Dreaming of a hybrid Christmas: Australia’s migrants meld traditions

Jay Kumar (far right), whose partner is Vietnamese, celebrates Christmas in Melbourne

At the Christmas lunch Jay Kumar enjoys each year, there’s a smorgasbord of Indian and other Asian foods as well as the occasional nod to local surroundings. The big hit is the seafood.

“Our friend’s partner is Aussie, his mother is, of course, Aussie, and they like to have a roast and roasted vegetables,” says Kumar, an Indian migrant. “Being Hindu, I don’t eat pork, I don’t eat beef, but I’m a crazy fan of seafood and chicken and all those kinds of things.”

Kumar lives in Melbourne’s western suburbs with his Vietnamese partner, Quyen. Last week, he and his friends exchanged presents gathered around the indoor palm that they’ve fashioned into a Christmas tree.

Christmas was a fairly foreign concept to Delhi-born Kumar, but he started learning about it on a few overseas work trips, in particular to Scotland. He likens it to Diwali in its “feel and the aura” and, since his second year living in Australia, it has become “a normal, regular celebration for me”.

For Kumar, like many in Australia’s migrant community, this new, foreign holiday represents an opportunity to take what you like and lose what you don’t; meld your own culture to the one most might associate with your new home.

With families often many time zones away, it is also a time for them to pull together, deprived of the experience of a much-needed catch-up with mothers and fathers, siblings and cousins.

Kumar met his group of friends in his first share house when he came to Australia nine years ago. After Kumar’s Kris Kringle party, they’ll also have a Christmas Eve late lunch and pop around to friends’ homes on Christmas Day. The Hindus and the Buddhists outnumber the Christians yet they’ve embraced Christmas with open arms.

Perhaps there’s a reason for that. “Only a few of our friends have their parents here. For most, they are in their home countries,” he says. “All of us get together and cook, eat, drink and get ourselves knocked out.”

Christmas was not a new concept to Manfred Mletsin. Yet the version of Yuletide festivities the 26-year-old Estonian international student knew and loved was far removed from what he has come to enjoy 12,098km and a few dozen degrees celsius away. In stinking hot Darwin.

Mletsin, who moved to Australia four years ago, remembers feeling surprised to see locals eating mandarins all year round.

“A lot of Estonian people, if they smell mandarins they just relate it to Christmas straight away,” he says. “I was like, wow. I can say they are actually one of my favourite things. [Now] I can have them all year long.”

Mletsin is used to celebrating Christmas on 24 December like many Europeans. The hot weather is a jarring difference, though he has become used to the concept of a Christmas Day barbecue, something he first thought of as “very weird”.

“Obviously we still do gifts on that day – it’s something different,” he says. “In Estonia, you sit down with your family [on Christmas Eve], you talk about how grateful you are, kind of like American thanksgiving.”

He’s not religious, but in Darwin Mlestin has started attending a Christmas church service to support a friend, who sings carols.

If there’s anything he misses about Christmas at home, where his family remains, it’s “the weather and the blood sausages”, which they eat with sour cream, alongside sauerkraut and potatoes.

Tereza Audo, 56, says she misses the singing and the dancing. In her native South Sudan, which is predominantly Christian, Christmas is not a lunch on 25 December, it’s a month-long celebration of singing, dancing and praying at church. There are no Christmas trees, stockings or Santa Claus, though they adorn their homes with lights and other decorations.

“In our country, we start at the first of December,” she says. “We are celebrating, singing and dancing, until Christmas comes. Here, we just see the lights and decorations in November and there is no celebrating, nothing until the 24th, even some don’t celebrate the 24th.”

Audo came to Australia in 2004 after five years in Egypt. She shares her home in Melton with three of her six grandchildren. They don’t get presents from “Santa” – instead Audo takes the kids to the shops and gets them to pick out something they’d like.

This year Audo and her family, including her six children and their extended relatives, will eschew a big meal on 25 December for a lunch on 1 January. That’s not to say they won’t mark Christmas.

“We are going to celebrate in the 24th and then we come back again for prayer on the 25th,” she says. “But we are not going to make the food on that day, we are going to make the food on New Year’s. On Christmas we are going to have a lot of sweets and cakes.”

In her first year in Australia, Audo adopted the Christmas tree. She remembers that December, gathering with other South Sudanese at a church hall in Melbourne’s west.

“I put up the decorations. We were at the church celebrating at 24 December until we finished at six in the morning, and then we came back and had prayers on the 25th.”

They ate lots of different homemade food, including combo – a spinach and peanut stew that can include dried fish or dried meat. “We combined it with Australian food,” Audo says. “Like KFC.”

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