icy drives… I would love to escape to Down Under for Christmas. Thanks for sharing such wonderful images with us. And again, from your Northern neighbour, I wish you a joyous Christmas matching the colourful festivities of nature!

    • December 22, 2010 9:27 am

      Thanks Arti for enjoying our images … just let me know anytime you decide on a Downunder escape and I’ll see what we can show you. And, of course, Merry Christmas back to you. I look forward to sharing more Austen, films and other topics with you next year.

  9. December 22, 2010 7:37 pm

    I am very pleased to discover from your post that there are Australian-written carols! It does seem a bit pointless to be singing about the bleak midwinter with temperatures like yours – and in any case, perhaps the climate of Palestine was more akin to that of Australia than Northern Europe. Thanks for the information about the carols which I found very interesting. Have a great Christmas by the way!

    • December 22, 2010 9:34 pm

      Thanks Tom … it’s been great hearing that this post has introduced something about Australia to overseas and Australian readers! Hope your Christmas is lovely too.

  10. December 22, 2010 10:20 pm

    I am pretty happy to hear about Carols not referring specifically to winter like Christmas in Europe. It must be funny to hear the Australians singing Jingle bells… Dashing through the snow, In a one horse open sleigh… while there is a sunny day outside the window. I hope we can make the Christmas universal but non-commercial as well. I wish a very Merry Christmas to all of you.

    • December 22, 2010 10:43 pm

      Thanks Elli. The funny thing is that in our youth we just sang these songs and took them as read even though they didn’t accord with our reality JUST as we regularly heard that birds fly south in the winter. That’s clearly a silly thing to do if you are a bird in Australia! They’d end up in Antarctica!

      Welcome to my blog – I wish you a very Merry Christmas too.

      • December 23, 2010 3:30 am

        I had an Anglophile upbringing; there were so many things that didn’t accord with my reality that I sort of lumped them away into a general fairyland where children rode donkeys on beaches and went for tramps in the hols. The idea of a white Christmas went into the same place. When I finally got around to experiencing a cold Christmas in New York I decided that I never wanted another one. Give me a t-shirt Christmas with the sun knocking at the blinds in the morning and the birds melting in the trees at midday, thanks very much.

        We learnt Carol of the Birds in primary school. Thirty thin little kiddie voices going, “O-RA-na O-RA-na O-RA-na for Chrissmiss Daeee.”

        • December 23, 2010 3:47 am

          I am SO glad DKS that you learnt it too. My son who learnt thesewhen he was young too, and who taught his first year of school in Melbourne this year, said he taught terrible Aussie carols including one to the tune of national anthem that had words along the lines of drinking cordial from our polystyrene cups. I think THAT’s taking an Aussie Christmas a little too far! I’ve just found it – http://www.lyricsvip.com/Bucko-%26-Champs/Australians-Let-Us-Barbecue-Lyrics.html – tongue in cheek clearly (but would the kiddies – as Roy and HG would say – get that?)

  11. December 23, 2010 1:40 pm

    As I was reading your post re Aussie Christmas Carols, I was thinking, “Does he/she know that I have posted the words to many of these carols on my blog a couple of times?” Then at the bottom of the page I see that you do know. Thank you for the acknowledgement.

    Although I’d like to hear the Aussie ones played more often – especially in place of the loathsome ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘I saw Mummy kissing Santa Claus’, etc. – it is good to see that some are usually included in our Carol Services. I think 5 were listed for singing at the Canberra Times Carols. Many people recognise some of them when they hear them, even if they can’t quite place them. I first heard them in the mid 1950s at school.

    The more ‘traditional’ carols that we’ve heard all our lives seem to conjure up the nostalgia of Christmas, even if the setting isn’t so appropriate for our season.

    Thanks for your comments on my blog. Maybe we’ll meet one day – I’ll plant your plants and you can read my unread books….lol. Have a happy Christmas.

    • December 23, 2010 5:32 pm

      Welcome Alice … it’s nice to meet you via our blogs – and it would be fun to meet in person one day. Glad you are happy with my link to you.

      I didn’t check the Canberra Times carol lift-out when I wrote this but my recollection was that at least a couple were in it. Perhaps Canberra is leading the way in keeping these songs alive because it seems quite a few Aussies from elsewhere don’t know them. I felt I first heard them – at least the Carol of the Birds at school – perhaps early 60s.

  12. December 24, 2010 3:06 am

    My child-self would have thought that it was funny (adults usually give children cues when they mean something to be funny, and, even if I hadn’t understood the humour on my own, the teacher would have been widening his eyes, making brisk gestures, head-bobs, etc), but I don’t know if I would have understood that the adults meant it to be tongue-in-cheek. The word I would have used is ‘silly.’ “The teacher is singing a funny, silly Christmas song.” That would have put it in a different category to the solemn O Holy Nights and Little Town of Bethlehems, and even a song like Jingle Bells, which isn’t funny or silly, just jolly. I suppose the advantage of Orana is its dignity; it’s Australian without being a pisstake.

    The one Christmas song actually owned by children is Jingle Bells, Batman Smells.

    • December 24, 2010 1:24 pm

      I think that one was after my time, DKS, though I’ve heard my kids sing it. Do you know that funny American one “Grandma got run over by the reindeer” which, when I looked it up to make sure I had it right, I discovered has a Wikipedia article on it. They describe it as a Novelty Christmas Song, which sounds about right, doesn’t it? Their category “novelty songs” includes a few Christmas ones: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Novelty_songs

  13. November 18, 2011 10:30 pm

    Carol of the Birds is one of my favourite Xmas Carols. I recently went looking for it on YouTube in order to share with my Northern friends. Such a pity hat the very few vids are poor quality :-(

    • November 18, 2011 10:47 pm

      Thanks for commenting seldombites. I agree, that is a real shame, as it’s a lovely song and it would be great to get it out there a bit more.

  14. Olga permalink
    December 2, 2012 8:36 pm

    Here I am writing a comment at the close of 2012. I am a child of Wheeler’s golden Christmases. Born near the Queensland/NT border, I developed my Christmas emotions under Wheeler. The fact that I am listening to his carols, writing on this blog and will continue to look desperately for his bio attests to his immortality. Why silence on one of our countries great poets? I think he was knighted. Perhaps I am wrong.

    • December 2, 2012 9:06 pm

      Oh welcome Olga. It’s always a treat when someone comments on an old post. Which part of the long Qld/NT border were you born near? I lived for three years in Mt Isa, so not too far from the border. Interesting that composer James has a Wikipedia article but lyricist Wheeler doesn’t. I wonder why as you say. The music is lovely but the words are memorable.

  15. Olga permalink
    December 2, 2012 8:38 pm

    Sorry about the typo “country’s”

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