Early Childhood Christmas Memories by Annie Erez
Celebrating Christmas has changed over the years, but one thing remains the same for many of us; it is a time for family.
My most vivid experiences with food as a celebration goes back to my early childhood memories of huge family gatherings and all the fuss, noise and hullabaloo that went with it. This was even more of a momentous occasion for Christmas and then even Easter and special anniversaries, mile stone birthdays and even funerals.
My maternal grandmother was a fantastic country cook. She was truly the Dragon Queen of the kitchen who would always tempt us kids with promises of the wonderful dishes she would make for us if she thought we deserved it. But woe betide anyone who “misbehaved”. Of course her idea of unruly naughty children was completely different to ours so we always had one of the youngest kids on guard duty when we were all together in case she saw something that she considered distasteful.
She was a tyrant and ruled Pop, and the farm and particularly her kitchen with a firm hand and was always complaining about children’s’ noise and lack of discipline. This was the generation where children were expected to be attentive to their elders and keep out of their way.
When we stayed at the farm before and during some exciting party we couldn’t contain our joy in meeting up with all our various cousins. Sometimes there were more than 20 of us kids of various ages and sexes. We all loved to run wild around my grandparents old farm with its many fascinating old buildings and stir up the sheep, the dogs and poke faces and sticks at Grandpa’s caged parrots and all the other exotic feathered prisoners. Nana kept her special talking birds just inside the back door and it was an absolute no no to go near them. That was her rule anyway.
But the food was the one thing that would bring us inside. There were Nana’s special meat pies,with the thick flaky pastry and rich lamb meat filling, probably from some poor little lamb that we had recently met, huge chunks of beef, mutton and sometimes pork cooked either in the outside fireplace or in the big kitchen ovens. Then for desert homemade apple or other fruit pies and the sensational trifle with rich red jelly,sponge cake and topped off with thick farm cream. Of course no country gathering was complete without the light as cloud sponges with thick passion fruit icing and I especially loved the gooey lamingtons and my first introduction to custard slice made with Sao biscuits.
And Nana’s home baked bread. Oh the bread! It was magical to be near the kitchen when the big loaves were cooking and the little rolls tumbled off the trays onto the racks to cool.
But she always saved the best treats for Christmas. For weeks leading up to the end of December there was special fuss, cleaning and cooking and general mayhem. Of course all the rellies contributed but Nana was the undisputed champion and got to tell everyone what they should make and bring. It was understood that Nana would supply the festive ham which had been cooked for hours in the big laundry copper and served with a delicious glaze with artistically arranged orange slices and other bits and pieces of unknown origin. There was always one or more of her specially bred and home killed turkeys and chickens. Sometimes we were expected to help with the cleaning and plucking of these poor chosen poultry which we all hated and would try to avoid in the days leading up to the Christmas party. The hot boiling water, the endless feathers and the yucky inside bits with all the work done under the big shade trees out the back of the kitchen but always in the relentless heat. Nana wasted nothing and used the feathers for stuffing into pillows and all the entrails and other gruesome bits were made into stock or fed to the always ravenous dogs.
Pop was the gardener and he supplied all the veggies from his fenced off special garden and most of the fruit from his precious orchard trees. I remember when I was very small hearing Pop with the rifle shooting at the rabbits or the possums or whatever unsuspecting creature was thinking of making a tasty meal from his patch. Bang, bang, bang he would go which caused a huge screech from all the nearby trees as the birds flew off in alarm. And then silence. This was followed very shortly by either a loud curse or boisterous hooting and hollering. Then a commotion as either Nana or someone else came running out to see what he had shot up. I remember watching Nana rushing out the back screen door with her hands and apron covered in flour yelling out,
“Bill, Bill did you get the buggers this time?” Often there were dead crows strung up on the fence looking at me with their sightless beady yellow eyes.
But these were wonderful hard working farmers and the generation when food was essential for any really successful gathering. The tables were set up on the wide veranda’s surrounding the house and were loaded with homemade goodies where everyone was expected to eat a least a small piece of everything. The adults had one area,(usually the coolest, and us children were supposed to make our mess elsewhere usually on the lawns under the big shade trees. And as children we would gorge ourselves nearly sick with the Christmas pudding to get as many threepence pieces as we could find. I remember a few that got swallowed but that is another story.
For those occasional extra big gatherings the open fronted machinery shed was cleared out and tables set up that could entertain hundreds of neighbours and family from near and far. This was when we watched a whole animal slowly cook in the big outside fire pits. There was always a more than adequate supply of alcohol to help the festivities along and sometimes people would camp overnight in their swags in the shed or in the back of their Utes. There was definitely no concerns for gluten intolerant, diary free, fat free, low carbohydrate or at the very worst; vegetarian.
This was my unique family’s way of marking any festive celebration but of course over the years traditions change and parts of the family dispersed and held their own gatherings.
These early childhood memories always come to the forefront when I think of families, food and celebrations and especially big crowded hot Christmases.