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Changing Australian

Christmas Traditions

From Chook & Plum Pudding into the Changing Cultural Mix

by Margaret E. Walker


Christmas Chook (Oz for chicken)

Christmas celebrations in Australia have gone through something of metamorphosis during the past fifty years or so. When I was a child the traditional English Christmas meal was roast chook and vegetables followed by plum pudding with custard. I say chook, because in those days it really was a fowl and not a chicken, unlike today when chicken is served several times a week in different guises. The variety of ways that our supermarkets have for presenting chicken seems to be unending; from chicken cubes on bamboo skewers covered in some type of marinade, chicken mince, chicken breast and honey and soy chicken wings. The housewife of today hardly needs to consult a recipe book, let alone the old Australian Green and Gold. All the preparation is done; the only thing left to do is the cooking. This can be left to the man of the house, provided that he has a barbeque outside the back door.

By contrast it was not uncommon to eat chook only once or twice a year in the 1940's. Usually the chook came from one's own backyard. Of course this meant a considerable amount of furious activity the day before Christmas, and required some effort by both the husband his wife and even the kids. The unfortunate bird would be chosen weeks in advance of the appointed day. The day before Christmas, accompanied by a great deal of dust and squawking, the unfortunate bird was chased around the yard until finally caught. Its dispatch with the aid of a sharp axe was quick, and often accompanied by little girls crying at the sight of all the blood on the chopping block, and the little boys wanting to play with the detached head with its sightless eyes now staring away into nothing.

An Australian icon, the Hills rotary clothesline supported the bird, its feet tied together with string, while its lifeblood drained onto the grass below. The chook was next dipped into boiling water in the laundry, ready to be plucked and cleaned and finally held over a burning candle to clean off the last of the pinfeathers. Altogether this was a major family activity; in fact a part of the ritual. On Christmas Day the dressed bird was be taken from the cool of the pantry, where it had hung covered by a clean calico bag, to the kitchen table. There it was filled with pungent onion and sage stuffing before being tucked into the oven of the wood stove in the kitchen to cook for a minimum of two hours, along with potatoes and a couple of whole onions for additional flavour.

Plum Pudding

A plum pudding would be gently simmering on the hotplate in a large aluminium pot. The puddings were traditionally made weeks before Christmas, using the age-old secret family recipe, and with the help of everyone in the family to stir the huge bowl of mixture. Finally it was wrapped in calico squares, tied with string, hung onto the copper stick by loops of string, and cooked for a couple of hours in the laundry copper, before being drained and hung on a line under the front verandah to dry. They would keep for months if hung in a cool dark place. The pudding was not complete unless each serve hid a silver coin and was covered in hot, runny custard. It was standard practice to complain of "being full" when once the silver coin had been discovered. Mother would have been up for hours preparing the vegetables and the fowl before breakfast. We would wake on Christmas morning and be so engrossed with the opening of our gifts that we were not really aware of the preparations taking place in the kitchen, apart from the wonderful smell of the onion and sage stuffing that wafted its way into the dining room where we were surrounded by wrapping paper and toys. Mum stood over the hot stove regardless of summer temperatures to cook this once-a-year meal, and spent inordinate amounts of time cleaning up afterwards. After all it was tradition, and we loved it.

Into the cultural mix

In the 1950's Immigrants brought their own European Christmas Traditions to Australia. In the next twenty years people arrived as migrants from many other parts of the globe including Asia. An influx of other cultures has forced a rethink of how we celebrate Christmas Day, and most of all what type of food we enjoy. My father who was a native of the United Kingdom, and who visited the homes of many of these migrants when delivering their groceries, was intrigued by the different Christmas decorations and traditions in their homes. Ours was an Australian Christmas. In our front passage a Cypress tree stood in a bucket with a few stones to keep it steady; instead of beautiful shiny balls the tree was decorated by coloured paper chains and later a length or two of tinsel. I can still remember the year when Dad came home with a beautiful European made musical Christmas carousel; the most expensive decoration we had ever seen, or heard, playing a beautiful Christmas carol, and how pleased with it he was.

A typical Australian meal today might be a cold picnic at the beach or at a nature reserve, the family spread around on rugs enjoying cold roast chicken and salad from a cooler with a glass of champagne or a can of beer. Instead of slaving over the proverbial "hot stove" one might cook the Christmas chicken and vegetables in a barbeque kettle; a much more civilized way of producing a delicious meal than in the old wood stove I think.

Thanks to our Greek migrants we have come to appreciate the inclusion of seafood in the Christmas meal, with a whole fish being cooked on the barbeque or perhaps some prawns on skewers. Hence the saying, 'throw another prawn on the barbie.' Many families prefer to enjoy a completely cold meal of salads, roast chicken pieces and cold cooked seafood.

The meal settings, along with the type of meal have changed too. It is far more usual for families to enjoy eating outdoors, depending on the weather of course, or sometimes in spite of it. Adults can get down to the serious business of enjoying the meal with a glass or two of Christmas Cheer, whilst the little ones can freely run and play, perhaps using that new Christmas toy, all in a far more relaxed atmosphere than the old traditional one.

Many families still choose the traditional Christmas Dinner of roast turkey and ham accompanied by roast vegetables or salads. They traditionally decorate their tables with candles and holly; have lots of fun popping the Christmas crackers and laughing at the jokes and silly hats contained therein. No matter how we choose to celebrate Christmas Day, or what food we choose to celebrate with, the indisputable fact is that the gathering of the family, the fellowship and sharing far outweigh the importance of what we eat or how it is prepared. This was brought home to me in an unforgettable way when my husband and I visited Germany in 1990.

continue....read Margaret's story - a german christmas eve



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