I like the way Christianity lingers in the December experience of every Australian. I’d be really sad to see it go. But I do know that it is only on the periphery for many people… It would be so much more satisfying if the deeper meaning of Christmas could surface along with the residual biblical traces. … To sing ‘veil’d in flesh the Godhead see’ and really be struck by what is being claimed there. God with us, God in a form we get, God humbly human. Greg Clarke, Bible Society Australia, 15 Dec 2016
Look at any list of of ‘Australian carols’ and you’ll quickly find annoyance about snow and insecurity about borrowing a festival from elsewhere. Christmas Where the Gum Trees Grow worries about copying England, but has no problem keeping Santa – or the jacaranda tree, an invasive species from the Americas. The North Wind is a more poetic song, but its nod to Australian landscapes is purely descriptive – no deeper meanings here.
Could it be that the truest Australian Christmas song is by an atheist? ‘Drinking white wine in the sun…’
But in none of this is there any deep draught being drunk from the Christ story.
Christmas is English in a way that we Australians still recognise, and it is a Christmas that has never entirely rung true for us. The Christ story became one of the great epic narratives of England, and yet this English Christ is the same White Jesus that was exported along with the British Empire.
Instead of ‘God in a form we get’, we got English Jesus.
Jesus is in the holly and the cherry trees, but where is Jesus in the wattles, the eucalypts, the melaleucas, the kangaroo paws, the banksias?
As urban/white/immigrant Australians, I wonder about our capacity to create such acts of folk tradition.
Partly that’s because we have a different relationship to the land. As an overwhelmingly urbanised nation, we experience a degree of disconnect from the land. We continue to refer to the four European seasons, even though it makes more sense to use two, three, four, five, six or seven seasons depending on where we are.
On top of that, our relationship with the Australian landscape is not only very recent, but contested. The land we are on is not our ancestral habitat, but was usurped by a colonial power. Just as I experience some kind of longing for the ‘old country’ that is not my country, Australia is my country that is not my country. My people came to take, overrun, borrow, commandeer – and still it is not fully ours, not in any sense that goes beyond my own immediate individual horizons.
There’s a third thing: globalisation means that we simultaneously have access to a huge variety of global symbols and narratives, while experiencing less ownership of our own. In such a pluralised space, what is even ‘Australian’ enough to make use of? The wattle is easily recognisable, for example, but the connection doesn’t go deep enough for us to graft the Christ story onto it.
I find myself once again out of place, worshiping a second-hand Jesus in a land that’s not really ours. Christ is here, somewhere, in our tortured relationship with the landscape.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.