Christmas tables in Australia used to be dominated by a classic British supper of roast turkey and plum pudding. However, as our population has grown, so has our menu. While some may celebrate with a pepparkakor and others with panettone, it is today difficult to find a home without prawns and a bowl of cherries. But where did this very Australian Christmas smorgasbord come from?
The origins of Australia’s Christmas meal
The colonists found it humorous that a roast and pudding could be prepared in the middle of July. Its ridiculousness was praised in numerous ways, symbolizing the uncertainty of emerging Antipodean identity. However, there were immediately cries for change. In one of his short stories from 1907, Henry Lawson portrayed a “reasonable Christmas dinner,” a joyful feast where all the food was cold.
Festive fruit cornucopias
New summer traditions began to emerge in the late nineteenth century. As a seasonal complement to the celebratory buffet, tropical and stone fruits have become increasingly popular. While the intoxicating aroma of mangoes and piles of ruby-red cherries may have seemed unusual to newcomers used to a winter Yuletide, the emphasis on fruit was far from new – fruit had long been a part of British Christmases. Traditional favorites like plum pudding and mince pies gained a celebratory significance thanks to the significant use of dried fruits, which were luxury products brought from the east. Victorian children’s stockings and Christmas tree ornaments included oranges and apples. The abundance of color in Australia was ideal for Victorian window displays, and merchants raced to wow crowds with cornucopias of fruit and flowers. The popularity of tropical fruits at Christmas boosted the development of another modern holiday classic: the pavlova, in the twentieth century. By the 1940s, women’s magazines, newspapers, and recipes were promoting it as an alternative to pudding in the decades following its alleged “creation” on one side of the Tasman or the other (a debate for another time). If the traditional pud was to be dethroned, it would need its own narrative. The pavlova was a worthy opponent, and by December 2017, pavlova recipe searches had considerably outstripped pudding searches in Australia.
In with the fish and out with the meat
The seafood feast, on the other hand, is a relatively new phenomenon. In contrast to other areas of Europe, the seafood dinner associated with Christmas Eve as a traditional Catholic fast day diminished following the 16th century Reformation in Britain, and the festival became a strongly meat-oriented affair. For nearly 200 years, roast chicken, beef, and ham dominated Christmas dinners in Australia, where fish had no set part in the meal the British brought with them. True transformation did not occur until the 1980s, and it accelerated in the 1990s as Australia’s culinary identity grew more confident and accepted new flavors. Postwar migrants, particularly from the Mediterranean, affected change as well, bringing with them not just their seafood traditions, but also training in cooking and dining al fresco. The market sells fish, squid, prawns, and oysters to about 100,000 people from 5 a.m. on December 23 to 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Last year, A$1.4 million was spent on 700 tonnes of seafood, including 130 tonnes of prawns, over the 36-hour period. Henry Lawson marveled at the invention of a cold seasonal spread just over a century ago. Today, it’s safe to say that the prawn and mango have cemented their place on the holiday table as unmistakable symbols of an Australian Christmas.
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