A Blue Mountain Christmas

Recently I came across an article about what Christmas was like in the Blue Mountains over a hundred years ago. The lure of a mountains Christmas has tempted many families and travellers over the decades with the promise of a break from Sydney, which is usually heaving with heat in the middle of summer.

Whilst the majority of holiday makers arrive by coach and car these days, the railways provided the main mode of transport at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Boarding houses, guest houses and hotels provided accommodation options for travellers, and some people let out rooms in their houses as well.

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Christmas decorations in the trees with Carrington Hotel in the background (Katoomba)

The article by Robyne Ridge shares a family Christmas spent in a Lawson boarding house in 1885. After a huge traditional dinner on a wet Christmas Day, the family took the train to Bowenfels (Lithgow) on Boxing Day to experience the Zigzag railway. The mountains were such a popular Christmas destination that on Christmas Eve in 1918, there were twenty trains sent from Central Station to the mountains, all packed with holiday makers. The article includes some great photos from the Blue Mountains Local Studies collection including a very serious looking Father Christmas at Blackheath in 1924.

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An example of the random acts of knitting and love – including ladybirds and buttons

These days there are signs of Christmas throughout the villages of the mountains. A particular delight is the dressing up of Katoomba Street, Katoomba in festive apparel. The combined efforts of students from the local primary schools, the Katoomba Garden Brigade (who do a wonderful job year round to keep the gardens along this busy tourist strip in fine form), the Chamber of Commerce and Random Acts of Knitting and Love have transformed the street.

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One of the many stars along Katoomba Street

Stars adorn the trees, decorated by the children with Christmas messages. They also pop up from garden beds, carefully prepared with bright flowers. And the light and street poles have also had a makeover, covered in swathes of fabric and specially knitted creations. The idea is to encourage people to engage with their environment by seeing the everyday with a different lens. It’s quirky and fun.

Along the highway there are signs for community lunches on Christmas Day so people can gather to share a meal on what can otherwise be a lonely time. Hamper parties are held by local churches and groups to share donated goods with those less fortunate in a casual social environment. These gestures embody much of the spirit of goodwill which seems more evident at this time of year.

How is Christmas celebrated in your town?

To wish you a Christmas contented and glad, and the brightest New Year ever you’ve had – from this old postcard featuring Echo Point.

[Photo: Santa heading down a chimney at the Carrington Hotel, Katoomba]

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Writing Prompt: A Christmas for the Senses

The spit and sizzle of ham frying with eggs sends an aromatic waft up the hallway. The bedrooms are all empty now as we’ve been up for hours, allocating out the stacks of roughly wrapped gifts, squinting at times at the scratchy writing on gift tags. Ben, the eldest, makes sure that whilst we can shake and squeeze the presents, there is no ripping of paper or unveiling of gifts. Not yet.

The old Christmas tree, tucked into the corner of the living room, is flashing bright colours through the glittering tinsel. Glass ornaments shimmer with alternating colours, and the odd candy cane at the back of the tree is still intact. Most have been picked off long ago.

From the kitchen comes the sound of carols, badly sung by Dad. Every year he insists on playing Bing Crosby, the old, worn-out cassette tape now replaced by a downloaded version. It doesn’t improve Dad’s singing and as he booms out ‘White Christmas’ we call out suggestions on how it would be better if he stopped. He just gets louder and cheesier. Mum is in the kitchen too, and her laughter eddies through to the lounge room. She’s on the phone to family, too far away to visit.

Daisy finds a box of chocolates on the coffee table and we hook in, hands scrabbling for soft centres, Ben moaning as he bites on a hard toffee. My chocolate was orange-flavoured, my favourite. A good omen, I think, as I run an assessing eye over the tottering pile of gifts. There is one from Santa, supposedly, which is small but soft to the touch. Ben is arguing with Daisy over the last of the chocolates so I slip a finger under the wrapped corner. I ease it in slowly, frowning at the touch of fabric. It is soft. Then a cushion hits me in the head as Ben roars ‘No peeking!’ and we are all off, running and tumbling towards the kitchen to lodge our multiple complaints to management. Dad greets us at the doorway with a raised hand and we fumble to a halt.

‘Your Mum’s on the phone. Five minutes till breakfast. Go and get the yard ready – your cousins will be here shortly.’

Off we go, Ben leading the way as usual. Backyard cricket is the Christmas afternoon game and we get out stumps for one end, find the bat and then Daisy and I are sent off to find the balls. We look in the dog house, around the perimetre of the pool, and I find one nestled in the big pot of mint. I hold it close for a moment, smelling summer.

Then Mum’s calling us and we find our spots at the table outside. Plates of toast, fried ham and eggs are passed around. A big plate of cut fruit sits in the middle of the table, watermelon, pineapple, rockmelon and grapes glistening. We eat quickly, keen to open presents. All eyes are on Mum, and after what seems like an age, once we’ve eaten breakfast it’s finally time.

We race each other back to the lounge room, Bing Crosby still crooning in the background, as we start to rip open the presents, exclamations of delight mingling with moments of disappointment. A jumper with a reindeer on it?Really? What was Aunty Kay thinking of? Mum reminds me that it is cold in Canada at Christmas time but still.

I work my way through my stash, saving the mysterious parcel from Santa until last. Whatever it is, I’m sure that it’s going to be good.

[Photo: Santa spotted at Blackheath]

Joyful Jottings

‘Tis the season for goodwill and generosity. Here are some things that have made me feel more joyful over the festive season.

  • Smiling at strangers. This isn’t limited to the festive season but there seems to be more random smiling and eye contact around this time of year.
  • The rowdy chorus of a clutch of kookaburras chortling away nearby.
  • Flower tubs in Katoomba decked out with bright blooms and adorned with tinsel.
  • Buskers and brass bands playing Christmas carols.
  • Electricity poles entwined with festive decorations.
  • A single black cockatoo doing a fly-pass over the highway – usually a good omen for a journey.
  • The amazing array of Christmas lights – some people go to great lengths for the visual pleasure of others.
  • The proliferation of Santas, both solo and with elf entourages.
  • Kids wearing Santa hats and bright t-shirts, full of excitement and expectation.
  • People whistling, tunefully or otherwise, to Christmas carols being piped on a seemingly endless loop.
  • The bright flare of Christmas bush, blooming at just the right time.
  • Amidst the panic of shopping and buying festive food, the feeling that we are all just a little bit nicer to each other than usual.

I hope there are joyful moments in your festive season too.

[Photo: white cockatoo on a branch]

Short Story: Five Dollars

Christmas comes around at the same time every year, but some years it seems to arrive quicker than others. In the festive spirit, I have dug out a short piece that I wrote in response to a prompt in which all you have left in the world is five dollars. This is what I came up with.

It’s gone. All gone. The last gold coins in my pocket, tossed with feigned carelessness into the open guitar case. I pause, waiting a long moment for some sort of acknowledgement, a little recognition. But his eyes are shut, he’s lost in his music, his fingers nimble on the frets as the notes echo and pulse along the tiled entrance to the station. People are bustling past, buffeting me with the tips of handbags, nudging me with their luggage. Snatches of conversation clatter around and still he plays, his eyes closed, his expression borders on bliss.

Someone bumps me forward and I’m caught in the flow, barely able to glance back at him, my gold coins insignificant against the notes and shrapnel massing in his case. I let myself be moved along, barely registering my surroundings. My feet move of their own accord whilst my head throbs in a staccato beat. Gone. Gone. Gone.

How could I be so stupid, throwing away the last that I had into the case of a stranger? It was his handwriting that undid me, lessening my resolve. He was playing Christmas carols, not the usual mainstream drivel, but the sweet, melancholy songs that I haven’t heard since mass on Christmas Eve, several lifetimes ago now. The sign said he was making music to pay for his trip home, that he had miles to go and only music to get him there. The letters were messy, his spelling jarred my attention, and I was wondering if it was a deliberate ploy when the music overtook me, taking my breath away, shifting my mind to the place I called home when my life meant something and I had everything that mattered.

I’m suddenly free, separate from the jostling crowd. I’ve somehow shuffled to the side  and I slowly walk up the sloping gradient towards the platform. There is a almost a hush, now I’m out of the bustle, and I feel my heart settle into a steady rhythm. The platform is nearly empty, just a few people gathered in clutches on the scattered benches. I make my way past a family, two children holding bright helium balloons. One is marked with ‘Merry’ and the other ‘Christmas’ and I can’t help but smile at their obvious excitement. Their mother smiles at me and for a moment I forget, forget I am broke and alone on Christmas Eve. I close my eyes, hearing again the sweet notes of the guitar, smelling the rich tang of incense, my eyes drawn towards the candles at the altar, my hand held tight by my mother. I am home.

{Previously posted on Writers in the Mist}

[Photo: one of my favourite Christmas shop window displays in Katoomba]