I’m experiencing another bout of cultural malaria, that recurring melancholia that can be triggered by sights, sounds or even things that don’t register on our conscious mind. For the second – no, the third – time since arriving in the USA, I feel like a stranger in an unfamiliar land, and it’s Christmas that’s to blame or, strictly speaking, the season in which it has arrived.
Perhaps it’s a tinge of homesickness or maybe because I haven’t had a sight of real sunshine for weeks now, for whatever the reason I looked at the weather data for south-western Australia this morning. In Gingin, the town we left to come to the USA, it’s around 11:00 pm as I write this and the [farenheit] temperature is just breathing down the neck of 70°, falling from a high of 100. Pretty well normal for this time of year.
During the last Christmas we spent there, Gingin registered the highest daytime temperature of any inhabited place on the planet – any place with a weather-recording station that is. The official reading on Christmas Day was a tad over 120°F and Boxing Day a couple of degrees higher. That would put the temperature in my baby sister’s backyard, where we had the family get-together, at somewhere round the 140 mark, or higher. I don’t miss the ‘new’ Aussie tradition of a seafood Xssie dinner, not too much anyway, but a bit of hot sunshine would be nice and what’s more, I’d even welcome a few flies.
Whatever – now that all this nostalgia for a December that hasn’t been turned on its head has got me feeling grumpy, I might as well add my feelings about other unpleasant reminders of Christmases past – might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb, I suppose.
Ever since I was about 17, December always brought the same stupid greeting from adults: “G’day Father Christmas.” Though “silly young bugger” and, later, “Are you a beatnik?” and later still “Bloody hippy” joined the list of things that rankled, the Father Christmas line was the worst. Now that most people have forgotten that hippies and beatniks ever existed and now that no-one in his right mind would these days call me a silly young bugger, “G’day Father Christmas” has regained its position in first place on the list of clever things not to say to Frank; “How often do you get asked to play Father Christmas?” is a close second. This last has become even more common now that what’s left of my beard is mostly white.
So right here, right now I’m stating for the record that I’ve often been asked to impersonate the other impersonators of the original impersonator of whomsoever it is they’re all impersonating, and that once have I succumbed – only once, and that for ulterior motives. I want to put that aside to perhaps resurface at another time, it was a one-off event, triggered by a temporary bout of lust-induced insanity.
I don’t mind when kids gawk at me in stores, becoming more wide-eyed as the Big Day draws nearer, it’s the adults’ sniggers I can’t stand and it’s getting even worse now that I know that the pretty women who give me a big “thank you” smile for tipping the wink and secret hand signal to their staring offspring rather than biting their heads off are mostly young enough to be my grandkids, and know it – and know that I know that they know it. Sad it may be, but all this is as a mere backpack when weighed against the dray-load of luggage with which the Christmas season has burdened me and has very little to do with my dislike, hatred almost, of the red-garbed imposter, for you see my first and only childhood encounter with Father Christmas – or Santa Claus or Saint Nik or whatever else you want to call him – was a bitter one and rankles still.
I was about knee-high to a bull-ant’s nephew when my beloved Nana and Mum’s best friend Bernie took my cousin John and me to Boan’s Department Store in Perth, Western Australia, to sit on the Yule Figure’s knee and have our photo taken, a commercial bonanza still in the early stages of being mined. There was a big crowd of parents and kids, the latter in mental states ranging from excitement to abject fear, so when it was my turn to be lifted onto the red-trewed knee and crushed against the kapok paunch there was a large audience for what was to happen next. After an exchange of social niceties, Daddy C. asked the traditional question: “And what do you want me to bring you for Christmas, little man?”
“A cocky,” I replied – in a loud, clear voice it was later said – “A galah.”*
The “little man” had been bad enough, but his next response was startling. “A cocky,” he almost shouted, “A cocky,” then, milking the moment for all it was worth, he swept his cooking sherry-tinged eyes over the waiting crowd and in a voice loud
enough to be heard over the steam locos down at Perth Railway Station he informed the world: “This young feller wants a galah for Christmas!” and he roared with laughter. There was a bit of a giggle from the waiting crowd, I seem to remember, but I wasn’t going to hang around to hear any more. I wriggled out of the comedian’s clutches and fled. Bernie later said it took her 10 minutes to catch me, but she may have been exaggerating.
Like all good melodramas, this one also has a happy ending. I woke up on Christmas Day to see, sitting on the homemade, kerosene-box dresser that stood against the wall, a makeshift cage and inside it my cocky in the form of a young, female galah. Grandpa Frank, that gentle man with the faint Welsh accent inherited from his father, and who trapped crocodiles for a living, had gone out and caught me a bird. And more was to come. Sitting on the bare boards of the back “sleepout” was a large and beautiful cage. About 6 x 3 x 3 ft with a Cyclone mesh front and a gabled roof, it had a small feeding door and a larger door I could open to clean the cage and take Cocky out to play with her. Thanks Frank. You were a lovely man and you saved Christmas for me. I had Cocky for years and you live on for me in their beauty.
Father Christmas and I haven’t spoken since. As I said, I’ve been asked to represent him many times and have done so once, but I didn’t really enjoy it, the memory still hurts. And knowing what I do now, I think it’s a bit dangerous for me to impersonate him.
On the other hand, if he really is the Green Man…
*Cocky is the Australian generic name for any cockatoo, which itself comes from the Indo–Malay, “kakatua” via the Dutch “kakatoe”. In Aussie dialect, “A cocky (or cockatoo) farmer” is a small-holder, as opposed to the “squatters”, “graziers” or “pastoralists” whose “stations” or “runs” can be quite large – in the old days holdings of 1,000,000 acres and more were quite common. So a dairy farmer is known in Australia as a “cow-cocky”, a wheat farmer a “wheat-cocky” and a “cocky” is a farmer, unspecified. Galah, from the Yuwaalaraay “gilaa”, is the rose-breasted cockatoo Eolophus roseicapillus. Galah is also used to describe a foolish person, based on the bird’s habit of indulging in feats of group acrobatics accompanied by raucous screeching.