Christmas time, shopping madness, snow, robins, Jolly ol’ Saint Nick, Holly berries and great big turkey dinners - all these images come to mind when the 25th of December comes rushing to greet us. At least, that is the images that come from those who grew up in the cool climate of the Northern hemisphere.

Christmas where the gum trees grow
There is no frost and there is no snow
Christmas in Australia's hot
Cold and frosty is what it's not
When the bloom of the Jacaranda tree is here
Christmas time is near

In the Southern hemisphere Christmas falls during Summer, a time when phrases like bushfire, stinking hot, barbeque, sand flies, water restrictions and beach weather come to mind. Christmas is the start of high summer, the indicator that the extreme heat of January and February is on its way. Christmas is the traditional Yule; pagan mid-winter solstice celebration highjacked for the purpose of celebrating Christ’s birth. It is a cold weather celebration using the foods and decorations that were readily available in the depths of cold hard northern winter (before refrigeration). For the early Christians and pagans a mid winter feast meant killing the local wildlife for fresh meat and using the dried fruit from summer and root vegetables stored over the hard times. Holly and Ivy were used as decoration as symbols of new growth and life, being one of the few green plants around during the winter.

From England came our Christmas fare
They even said what Santa should wear
But here down under for summer's cool
Santa should dip in a swimming pool

So, you would think that the southern hemisphere countries would have changed the celebration somewhat in line with the summer heat and the abundance of tropical fare? Tradition dies hard, even confronted with a complete season change, there are those who still insist on sitting down to the full traditional turkey roast, the turkey of course not being native to most parts of the lower hemisphere. The lengths gone to provide a feeling of winter in the middle of summer are interesting: Christmas cards with traditional themes, plastic holly with berries, candles, and flashing blinking Christmas lights add to the heat. Santa is dressed in a fur trimmed red suit, the most ridiculous thing for an overweight man to be wearing in hot weather and the sweat factor is always high. The up side is that Santa’s helper can wear as skimpy a costume as decency will allow, red bikinis with fur trim are not unheard of. Of course there is no real snow except on the slopes of some mountains (well really only in New Zealand). You will find fake snow paint-like stuff sprayed around window frames, polystyrene beads blown with a fan to produce that snow flurries effect in shop windows, plastic Christmas trees that come ‘pre-snowed’ and there have been publicity stunts of man made snow dumped in the middle of town squares.

Christmas trees abound, even live ones, although they have start shedding their needles before they get in the door. Reindeer in various forms spring from garden lawns (some with snow around the hooves), congregate in shop windows and appear on roofs, the odd thing being that they are not native to any where in the southern hemisphere, the closest being the various boks in South Africa. In Australia there is the replacement kangaroos for the sleigh which can be seen on cards and other odd spots. Houses are festooned with lights and glowing plastic reindeer, some encouraging tourists with the whole street going into competition for the biggest displays. City councils decorate the streetscape with tinsel and twee Santas although the use of lights is limited as tinsel glitters in the extended daylight hours more so than light displays.

Christmas dinner is the mainstay of the old traditions. European/continental families settle down to their meal on Christmas Eve and families of more British origins sit down on Christmas Day. My family still sit down to the full traditional meal of roast turkey and pork, ham, potatoes, pumpkin, peas, beans, carrots, parsnip, gravy, ham, cranberry sauce, apple sauce and of course Christmas pudding and Mince pies - all consumed in the middle of the day when it is the hottest, around 30 degrees centigrade for that time of year. The heat out of the kitchen can feel cool compared to the temperature outside. More than slightly crazy if you ask me but the thought of changing the menu can be met with cold blank stares and disbelief. Although some traditional fare has been dropped, mulled wine and cider are almost unheard of and are replaced with crisp cold local white wines and beers.

It does seem that it is only the ex-British colonies in the Southern Hemisphere who hold on so tight to the Northern Christmas traditions. In South America (using Brazil as an example) Christmas is celebrated in a more individual style with large parties and family gatherings. Being more religious (as well as predominately Catholic) than many of the ex-English colonies, the ex-Portuguese and Spanish colonies launch themselves into church services and embrace the less commercial values of the season. Their celebrations begin late on Christmas eve with Midnight Mass and move onto a family feast, others bypass church and head to the homes of family and friends. The day itself is a fluid thing drifting from place to place gathering with as many family members and friends as possible, and sharing traditional foods such as turkey, banetone (an Italian bread), lentils, champagne, apples, grapes, mayonnaise salad and heaps of cakes. Apples and grapes are important as they are not easily found and are quite expensive - a real celebration food. The whole day is spent eating, drinking, playing games and singing, there is little sleep and plenty of fun.

Santa rides in a sleigh on snow
But down here where the gum trees grow
Santa should wear some water skis
And glide around Australia with ease

Some in the ex-British colonies South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and so forth have taken on more sensible options. Barbeques and feasts of seafood are becoming more common along with platters of antipasto eaten out of doors. Tropical fruit (watermelons straight from the fridge a favourite) and mince pies and pudding are eaten with large amounts of cooling ice-cream. All this is centred around the swimming pool if there is one available, taking advantage of the extended daylight to draw the celebrations out until the mosquitoes chase all indoors. Also it is quite common to eat a midday meal with family and then once having slept off the food intake, to head off to spend the evening with friends. Some of these celebrations take place away from the family home as Christmas is the beginning of the summer holidays for most.

Some people spend Christmas away from their families through no choice of their own. In Australia bushfire season is a scary time, the bone dry landscape encourages fires to take hold with devastating speed. Many members of the Country Fire Authority spend Christmas fighting fires and defending homes. In South Africa the danger is not as great but there are warnings to "only braai in designated areas".

There is also the community bonding of the Carols by candlelight concert. Hordes of families descend on outdoor concert areas to be entertained by local and international celebrities. A sea of candles held aloft can be seen as people lustily join the choir on stage to sing the classic and not so classic carols. There are at least three of these concerts shown on television in the lead up to Christmas, images of angelic children bathed in candle light hide wax-burnt hands and the insect bites. Most towns of a reasonable size hold these large "Carols by Candlelight" concerts in both Australia and South Africa. The carols are family affairs but you can not pass the fact that Christmas is the beginning of the outdoor party season that culminates in New Year's Eve in most large cities. Cape Town in particular has a large amount of outdoor dance parties in this time.

To ride around the bush where it’s dry
To cart all the presents piled so high
A red nosed reindeer would never do
Santa should jump on a kangaroo

In Melbourne, Australia Christmas is finished off on Boxing Day with the beginning of the traditional English v Australian Cricket Test. In Cape Town, South Africa the journey to the beach can take up to an hour on Boxing Day as everyone rushes to escape the city on the beach and try out the new toys. The concept of trying out the new toys is one that spans the hemispheres - except those from the South don shorts and t-shirts to try out new bikes and surfboards whilst those in the north are bundled in scarves and gloves to test their bikes and roller blades.

All in all it is not all that different celebrating your choice of holiday season focusing around the 25th of December but you will find people from the Southern Hemisphere who are displaced in the Northern Hemisphere pinning for 30 degree days and roasted food stuffs.

(Val Donlon / Lesley Sabogal)

Special thanks to StrawberryFrog for the South African insight and Mia for her Brazil christmas explanation.