Author Vikki Conley remembers cherished childhood Christmases that shaped Christmas Wonder, her charming new picture book illustrated by Cheryl Orsini that captures the magic of an Australian family Christmas.
On the farm where I lived as a child, our Christmas trees grew ‘out the back’. They’d flourish between the orchard, which was laden with juicy plums, and the gum trees that were home to sleepy koalas and happy kookaburras.
Each year, Dad would haul the massive forest-scented tree into our lounge room. It would be placed in a giant cast iron milk urn and tied securely with twine left over from that season’s hay bales. Bright Christmas paper would be wrapped around the urn, finished off with a gold ribbon bow.
Often the tree would touch the ceiling, with its tip curling over. Mum would frown. ‘It’s too big.’ My sister and I would giggle and dance around. ‘Bigger, bigger!’
My memory of decorating the tree was all about being lifted up to place the angel on top. And glass baubles that glinted in small hands like rubies and cherries.
In the evening, we’d stare in awe at the presents under the twinkling lights of the tree. Sometimes we’d touch. ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to.’ Sometimes we’d peek under the wrapping. ‘Shhh, don’t tell.’ Sometimes we’d rattle. ‘What do you think it is?’
With Mum, I’d help ‘dress up’ the table. Together we’d pick fresh flowers, polish the fancy cutlery, smooth down the white linen tablecloth, and position the bonbons just right. We’d add candles, and napkins and fluted glasses that us kids were allowed to fill with sparkling apple cider, just because it was Christmas.
Cooking the traditional plum pudding with my grandmother and my sister was one of my favourite Christmas customs. Scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, syrupy fruit and brandy would fill the room as we mixed it by hand.
The pudding would boil and bubble in a pot as big as a cauldron. It would then hang in its cloth in the pantry like a magic pudding, ready to be flamed with warm brandy and gobbled up on Christmas day with lashings of brandy custard. The greatest joy was to discover a coin or a glacé cherry in your serve.
After pudding, everyone would slide onto the old leather couches and doze off. In the afternoon, we’d pile into the car and head down to the Ninety Mile Beach for a game of cricket or a splash in our new Christmas bathers.
Now I have little ones of my own. I feel the exhilaration buzzing from their bodies into mine. I see their faces light up as they lick sticky fingers after mixing the fruity spiced pudding by hand. The anticipation of Santa Claus. The thrill of ripping paper off. The wide-eyed expressions of experiencing carols by candlelight for the first time. The laughter around the pretty table, covered with delicious food.
I believe this coming together to share love and precious moments is the true wonder of Christmas. And it is this very scene – family and friends gathering around the table – that I agonised over when writing my book, Christmas Wonder. I wanted to get it just right. But how do you write this deep celebration of love and connection in just eight words? Perhaps you can’t, but here is what I finally wrote …
Peace and love.