Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Christmas imagery
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.
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:
- Rolf Harris‘ “Six white boomers” (Listen to Rolf Harris, himself, singing this one)
- Aussie jingle bells in a rusty holden ute (For a good example, listen to Bucko and Champs)
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.