A Port Fairy 1960’s Xmas

Someone said that Xmas is just weeks away… that is so unfair. No time, nothing done, nothing planned and not even an inkling about what to do. I swore last year that I would not do it all again, I think maybe I might even stick to that.

What is this awful thing that seems to happen to our collective psyche at this time of the year? We become obsessed with strange things, buying presents, decorating houses, cooking festive food. I am no different, I succumb each year to the madness. Its almost like some switch is activated in my brain and a release of chemicals sets me off on some mad merry chase for reviving that which is past. This is a list of various countries traditions surrounding Xmas


The strange thing is that I can only remember flashes of the festive seasons of my youth, the times in Port Fairy when we, as less affluent members of the clan, did not get to go to the hotel for dinner, but feasted instead on some ancient fowl that mum was endeavouring, with all her might to give flavour to and make as tender as possible. Mind you the chook was so bloody big that the four of us could eat slices of white (or brown meat; that was taken from the legs and thighs) for days to come and they were slices, I can never remember my mother carving the chook up chunk like as we do today. Even stranger I think is that I associate Xmas with just one of the four or five houses we lived in over the years, Bank Street for me remains the central focus of my memory of Xmas and it is the standard around which all else revolves.

I suspect that what we remember may well define our own passions, because as much as I have little remembrance of the setting I remember Xmas as a time of fun, food and family, food being the most predominate, Mum spent many weeks in the preparations for Xmas and the festive season, the tins had  to be filled with cakes and biscuits, the pudding made (on the day, but at least the makings had to be in stock). The all important Xmas cake had to be made and in my mothers case, iced. Never with Almond Paste, always with a butter icing, Mum said it tasted better and although not as long lasting as Royal icing, it did taste better (I remember one year Mum made this new fangled icing called ‘snow’ .. I rebelled and refused to eat it and to make matters worse, owing to the high egg white content, the icing turned to cement, needless to say it was never made again) http://allrecipes.com/recipe/snow-peak-frosting/ and this mattered a lot since many of the women friends would spend a lot of time ‘popping in’ to say hello with the purpose of getting to taste and judge the cake, a lot rode on that cake. Dad of course had to have purchased the chook or decided to kill one of our own and I again, cannot remember that happening. I remember dad riding down Bank Street with a potato sack over one shoulder and a squawking chook destined for the oven inside. This usually occurred on Xmas eve and Dad would have made sure the axe was sharp and a log of wood in place to do the deed. The chook once dead would then be plunged into hot water that Mum had boiled up in the copper in the laundry and poured into the tin bath which was oval shaped and had a handle at each end. We would all be expected to lend a hand to remove the feathers. Mum was very fussy about the feather removal and would go over the bird with a pair of tweezers to remove feather stubble. As kids we were very anxious to get this job out of the way, after all was done we would all walk down to Sackville Street to see the Xmas procession at 7.30pm and watch for Santa Claus riding in the local fire truck.

This has a little to do with the foods of Xmas, but in fact I love this site, it is so CWA and so damn good.


Our Xmas day was always the same, we would get out of bed and head straight for the lounge room where we would find our presents gathered and wrapped beside the fire place, Mum was ever practical, she had been raised in a family with seven children and very little spare money, our gifts were mostly of clothing essentials and in my case, because I loved the beach, each year I would get something to do with swimming. My mother was never keen on the idea of Father Xmas and this was discouraged at an early age. I still recall the sense of confused disappointment when I watched Father Xmas drive through the town on the local fire truck having just been told that it was all just a story and that Father Xmas was just a local bloke dressed in the costume. Such revelations can have a profound effect on a small child and may well account for my recalcitrant nature now. Possibly!

I was not consulted much on what gifts I would like, except on one occasion when I had tried to orchestrate the gifts and ended up in a small ball of misery as I contemplated the air rifle I had insisted on my mother buying me and now, in abject agony, was counting the cost of my appallingly bad choices. Finally after unwinding myself, I marched down to the local sports store, woke Alex Hill up from his slumbers and begged and pleaded till he agreed to swap over the gun for fishing equipment and I left a much more satisfied puppy.

Mum liked to go to church on Xmas morning and my sister and I would join her. The church was overwhelming in its size, smell and services, I was glad when it was over and we could leave, having fulfilled our Christian duty as well as having been seen to do so. Dad would have waited at home in Bank Street for us to arrive, Dad was a nominal Christian at very best and looked completely dazed and confused in any church. We would then walk around to Uncle Syd’s house, where the whole family would be gathered, including the fearsome grandfather for Xmas drinks. This was the first time that I knew I was not cut out to be a conforming social being, but rather was always going to be left of centre. The swamp that divided our house from Uncle Syd’s was my place of refuge and so after half and hour or so I would sidle up to Mum and just say swamp, she would nod and I was off.


Why didn’t I turn out to be some sort of ologist? (comes from ancient Greek and means ‘study’) It wasn’t the biology or geology or any other ology the swamp had to offer, it was all about life, the swamp was teaming with life, the wind would move the water, the birds would protect their nests, the tadpoles turn into frogs and here was I able to sit in the middle of it all, not have to pass confused small talk nor justify my differences with anyone and yet, be part of it all… a very satisfactory way to spend Xmas day. (I think I have painted myself here as some sort of nerdish type who liked to be at one with nature and was a keen observer, in fact the contrary is the case, I certainly liked to escape the social niceties of which I was not even slightly fond or good,  the swamp offered a way out, but I am quite sure that I would have done some damming of small trickling water ways, captured a few hundred tadpoles and lay on my back staring up at the sky dreaming of ways to amuse myself or planning my next foray into town or to the beach.)

Sooner or later, my time in the swamp was brought to a halt with my Father bellowing my name and walking with Mum and my sister back to Dublin House and no doubt the over cooked chook that Mum would have left in the oven, I didn’t hurry, there was no need, Mum would have prepared the vegetables before she left for church, but they needed to be cooked, so I had a full hour before I had to be at the table. Mum had also read this recipe, Woman’s Weekly I suspect, for a mock ham that was made from a leg of sheep, rubbed with salt and left for a few days and then encased in flour and water and baked. Mum had to use one of Dad’s butchering cleavers to crack the now extremely hard casing and reveal the pink ham like meat that to me, simply tasted of sheep. But she was happy. I was always happiest with the pickled pork that was cured in brine at the butcher shop and then cooked slowly in water with a bay leaf and some spices, allowed to cool in the water, it was served barely warm with the chicken.


Mum was not into the cook ahead pudding, she made the pudding on the morning of Xmas to a recipe that had been handed down in her family for generations. It was made with suet and it was cooked for a good five or six hours in its cloth, when the time came to eat it, Mum would lift it from the pot and allow it to stand for a while to get all the water from the cloth, then peel the cloth away which in the beginning she had generously buttered and floured to reveal a creamy white skinned pudding under which was a deep dark rich brown deliciousness that only required the silver coins that she had boiled up, to be inserted, a good brandy custard for her and dad and a plain custard for my sister and I and all was in readiness. I must say that the suet did make a spectacular pudding, adding a depth and another layer of deliciousness.


Serving Xmas dinner was special, Mum would get out the best crockery and cutlery and we would eat, not at the kitchen table like every other day, but at the dining room table which would be set up with a little holly, a beer for dad and a brown crinkly glass decanter of Woodley’s Est for Mum. It was rare that we would have any visitors for Xmas, but on a few occasions, some of Mum’s family would make the trip to Port Fairy and help her to not feel so alone. It was much more likely that Auntie Mon, Auntie Dick and Auntie Nell would come for New Year and the house would become very lively, filled with the zest for life that these three strong women all had. Mum had two brothers, Uncle Lon who had a mystery and who came to Port Fairy often, he was a sort of Bing Crosby type, all tweed jackets, smoked a pipe, wore a sort of trilby hat and drove a small black car. His story is for another time, Uncle Charle was the black sheep of the family in every possible way, he was gay, a heavy drinker, in the navy and could not give even a slight damn who knew or who approved or disapproved.

Nanna Watson was a proper, god fearing woman who spent a great deal of her life being outraged and affronted by the behaviour of her now slightly unwieldy family who often pushed the boundaries that she had established for herself and her family, when Uncle Charle arrived home complete with boy friend for the Xmas festivities and paraded him around town and generally behaved in an outrageous way, she went to ground and refused to leave home or be seen and even missed the Xmas church service in shame. Uncle Charle left a day or so later, complete with boyfriend, much to the chagrin of his sisters who had been thoroughly enjoying the change of pace, the madness and general gaiety of he and his boyfriend. Uncle Charle was never seen by the family again, he was I suspect, shamed into feeling that his life choices were not only anti social, but against nature and proceeded to drink himself to death, dying in the arms of the nuns in Sydney who found him wandering along a railway line.  But his story is also for another time. My Grandmother also was horrified when one of her grandchildren up and married a catholic boy, she refused to go to the wedding and would not meet that branch of the family ever again.

Interestingly enough my mother was stepping out with the local Church of England vicar, in the end, nothing came of it, however his connection to Uncle Charle and Uncle Lon were somewhat ‘curious’ and years later when I met him and he was an unwed Bishop, he was clearly not straight. So many stories, so much to say and so few people left to even contradict me!

I don’t want to be thought of as a gringe, so maybe I will do Xmas again… after all.

If you want to buy anything from Peter Watson store

Peter Watson Xmas 2011 order form

~ by peterwatson on November 7, 2011.

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