When I was a child I was quite sure that no one, absolutely no one, had Christmases as wonderful as ours. Should a modern child experience such a Christmas I’m sure they would be horribly disappointed – no Christmas tree, no decorations, no Christmas crackers and the like, no loads of colourful food. There weren’t loads of presents either, just one present from Santa, which turned into one from Mum and Dad when you stopped believing in Santa. Being the oldest child I managed to hold my faith in Santa until I was nearly a teenager so as not to disillusion the younger kids.
All my Christmases until I grew up and left home were spent at Grandma and Grandad Osborne’s. In the earlier days the whole family would make the trip with Mum, and Dad would stay at work until the day before. It must have been a real ordeal for Mum, getting us and our bags down to the train station, on to the train, off again at Roma Street station, changing platforms and then on to the train to Toowoomba. I remember once for some unknown reason we had to change again at Ipswich, but having learnt the pitfall in that manoeuvre, it didn’t happen again until I was a teenager and the rail service had changed, making this change necessary.
When Dennis and I were old enough we were allowed to make the trip by ourselves as soon as the school holidays began. Each year we were joined by another sibling. I can clearly remember having Bernie (7th child) aged around five with us as the youngest and getting pissed off with him for jumping all over the place and getting Danny (one older) to join him in his nonsense. I must have started high school the following year and my school holidays started on a different week, so I got away from being accompanied by the younger siblings but Bernie still had to travel with me. Obviously he was too big a handful for Esme (Dennis was never to be relied upon to look after the littlies, he tended to drift off into dream world and forget he was in charge). My girlfriend Denise always got Danny and Bernie mixed up and to differentiate used to say, “Danny – drop dead gorgeous” and in that way could figure out who was who. This used to upset me because, although Bernie was often a little shit and Danny was generally a good kid, I thought Bernie’s cuteness was being ignored. I guess that started me favouring Bernie.
As we drew close to Laidley the train went through one last tunnel (we knew it was the last because it was the longest) and did a big sort of half circle sweep around farmland where the grass always seemed greener than it was on the other side of the tunnel, and our excitement would grow. Once we got off the train, in the earlier days when there were just of few of us kids travelling together, we would hump our bags to the Post Office and get a ride to the Post Mistresses house at Townson where we would be collected by either Grandad or an Uncle – sometimes on horseback. All the way up the valley to Townson we would be praying that we’d have a horseback ride the rest of the way. We all loved the top of the valley where my grandparents lived and we’d feast our eyes on all the familiar sights, check out how high the neighbours corn was and keep an eye out for water melon crops. This could be done much more successfully by horseback.
There was no big lead up to Christmas. We’d know it was close because we were on holiday but the count down didn’t start till there were “2 more sleeps”. 2 more sleeps and the activity would start, the highlight of which was when Gran made a major production of choosing and killing the Christmas dinner chooks and ducks. Not this one or that one, they were good layers, perhaps that one, no, not fat enough. There would be much squeeling and laughter as we caught the selected birds and handed them to Gran, then out would come the axe, the bird's neck was laid out over the chopping block by the woodpile and off with its head. This was followed by what I'm sure was Gran's favourite part of the exercise, letting go of the bird to scare us all witless as it ran around headless. The adults would be yelling “Catch it!” or “Watch out, it's coming after you!” We would run and shriek, sure it was chasing us. And Gran would be making more noise than the rest of us, Lord how that woman loved to torment! That was the fun part, followed by the truly awful part. The poultry would be hung along the clothesline to bleed out, then they would have to be cleaned out. I just hated putting my hands into the cavity Gran made in the carcass to remove the guts, but there was fun to be had frightening the littles with the entrails. And I preferred that to the plucking. If I had to do it for more than a few minutes I would literally have to scream, the monotony, the boredom of it I used to think was driving me crazy.
We’d all go to bed early on Christmas Eve and the oldest kids would be woken early the next morning to go with Grandad to help with milking the cows and the chores so he could get back to the house earlier than usual. Those early mornings were very special, moving quietly around the house so as not to wake the little ones, having a cup of tea (which we were usually not allowed) and a piece of cake in the kitchen with Grandma and Grandad took on an air of conspiracy, and we felt special to be old enough to be regarded as helpful.
Grandad loved Christmas. He was always a cheerful man, I only ever saw him angry twice but on Christmas morning he would be like a big, happy kid telling us even more outlandish stories than usual, doing his best to make us laugh and make light of the work.
When we got back to the house the lovely smells of Christmas dinner would already we wafting through the house, we’d have a quick wash, and then it would be present opening time. Grandad would have a field day fooling around and handing out the gifts, teasing and tormenting but never pushing it so that he upset anyone. Our presents were humble compared to what kids receive these days. Humble compared to what other kids got even then but we didn’t realise that and wouldn’t have cared even if we had. Our friends may have received more expensive presents but none of them had grandparents to compare with ours or a place they loved as we loved Townson. If we girls got dolls, the dolls clothes would have been handmade by Mum or Grandma and even when we were quite young we appreciated the time that must have taken in their busy lives. The boys’ guns might have been fashioned from a piece of wood but they were made especially for them, and that was what was most important.
And Christmas Dinner! Roast chicken and duck (who would get the wishbone??).
As well as the birds there were lots of baked vegies and Gran’s lovely thick gravy. Gran had well and truly mastered that old wood stove that stood at one end of the kitchen. And on Christmas Day it wasn't such a chore feeding it with wood whenever Gran instructed. I always wondered how she knew what temperature it was but I guess after years of experience she had learnt to judge from how hot she got standing near it. She always produced the best baked vegies (as well as wonderful cakes and biscuits). A choice at meal times was unknown to us except at Christmas. But the best part was the desserts, Gran’s Christmas pudding with lots of threepenny and sixpenny pieces, and her home made icecream, to which passionfruit was added on special occasions as a treat and we could choose whether to have the plain or the flavoured. Every mouthful had to be chewed very slowly and carefully in case we swallowed a coin. (With the introduction of decimal currency this custom died as the coins weren’t suitable for heating apparently.)
What little pigs we made of ourselves! With such full tummies we’d have little energy for helping with the dishes but at least I think we did them a bit more quietly than usual, as we all understood a never spoken rule – no fighting on Christmas Day. While we did the dishes, the younger kids would be put down for a sleep then the rest of us would also lay down for a snooze. There could be up to six adults and kids on some beds, and none on others, it was always a sort of communal sleep. When the littlies woke, the rest of us would be ready to get on with the afternoon treats and games. Firstly it was always a game of cricket and around this time the uncles, aunts, great aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins would begin arriving. When everyone who was expected was there, it would be time for kids to make themselves scarce for an hour or so while the adults had cups of tea or a few beers. If there was water in the creek we would all go for a swim; if not, we would have rides down the hill behind the house on sugar sacks or go playing along the banks of the creek.
We would take it in turns to be the one to “listen” for the call from the house – “Watermelon!!” That soon sorted out who were the fastest runners, let me tell you! Watermelon followed by lemonade! No children in history could have been more delighted. The rest of the afternoon would be spent in games with the adults. We loved it when our uncles joined us for cricket or rounders or whatever.
When it was time for Grandad to once again milk the cows there would be no shortage of willing helpers, although those who could get away with it would disappear pretty quickly into the gully beside the cow shed.
After milking, when Grandad and the dogs came back to the house was one of the favourite times if Uncle George or Uncle Reg were still there. It would be coming on dark by now and they would get out the mouth organs and would the dogs go crazy! Their howls would fill the valley and if they shut up for a minute or two we would hear the dingoes in the hills echoing their howls. And we would fall about laughing till we hurt and have to beg them to stop.
We were never made to eat dinner at night if we didn’t want any and this alone made it a special day. With dinner and dishes out of the way, came another of our favourite activities. We would sit around on the verandah waiting for the cooler night air, Grandma would light her old lamps (there was no electricity) and Grandad would make finger shadows. None of us ever tired of seeing the same tricks over and over, year after year and we all had our favourites. One year I remember very clearly is the year we had a storm at this time. Evening storms at Townson were always a treat but to have one on Christmas Day was doubly good.
Quilts, pillows and blankets were dragged out and we all sat or lay there on the verandah floor with the adults on seats behind us and watched the nature show. With the farm being at the top of the valley from our Dress Circle seats we could see the storm following the mountains up one side of the valley, heard it go around behind us at the top of the valley and then watched it come back down the other side. The thunder crashed and shook the house and the lightning was magnificent and very close. A grass fire started up in the hills and turned them into a twinkling fairyland. The sight of Grandad on his horse, his silhouette lit by the lightning, riding off to check the fire was the stuff movies were made of. I was allowed to wait up with Gran for him to return. He was soaking wet but still in high spirits and let me have a glass of port with him and Gran, grinning and whispering “Don’t let your father find out!”
Ahh, that was some Christmas!