Christmas, Community, Charm and A Tree

Christmas Tree.jpg


A Community Christmas Tree

This year, the Governor of Victoria held a reception at Government House to unveil the Victorian Community Christmas Tree. The first such event and one she hopes will become a calendar feature. The aim, to build community, and provide a safe, relaxed environment for people from all over Victoria to meet, chat, and get to know each other.

Each Victorian regional city and shire was invited to prepare a decorative ornament that best represents their local area. A booklet with pictures and an explanation of the decorations that arrived in time to be included was printed.  Hopetoun Blue baubles were placed on the tree with the names of those cities and shires that didn’t submit their ornaments by the deadline so no place was excluded.

Some people brought ornaments on the night, and others will continue to be placed on the tree as they arrive, between now and  Christmas . The Governor placed a handmade ornament by a local artist on the tree after a short welcome speech. It featured an inked sketch of  Government House and the message of ‘Peace and Prosperity’ to all.

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As Kingston’s Citizen of the Year 2016,  the Council asked me to attend.  Of course, I accepted even although, in my heart, I’m a republican! Charlie Mizzi, last year’s Citizen of the Year and his wife Gael were familiar faces, along with Meesha Salaria who is Deputy Junior Mayor this year, and her mother. I met Meesha when I spoke at Cheltenham Library earlier this year.

The booklets with details of the ornaments weren’t available until near the end of the evening. There was a glitch with the Government House photocopier an aide said. It’s nice to know even Government House has a problem with photocopiers – the bane of my life – I work in three different community houses with three different photocopiers of varying quality, and three different codes to remember! I know all about ‘glitches’.

Along with my fellow Kingston representatives, I spent a good half hour examining all the decorations trying to find the one Kingston Council sent – all we knew was it had been produced on the 3D printer at Cheltenham Library!

I guess it being a ‘first-time’ event no one was quite sure what to expect or what to do.

Young eyes succeeded where old eyes failed – Meesha spotted the Kingston logo on the leaves attached to 3 red balls,  representing holly, a traditional Christmas symbol. The words ‘beach’, ‘park’, and ‘my home’ glittered and sparkled on the balls.

Later, when I checked the booklet there was no explanation of Kingston’s ornament just a note “Merry Christmas from the City of Kingston”.

However, if you want to know more about what our city is like download Mordialloc Writers’ free e-book Kingston My City!

Many of the other decorations make a strong statement about their community. If this event becomes a Christmas ritual for Victoria, I can see an artistic or historical exhibition in the future for these ornaments.

Most were works of art with a story attached.

Some community leaders took advantage of the golden opportunity to showcase local artists and groups. Ornaments represented what districts are known for and shared historical information.

Some were spectacular!

Of the 43 in the booklet that I could identify it was easy to choose favourites. A few representatives from the various geographical areas had in-depth knowledge of their ornament and were proud to share information. The friendly buzz of conversation around the Christmas tree exactly what the Governor hoped as guests searched for ornaments, or added ones they’d been too late to send.

I was impressed with the thought put into some of the decorations with councils proud of being a diverse, multicultural society with indigenous heritage. The Christmas Tree an ideal symbol to celebrate life. Many who celebrate Christmas as part of their culture and/or religion gather around a tree to exchange greetings and gifts and this custom has been adopted or accepted by those who are not Christian.

Some councils and shires sent mayors and councillors as their representatives, others sent citizens. Some councils and shires commissioned artists to make the ornaments, others ran competitions in the community or schools or asked community groups; others had council employees or committees provide the decoration.

A Sample of Decorations



Mitchell Shire



The original reason for the Cast Off Craft was to bring socially isolated women together under the excuse of craft. This was initially after the Black Saturday Bushfires, but the group wanted to be inclusive of all women, and not defined by that event.

The reason we chose the Golden Sun Moth and Mount Piper was the matching symbology between our group and these two magnificent objects from our community – Mitchell Shire.

Mt Piper stands alone, isolated from other mountain ranges, strong and stunning, but it is accessible – via walking track to the summit. It looks over our community.

The sun moth is delicate and rare, something that needs to be looked after and appreciated for its part in our local ecosystem – even the smallest contributor has value.

The gum nuts and leaves are reflective of our landscape and flora, and their silver reminds us of the beautiful, resilient and remarkable nature of our community.



Whitehorse City



The City of Whitehorse delighted to provide a hand-cut paper decoration which represents the sights and sounds that encapsulate the multiculturalism, flavours and heritage of the City of Whitehorse.

I had a lovely conversation with Helene (‘please pronounce it Helen because the other way sounds too posh!’) from Mitcham about the importance of neighbourhood houses cultivating community and encouraging wellbeing. When I said I grew up at Croydon she recommended Magda Szubanski’s book Reckoning, which had ‘heaps’ about growing up in Croydon. It is now on my Christmas wishlist.




City of Ballarat



We have selected a small brass gold pan stamped with the Eureka Flag. The pan is a symbol of Ballarat’s significant association with the Victorian gold rush, which started when gold was discovered at Poverty Point on 18 August 1851.

Ballarat quickly transformed into a major gold rush boom town with over 20,000 people moving to live on the diggings during this time.

The Eureka flag is also associated with this area and represents the Eureka Rebellion that took place on 3 December 1854. The battle of Eureka was fought between the colonial forces of Australia and miners objecting to the cost of a miner’s licence and the actions of the police and military on the gold fields.

The flag became a symbol of the rebellion and has become a national symbol of democracy in Australia.




City of Swan Hill



Made by Suzanna Connely, ‘The Koorie Garden’ is a representation of the Mallee scrub. The feathers, eggs and seeds are brought from commercial farms and the trees are rescued from wood chipping.


From Golden Plains Shire, these Christmas pieces speka to the joy, colour and warmth of the festive season and feature the natural charcateristics of the municipality.

The characteristics of both the Christmas present and the Christmas tree art pieces are predominantly the golden wheat and canola paddocks, vaious fodder crops, winery vinyards, sheep and the golden sun across the plains.



Monash City



The Monash men’s Shed is located in one of Monash council’s bushland parks, Bogong reserve in Glen Waverley. The ornament created by a Monash Men’s Shed member was inspired by the garden city landscape of Monash.

The ornament is also a reminder of the beautiful setting of the Monash Carols by Candlelight. This annual event is held amongst the gumtrees of Jells Park and attended by thousands of members of our culturally rich and diverse communities.



Greater Geelong City



The City of Greater Geelong commissioned Geelong-based fibre artist, heather Frizzell to create an Orange-Bellied Parrot in flight as the ornament for the Government House Christmas Tree.

With around 30 to 40 left in the wild, the bird found in Geelong and the Bellarine region has been recognised as critically endangered and is protected under the Environemnt Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999).


 Bayside City


Brighton’s iconic Bathing Boxes are one of the most celebrated and recognised locations in Melbourne. The Bathing Boxes feature in both national and international marketing campaigns for the State of Victoria and are Bayside’s most visited tourist location.

This decoration is a whimsical, ‘beachy’ take on Christmas that employs images that are as iconic to Australian culture as the Bathing Boxes are to Bayside.



East Gippsland Shire



The artwork on the Christmas bauble is of a mural designed and painted by local Aboriginal artists and youths as part of a graffiti prevention project.

The mural shows stories from the Gunai Kurnai people, traditional custodians of part of East Gippsland. A dingo and Bogong moth make the journey from the mountain to the seas. A journey also taken by the Gurnai Kurnai people.

The mural can be seen in ‘real life’ in Bairnsdale’s CBD.

PS. When I spoke to a councillor, he said a local woodturner made and polished the ornament from local wood.



Cardinia Shire



This beautifully hand-crafted decoration was created by artists Viktor kalinowski and Elaine Rieger, and was inspired by a local native grass called bidgee-widgee.

It is made of 40 individual pieces of anodised silver and aluminium, which represent the 40 townships that make up Cardinia Shire.



Buloke Shire



Artist Jo Malham from Donald:

Dry drought summer,
Autumn seeds, sown in hope,
Wet winter, flooded land,
Life springs,
Grains flourish,
Rich harvest reaped.

PS. An artist and a poet – how lovely.



Moreland City



Created by the Lentara UnitingCare Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre. It was inspired by Simon Perry’s ‘Monument of Free Speech’ sculpture located outside the Brunswick Mechanics Institute.

The bird cage ornament was constructed using diver wire and crystals which sparkle as a symbol of hope for the future. the silver base was cut and engraved by local jeweller NB Jewel Masters of Coburg.

The bird cage is open and the birds have flown free, leaving behind only a small feather.

The idea of the cage resonated with the people who visit the Welcome Centre. These people are at various stages of rebuilding their lives, which have been devastated by conflict and oppression.

On the way into Government House, I walked behind Taj and his mother and offered to take a photograph of the pair of them in front of the building. Taj was Moreland’s Junior Citizen of the Year for his work on behalf of Asylum Seekers. His proud Mum involved in the environmental movement with their home open during Sustainability House Week. Taj wants to be an architect and has won a scholarship to Ivanhoe Grammar.

Talking with Taj you believe the future will be in safe hands! Here he is with Moreland’s other citizen representatives who made the most of the occasion.





Greater Dandenong City



This ornament is decorated with patterns taken from a series of workshops held within the municipality where community members were encouraged to explore their cultural identity through textiles.

From representation of traditional dress to cultural celebrations, the etched images reflect individual fragments of fabric and pattern. these patterns combine to form an intricate layering, which highlights the diversity of our community.



Corangamite Shire



Our ornament was made and designed by the Corangamite Youth Council. It is a symbol of our community’s strong connection to and proud history of agriculture and dairy farming. It represents the diversity of our region from the grain and sheep farms in the Western Districts to the beautiful beaches around the Great Ocean Road. 

It shows our pride in our youth and the hope we have for the future, while celebrating our history through the historic clock tower in the centre of Camperdown, our largest town.



Glen Eira City



Made by local artist Madeleine Grummet using recycled materials from council’s Arts and Cutlure program.

PS. As one of my employers – I teach at Godfrey Street and also facilitate an ABI group – I looked out for Glen Eira’s ornament too but their description didn’t explain why they chose the design.



Latrobe City



Students talked about the trees in shopping centres and stores, which were for sale roadside and the decorations throughout the Valley. They also spoke of the ‘giving trees’ at shopping centres. Sadly, some of our students experience hardship and trauma and stated the importance of this Christmas icon as they did not have one at home.

This Christmas tree is made from polymer clay and pipe cleaner. The process involved most students and staff at the campus being canvassed for their ideas. Six to eight students made prototypes, with two students working on the final product, supported by a staff member who undertook the drilling.



Hobsons Bay City and Stonnington City



An ornament created by Louis Joel Arts and Community Centre representing divers locations within the Hobsons Bay municipality.

The glass work is by Maureen Williams, recognised as one of Australia’s foremost glass artists.



Colac Otway Shire



The magic and beauty of the Otways inspired us to bellieve Santa might live here.



Alpine Shire



The Christmas decoration represents Alpine Shire Council and was designed by a young artist, 13-year-old Giordano Genaro from Myrtleford.



Macedon Ranges Shire



A finely detailed print porclain of our significant natural landmark, Hanging Rock. This rare volcanic formation, located near the townships of Woodend and Mount Macedon, is a sacred place for local indigenous people, and home to various events and a wide array of native flora and fauna.

PS.Who hasn’t read Picnic at Hanging Rock or been there to try and discover what really happened?




City of Greater Bendigo



Bendigo Council is the first municipality in Australia to have its own official tartan registered with the Scottish Register of Tartans.

The colours represent the stories of Bendigo, whilst the design is symbolic of the mullock heap from Bendigo’s gold mining heritage.

  • Gold: History of Bendigo’s goldmining days;
  • Green: The state forest Bendigo is surrounded by;
  • Red/browns: The parched Australian landscape and the sun;
  • Blue/White: the State of Victoria, water and skies.

PS. Although Scots born, Bendigo’s tartan was a new discovery for me!



Hume City



This decoration represents the hopes and aspirations of the people who live in the City of Hume, many of whom are refugees and migrants. The decoration celebrates the cultural diversity of Hume City.

It was made by a group of women of diverse faiths, from many different countries. It has a message of peace and tolerance.

Everyone Was Charmed By The Governor And Her Partner

Both Linda Dessau AM, who is the first female Governor of Victoria, and her partner Anthony Howard QC, are down-to-earth and inclusive. They were friendly and approachable on the night – so much so, it became like a Pixie Photo queue as they made themselves available to chat and their aides cheerfully took snaps for people on phones and iPads.

Anthony Howard approached me in the corridor, introduced himself and wanted to know where I was from and whether I was enjoying myself. His aide Michael obligingly took a photo and as the evening progressed and we were invited to wander through selected rooms and ‘make ourselves at home,’ I spotted Anthony on a sofa between a group of ladies from Echuca. Michael took half a dozen photographs amid laughter and joking. A fabulous time had by all!

A far cry  from the stuffiness and strict protocol of ‘Government House and Governor’ in days of yore!

I saw hijabs, turbans, young and old, male and female, elected officials and ordinary citizens. Like the ornaments on the tree, we were diverse, colourful, different shapes and sizes and each had our own story!

Earlier this year, I went to Government House after being nominated for a Seniors’ Award but I never got a chance to meet the Governor.  This time, I was able to congratulate her for trailblazing and being an inspiration for younger women. Each time I’ve heard her speak she has emphasised the importance of tolerance and equity, as well as equality.

This community event she has initiated has the potential to grow, to provide a space for city and country to come together, to learn from each other. To share stories about our communities and maybe even change the way things are done at a council or community level as ideas are explored and discussed.

For me, it was the first official Christmas event for this season and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I know there is a lot of sadness and conflict in the world but it is comforting to know that in Victoria there are compassionate, caring, community-minded people working to build a  welcoming, harmonious society and we have a Governor who wants to recognise and honour that.

Events like this fill up those dark places and thoughts with light.


Wyndham City’s ornament looks like a large silver jellybean



Artist Will Francis used materials of 3D printed plastic with light emitting diodes, to signify the future of technology and manufacturing. When it glows the light represents the constantly increasing cultural diversity of the region.

Christmas is indeed the season of Light – a light in the Christian faith emanating from the birth of a little boy who was sent to preach love and be the spiritual light for His followers.

Other faiths celebrate light and love too – Hanukkah, Diwali and Eid al-Fitr is a festival of sacrifice, feasting and giving of presents.

The girls and I have now put up our own Christmas tree with baubles loaded with memories just like the Government House tree.

A great beginning to what I hope will be a happy festive season!


A Memorable Christmas


The most thoughtful Christmas gift I ever received was unexpected and saved Christmas 2001 from disaster.

It was a scorching December with El Nino doing its worst. I worried about husband, John’s deteriorating health and determined to make Christmas as cheerful as possible. In the dry hot weather, he struggled to breathe as worsening asbestosis and an inoperable lung cancer sapped his strength.

We had sold the car because even with the help of portable oxygen bottles John now found breathing an effort. He had no energy to drive and I couldn’t. I was fortunate that many friends offered transport if I thought it necessary and I was never short of volunteers to take us to doctor and hospital appointments.

We lived within walking distance of the railway station and town centre so life without a car manageable. The girls walked to local schools – Anne to Year 9 at Mordialloc College and Mary Jane in her last year at Mordialloc Primary School.

A girlfriend who drove a six-seater van offered to pick up a Christmas tree I had on order from the local supermarket. For years, I bought a Christmas tree from a charity but lack of volunteers killed that service. In 2001, Safeway supermarket advertised real Christmas trees for the first time. What serendipity, I thought.

It was the last day of term; a week before Christmas, and the girls were excited about coming home early to decorate the tree. Christmas tree decorating, a much-loved family ritual. Anticipation put an extra bounce in their step as they left for school in the morning.

Christmas lifted our home from ordinary to spectacular with a few boxes of decorations and that extra special smell of pine spread throughout the house.

In the early days of migrating to Australia, my brothers used to cut a branch from a huge pine tree in the backyard. Latterly, my mother bought an artificial tree because she said it was less messy, but for me the smell of pine wafting through the house is Christmas and reminds me of many happy years growing up at Croydon.

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Imagine my horror when instead of collecting a tree on arrival at the supermarket, I was offered a refund by a young manager with an apologetic smile.

‘Sorry Mrs Neil someone forgot to water the trees over the weekend and they’re dried and shrivelled.’
‘All of them?’
‘Yep. Dead, I’m afraid. The weather’s been so hot.’
‘Are you getting replacements?’
‘No, sorry, we won’t be buying any more – it’s too late.’
‘What…what am I going to tell my children?’
His embarrassed ‘I’m sorry…’ trailed off as I burst into tears.

My girlfriend, Lesley led me to her van as the young manager turned various shades of red, no doubt wishing the floor would open up and he could disappear. Or maybe that was my wishful thinking!

I wept on John’s shoulder when I got home. The worry of his deteriorating health and our changing circumstances, added to my grief. We both knew the tears were not just about the Christmas tree.

‘It’s not the end of the world – or Christmas.’ John comforted, ‘come on, love, we’ll work something out.’

We resolved I would take the girls shopping the next day. Regardless of cost the best artificial Christmas tree found would be bought – although with Christmas Day so close this could be an impossible dream.

I returned to Main Street and checked the local shops, but drew a blank. I met the girls from school to tell them of the disaster at Safeway. Their stoicism humbling as they tried to cheer me up. They even expressed concern for whoever had let the trees die, worrying that they may have lost their job.

I felt less charitable and suggested there should be consequences for the blunder. As is often the case, our children surprise us and my girls’ reaction to what I’d deemed a tragedy made me feel ashamed of myself.

As we neared home, Anne and Mary Jane dawdled behind me, hiding their disappointment with downcast eyes and silence until they heard my noisy intake of breath.

I couldn’t believe it. A 6ft Christmas tree took up most of the front veranda. The fragrance of a thousand pine needles scented the air. The girls whooped at the surprise.

‘What a storyteller mummy and we believed you.’
‘What a tricker you are.’

They weren’t listening to my denials as I read the scrawled note stuck between the branches. ‘Have a great time decorating this – Merry Christmas, love Lesley.’

Already inside, the girls were yelling at John to come and see the tree. They laughed and giggled, believing I had planned ‘the best surprise’.

I rang to thank Lesley. She confessed to driving for two hours before at last finding a tree for sale in a distant suburb. ‘I know John is very ill and making this Christmas special is important for all of you.’

Lesley’s thoughtfulness certainly gave us a Christmas to remember. Her generosity allowed us to create wonderful memories as we shared the ritual dressing of the Christmas tree.

The first decoration added was a crystal and gold pineapple – a gift from another dear friend who lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Jean gave me the pineapple ornament so that every Christmas I’d remember our friendship, which dates back to being toddlers in Scotland. Jean’s family our neighbours in Braeside, Greenock.

I often recall my childhood in Scotland and the excitement of making decorations at Christmas for the tree. In the 50s and 60s, ordinary folk had no spare cash for tinsel, coloured balls and all the various Christmassy ornaments available nowadays. Most people made their own.

Mum showed us how to fold the washed silver tops from the milk bottles. We threaded them into clusters for ‘bells’. We traced and cut out stars and other seasonal shapes from cardboard and covered them with the smoothed silver paper from inside cigarette packets. The coloured wrappers of chocolates (especially Quality Street) were also saved and used. Crepe paper of various colours cut into strips made excellent streamers.

Each year as the Christmas tree is decorated memories of childhood Christmases surface, but now it’s my daughters exclaiming over their homemade efforts! ‘What do you keep these for, Mum?’

One day, when they have their own homes they’ll understand the value of  treasured memories and no doubt recall happy times around the kitchen table making the decorations.

Today, I remember Lesley’s  gift that long ago Christmas. It will always remain special because John died several months later in September 2002.

2001 was the last Christmas the four of us shared and thanks to a dear friend we had a magnificent tree.


We Came by Boat at Christmas Time

Orion – full steam ahead at sea. Photograph taken by & © Alan Judge (UK)

Check out this site for further details of the ship we came to Australia on in 1962. I’ve been thinking of that voyage because today, December 16th is the anniversary of our arrival in Melbourne at Station Pier. The ship finally docking at 8.00pm.

Where have those 53 years gone?

We were met by Dad’s sister, Chrissie and husband Bill, and their friends Edna and Ron Gray, Malcolm and Elizabeth Andree, Muriel and Eric Scrimshaw and Doreen and Dick Triggs (the parents of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs).

All of those couples generously volunteered their cars and time knowing there were eight of us, plus luggage! What kindness, what generosity, what a welcome!

I’ve reminisced about our trip to Australia all those years ago – a voyage of discovery, which had a profound impact, etched on my memory…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Miriam Beard

In the city the other day, I lined up to view Myer windows – an annual Christmas event for Melbournites and one I remembered from that first Christmas here all those years ago.

60 years of animated windows at Myer – Santa’s Journey into Space featured 1962

The migrant ship, P&O’s Orion left cold, foggy Tilbury Docks in London on November 14th,1962. The first stop Piraeus, Greece, in the Mediterranean before the liner, continued through the Suez Canal to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and onto an Australia in the full bloom of summer – hot, humid tropics all the way and my first experience of a heatwave.

An unforgettable month long voyage for nine-year-old me, born in Greenock, Scotland, the city with the highest rainfall in the United Kingdom.

The Orion, used as a troop ship during WW2 had been refitted to carry the army of assisted migrants to Australia and New Zealand in the late 50s and early 60s. She was the first British ship to have air-conditioning in all her public rooms so we were more fortunate than my father’s sister Chrissie and husband Bill who sponsored us to Melbourne after migrating in July 1952.

We were all considered ‘ten pound Poms’ although we were actually Scots.



The open and spacious design with sliding glass doors and removable walls, made the ship’s communal areas roomy and egalitarian. The Orion now a one class ship, sported breezy passageways and staircases with chromium and bakelite fittings; as well as the polished mahogany, found in wealthy British homes of the time. The ship suited tropical cruising and life on board definitely a jaw-dropping wonder to the majority of working class passengers, who like us were heading for what we hoped was ‘the promised land,’ sunny beaches and casual living.

Farewelling fogbound Tilbury
We began our journey across the sea
The apes of Gibraltar glimpsed
But only in our imagination
The Bay of Biscay tossed and pummelled
Brother George succumbed to seasickness
And I discovered my sea legs.
Piraeus, Greece glittered in the moonlight
Monuments of an ancient past shadowing a busy port.
Spruikers cluttered the docks
Committing daylight robbery
On gullible migrants
Sister Catriona and I hugged
Our Greek dolls while the boys discovered
Cars with no engines.
Bright traditional costumes of the dolls
soft, silken,beautiful and exotic.
Poukamiso – chemise, segouni – vest,
bodia – apron, zonari – sash, mandili – scarf
and tiny Tsarouhia – shoes.

Clothes never seen on the 500 migrants
Who shuffled on board that night
Belongings bundled in sheets
Squeezed into battered suitcases
Secured with string and hoisted on
Backs used more to manual labour
than dancing to bouzoukis
Greece an intriguing taste of
Somewhere different to Scotland
Our first foreign port, a window into another world.

We discovered the cabins could be stuffy, especially when shared with Mum and my five siblings. Not enough room to swing the proverbial cat after toddler Rita’s cot was set up. Did we care? Not really. We spent as many hours as possible away from the cabin, immersed in the swimming pool or roaming the various decks playing quoits, table tennis, hide and seek, getting into mischief while avoiding serious trouble.

The pool on board – courtesy Museum Victoria

The swimming pool an exciting magnet for most of the children on board. Many like us, had never been in a pool or been able to swim in the sea beyond paddling in the shallows while shivering through cool British summers. We loved watching the sailors clean and refill the pool with saltwater each day, even learning to swim aboard ship, as did many migrants. If you didn’t master swimming, you at least floated secure in a life ring and appreciated the relief from the heat.

When we crossed the equator and ‘met’ King Neptune I don’t think anyone escaped the shenanigans or sampling the pool. No plastic sandals needed here before getting in the water, nor danger of hypothermia – the climates experienced as we moved through various zones very different to Scotland!



The ship steamed into the Suez Canal
To enter a land straight from
Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedias.
Hours spent on deck peering through
Dad’s binoculars at pyramids, camels,
Sand dunes and a Bedouin unaware
Of our spying eyes as he prepared
Breakfast beside a solitary tent
The Valley of the Kings hugging
A horizon bathed in liminal desert dawn.

Closer to the ship a flotilla of Arab merchants
Beguiling the English Mrs Simpsons
And Scots Mrs MacGregors
Offering fancy leather goods,
Carved wooden elephants and watches
With rubber bands keeping hands ticking
Until the ‘Bum Boats’ skedaddled back to shore
A thief chased by the sergeant of Arms and
Caught by local police provides a distraction
Like an episode of Z-Cars or Softly Softly.
Everyone seeks a bargain and the banter
From ship rail to boats below ranged from
The comedic to course, respectful to rude.
While adults bargained, the Gully Gully Man
Fluted his cobra to awe and frighten children
The snake’s sewn mouth unnoticed as it uncoiled,
Swayed, stretched and struck before being grabbed
And thrown into a tense crowd
That evaporated squealing, like steam from
A whistling kettle.

Dad shared a cabin with the father of another large family in the cabin opposite to ours. Both men, in a two-berth cabin at the end of the corridor, worked out amicable arrangements to have private time with their spouses and family. Because Dad had been a shift worker his banishment to another cabin didn’t really affect us, although no doubt it affected Mum. We were delighted we actually saw more of him than we usually did.

A ship is a great adventure playground, and we made the most of it. We spent countless hours just standing on deck watching the ocean, fascinated by the dolphins, flying fish, the occasional albatross and of course watching for land when we were due to call into port. The sunrises and sunsets magical and memorable like the mesmerising sea.


Considered ‘all right for a girl’, I tagged along with older brothers Iain (11) and George (10) and their new friend Kenneth (12). They hatched exciting plans, whereas my older sister Catriona, who at thirteen attended the adult meal sittings with my parents, thought our games childish (and often she was right!).

Mature for her age, physically and mentally, Catriona was caught in that awkward in-between world of adolescence. The young deckhands ogled and whistled thinking she was older,but she pined for her school friends left behind in her first year at high school.

Colombo, Ceylon reached but a free Sri Lanka
Whispered chatter in dining halls and Kitchen
Of the ship. The lascar crew toiling at lower wages
Than white-skinned counterparts.
Colombo’s sweltering heat endured as
Dad searched for a ring for Mum, an anniversary looming.
We passed colourful saris and glossy black hair,
Boisterous beggars with blood-toothed grins advertising
Their love of Areca wrapped in betel leaves
Gobs of chewed nuts blackened by the sun
Dotted the streets. To my nine-year-old eyes
They were bloodstains. The smell of rotting vegetables
And sweaty humanity becoming the smell of death.
A cacophony of sounds, high pitched, persistent.
Buzzing flies biting, unfriendly like some people
Resentment at colonial betrayal simmering
Poverty displayed by stick legs and arms,
Gaunt faces, body sores, desperate words as
Crippled babies thrust into the faces
Of privileged whites streaming ashore.

Most days at sea on our month-long voyage
Spent exploring the one-class ship
Its First Class trimmings an exciting attraction
To our freewheeling gang of urban escapees
From the austerity of post war Britain.

One day, after seeing a school of flying fish the boys decided to go fishing although our only experience of this pastime in Greenock was catching tadpoles (we called them minnows) in jam jars, or  watching the tadpoles turn into frogs in our ‘secret lake’ (a big pond at the end of the Aileymill road).

English Kenneth described proper fishing, with a rod, hook and bait. We listened in awe at his expertise before scattering to find substitute equipment.

An empty toffee tin took the place of our usual jam jar. Discarded pieces of string and ribbon knotted together and tied around the rim of the tin transformed it into a ‘net’. Using orange peel as bait, we searched the decks for the best spot to launch our line and decided on a corner of the deck for crew only.

We had the run of the ship and within a couple of days knew it like our old neighbourhood ashore; certainly better than most adult passengers. We were rarely told to leave any area – an advantage of being a child.

Ignorant about the distance from the deck of the ship to the sea, and being children with an average height of four and half feet, we assumed our bundle of string more than adequate. We found a secluded corner, squeezed our skinny forms through the deck rails and hung precariously over the side.


Our imagination only accommodated fish, pods of dolphins and fanciful birds like the albatross and pelican. The voyage beautiful and benign, providing a remarkable, unique time in our young lives. We concentrated on the task at hand, unaware of the dangers of falling into shark infested waters.

Several pairs of hands took turns lowering the tin down. Kenneth received a quick lesson on democracy à la large families. Our fishing line bounced its way down the side of the ship, but stopped well short of the enticing water line. A collective groan of disappointment manifested as downturned lips and wrinkled brows. What to do? Our mission a failure, our enthusiasm fizzling like a damp squib on Guy Fawkes Night.

What happened next is one of those unpredictable solutions children invent. With almost silent agreement, our aim changed from catching fish to seeing if we could guide the tin into an open porthole. This turned out to be a much more engaging project, requiring all the skill we could muster.

We speculated what was behind the porthole immediately below, and if we’d get into trouble, but any hesitation was brief, and dismissed. We were now commandos penetrating a German submarine with a secret weapon that would win the war. Our concentration so intense the shrieks of laughter from the swimming pool above and the roar of the ship’s engines below faded to be insignificant.

We even forgot our persistent rumbling tummies stirred by the ever present smells of food lingering in every nook and cranny of the Orion. Smells drifting from the dining rooms, restaurants and decks, and from the cabins below where many of the 500 Greeks who had boarded in Piraeus cooked exotic, alluring food.

The tin edged closer to the narrow opening and the capable hands of Iain guided it to success. In the celebration, he almost dropped the string, George bumped his head on the deck rail as he cheered and Kenneth saved me from sliding head first into the briny. A little huffed because he hadn’t been the pilot, Kenneth brought us back to reality with, ‘Gosh, let’s scarper.’

Iain dropped the string as if it was a death adder.

We extricated ourselves from the deck rails, but not before I glimpsed the angry face of the Maitre d’ peering up at us. On cue, music burst from the tannoy announcing the children’s sitting for lunch.

We raced back to the cabin to collect Mum, forgetting the initial shock of the Head Waiter’s face as we giggled and revelled in the thrill of mischief. He couldn’t recognise us from hundreds of children on board – could he?

We entered the dining room with some trepidation, beginning to worry about Mum’s reaction should the Maitre d’ make a fuss, and worse would Dad find out. Our bravado tested when we saw our fishing implements sitting among the paraphernalia of the Head Waiter’s workstation. The man himself, looming larger than his six foot physique,  stood at the entrance of the dining room, head poised like a Roman Emperor watching everyone troop to their designated tables.

His patrician nose that Dad joked was more of a limb than a feature, sniffed the air for miscreants and Mum, as she often did made a pun without realising it. ‘What’s got up his nose?’ she asked Gordon, our dining room steward.

Gordon, a young man from Barrhead who had taken a shine to our family,
whispered and pointed at our tin, ‘That landed through the porthole when we were setting the tables.’ He laughed and shrugged. ‘A kid’s prank but Himself sees it as sullying His dining room.’

‘Is that so,’ said Mum laughing. ‘Wee bisums were smart to get it inside without a boat!’

The boys flashed warning looks at each other and signalled to me to remain silent. Mum’s admiration would become admonition if she knew it was her children being ‘smart’.

Kenneth, already seated, buried his head in the menu refusing eye contact. If challenged, we’d be on our own. Mum smiled and started to chat to Kenneth’s mother as Gordon brought the meals. The Maitre d,’ at the other side of the room sorting out a dispute over seating, no longer a threat to us. We relaxed to enjoy the food.

Every meal on board delicious because of the variety served, and we were always allowed seconds. We left a Britain hit by recession and found being aboard the Orion a luxurious holiday resort.

Gordon indulged our every whim, taking a particular shine to my young brother Alistair, a six year old with a cherubic face and insatiable appetite. His record for “seconds” of favourite meals being six plates of mince and tatties! If the stewards ran a competition on the appetites of their charges, Gordon would definitely win.

We laughed at pods of dolphins and flying fish
Argued over whale sightings and horizon mirages
Had competitions to see who could get closest
To the seabirds landing on railings.
The Wandering Albatross or pretty Petrels
Mesmerising. Each day fascinating.
The baby buried at sea, a stumbled upon ceremony
We didn’t let spoil the rest of our day
Only adult reflections consider sadness, social justice…

We didn’t have to go to school on board, but if we did attend classes, they were only for a couple of hours in the morning and we were given free ice cream. Ice cream in Scotland was sharing a family block after the Sunday roast – if the household budget could afford it. To be offered cones every day, a special treat indeed. However, we didn’t need too much persuading to go to school because the volunteer teachers were a lot of fun.


Perhaps it was because of the comfortable non-compulsory nature of the classes, or their multi-aged composition, but whatever the reason, I absorbed the lessons, even learning all about L.S.D. (money sums, not the drug!). I became so proficient in maths that when I arrived in Australia Mr Tinney, the Croydon Primary School headmaster wanted me to go into Grade Six. Thank goodness Mum, worried about socialisation and making friends in my own age group, insisted promotion to Grade Five was enough of a challenge especially since George was also promoted to Grade Six. However, being the youngest in class dogged me for the rest of my school life.

From the morning wake-up calls broadcast into our cabin: ‘Wakey, Wakey Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time on the Orient Line,‘ to the host of organised parties, dress-up competitions, deck games and Housey Housey (bingo) plus talent contests; the few weeks at sea provided pleasant memories.

The ship sailed into Fremantle at dawn
Yet most passengers crowded the decks
Eager for the first glimpse of a new homeland.
And to our surprise the skirl of bagpipes
Drowned seagulls screech, as a young woman
Marched the pier welcoming her sister home.
The loving gesture warmed hearts, calmed fears
The upheaval and journey to the unknown less daunting
As the strains of Waltzing Matilda skirled skywards.

Sultry summer air caressed our skin, a hot December sun disappeared into the sea when we prepared to disembark from P&O’s Orion in 1962, thirty-two days after leaving fogbound Tilbury.

Night now dropped a velvet blanket from the sky, no gradual, long twilight here like the Scottish gloaming.


Amid harsh fluorescents, the inky sky disappeared as we docked and Aunt Chrissie grinned and waved below, jostled by hundreds of clamouring crowds on Station Pier. We interrupted Dad’s dinner to tell him we saw someone who looked like my godmother, Ina, his cousin. Five of us had heads crammed out the porthole and the lady yelled ‘are you the McInneses?’

We all nodded together and watched tears gather in her eyes to flow down her cheeks when Dad eventually joined us. A frightening crack as the bunk bed groaned under all the weight meant several of us scurried down and raced to be first at the deck rails to squeeze between adult legs and continue our observations of the chaos below.

Tears of joy stained Dad’s cheeks on seeing his only sister after a decade. His initial disappointment as the ship manoeuvred into port that the grimy part of Melbourne visible ‘looked just like Glasgow’ forgotten.

However, on deck, I trembled at the whispers of older boys that Christmas didn’t happen here. The hot night air and absence of snow was certainly unChristmassy!

Fortunately, on the way to our new home in bushy Croydon, Aunt Chrissie’s blue Ford Consul stopped beside a large department store. Myer windows blazed light and colour onto the deserted streets.

Led over to view the display of mechanical puppets narrating Santa’s journey into Space my child eyes ballooned. Had we arrived in Fairyland?
This new country promised an exciting and magical life.

Christmas did happen in summer and our first Australian Christmas proved to be as memorable as the eventful voyage on SS Orion and that very special welcome the evening of December 16, 1962.


How sad that boat arrivals are now demonised and detained when we were welcomed with open arms. My wish this Christmas is that camps on Nauru and Manus Islands are closed, refugees are welcomed to Australia and we again care about human beings to build and share this land.


Christmas – Let Us All Rejoice

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”


Recently, I celebrated and wrote about Eid and Diwali, major religious festivals at this time of year with similar customs to the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Over the next few posts I’ll share memories of Christmas, the celebration that is part of my culture and Christianity, the religion most familiar to me.

All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.

Albert Einstein

As I finish my teaching term before the holidays, it is customary to exchange cards and gifts and share special festive foods in the lead up to Christmas.

Some schools and workplaces have Secret Santas or Kris Kringles, special Christmas parties and meals and even outings. It helps that we are heading into summer and annual holidays. The thought of a long break and perhaps an exciting time ahead certainly makes it easier to be in a jolly party mood.


I’m also aware of the celebration of Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of light because several students are Jewish.

Just as Christians believe Jesus was the Son of God and the Light of the world, Jews celebrate the importance of light.

Hanukkah celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality.

Jesus “Christ” is known as the founder or central figure of “Christianity.” Christmas is a Christian holiday on December 25 that commemorates the birth of Jesus. Ancient Romans also commemorated Jesus’ birth by marking a division of the calendar still in use today. The years before Jesus’ birth are marked as B.C. (Before Christ), and the years after Jesus’ birth are marked A.D. (Anno Domini, which means, in the year of our Lord).

Christmas literally means the Mass (celebration) of Christ. “Christ” is a Greek word and title, meaning “anointed” or one set apart by God for a special purpose. “Christ” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Based on the words of ancient prophets, the first century Jewish people expected the arrival of the Messiah promised by God as a great deliverer of the people.

When the world seems to be in disarray, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by happiness as people plan family get togethers, holidays, and special meals. Festivities and rituals brighten the mundane to give deeper meaning to communities and individual lives.

In a multicultural country like Australia where Christmas festivities and decorations last through to the New Year, schools and workplaces celebrate regardless of whether people are Christian – it is a time to reach out and spread goodwill.

Love and joy can be infectious!

A Christmas Triolet
Mairi Neil

Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion
Togetherness, binding like whipped cream
Peace on earth, my Christmas dream
Love and kindness must reign supreme
To mark the joy of a global occasion
Peace on Earth, my Christmas dream
Regardless of your religious persuasion

Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness
No matter where evil has dwelled
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Belief in humanity encouraged and upheld
To do otherwise is destructive madness
Shadows of suffering can be dispelled
Light will always banish darkness

Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds
The spirit of Christmas can unite
Let tolerance be your guiding light
Christian principles shining bright
Spreading Love’s promising seeds
Let tolerance be your guiding light
To thoughtful words and deeds

Houses are decorated as are shopping centres, public buildings and even streets. Although it’s only the beginning of December evidence of people embracing Christmas mode is everywhere. The staff at Mordialloc Railway Station have added some new tinsel to well-worn decorations and a house near Longbeach Place in Chelsea is into the spirit of the season.

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Today, as I walked down to Mordialloc foreshore for the annual Brunch for Peace at the Beach with the Union of Australian Women Southern Branch, soothing Christmasy songs floated in the air. The nursing home on the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets prepared for a family Christmas party. Young people helped staff decorate several tables arranged under a marquee.

Hopefully, the music, planned festivities, and presence of family will trigger happy memories for the residents of the home, many of whom suffer dementia. Even if they don’t know what the fuss is about, the activity and presence of young people should brighten their day – it certainly brightened mine as I walked past.

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Some people have the tradition of sending a letter to all of their family members and friends reporting on the major events of the year. Others have particular traditions like decorating the tree, attending Carols by Candlelight, or baking Christmas cake, plum pudding and sharing a meal with extended family. Others always holiday at the same place each year and prepare for Christmas away from home.

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we always have a ‘real’ Christmas tree, the smell of pine needles synonymous with Christmas

I was brought up a Christian and in my Scottish Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) childhood, celebrating the birth of Jesus made Christmas Day and the days leading up to it (Advent), exciting and special. The emphasis on the New Testament’s teachings about loving one another and peace and goodwill towards all mankind were the messages stressed in prayers and hymns.

Although I only occasionally attend a particular denominational church today, I still see Christmas in this light. Santa Claus, rampant consumerism, eating and partying to excess is not my idea of Christmas.

In fact, Scotland did not declare Christmas Day a public holiday until 1958. Christmas in Scotland was traditionally observed very quietly, the emphasis on religious observance not the Christmas festival.

Christmas Giving
Mairi Neil

Generosity heart warming and kind
Inspiring others to rejoice and give
For children the anticipation is exciting
Their joy and delight infectious at
Sharing gifts as well as receiving

Father Christmas  a benign fantasy figure when I was a child. My working class parents explained that he only brought to each child what the parents could afford. This explanation the same one I gave to my children while emphasising it is a season more about giving than receiving!

A great example of bringing Christmas joy to children while practising Christian charity is Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s “Give a toy to a child in detention”. An opportunity for us to show compassion and care – qualities our Government has lost in its shameful treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.


I teach adults from many different backgrounds and with a range of life experiences. Here is a poem one class wrote:

Class Acrostic Poem 2008

Coming together at Christmas
Happiness for families
Rituals rich in memories
Insights are gained playing inside games
Stirring the pudding
Tinsel and berries, togetherness and traditions
Merrymaking, mulled wine, and mistletoe
Acceptance of gifts and family idiosyncrasies
Sweets, sauces, and sugar plum fairies

More than families have idiosyncrasies looking at Melbourne City Council’s Christmas decorations this year – they’ve got into the craze of yarn art like Longbeach Place! The expertise, time and effort in ‘dressing’ these trees certainly shows devotion.

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The Council workers are also erecting a traditional Santa’s Village which was under construction the night I was in the city.

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The magnificent spire of St Paul’s in the background – a good reminder Jesus is the reason for the season.

Christmas Joy
Mairi Neil

Let’s celebrate another Christmas,
perhaps relive the happiness and joy
that those first Christians felt
when they heard of the birth
of that special boy.
The baby fulfilled God’s promise
from the East travelled Kings three
guided by the Star of Bethlehem
knowing that they would see
a host of angels singing aloud,
and shepherds leaving their flocks
Around the manger all would crowd
to witness the amazing miracle
of the birth of that special child
agreeing He’d been sent to Earth
To secure peace,
Also tolerance and Love
and a place for the meek and mild.

One of my lessons last week focused on Christmas and similar religious celebrations. This is always a rich subject for writers to mine, particularly if you seek publication.

Shelves of bookshops and libraries sag with specialised or niche books. You can start writing today and have something ready for next year’s season – or the year after!

  • Write your annual letter  to family and/or friends recounting the good and bad things that have happened to you this year that could be considered noteworthy. (This could be factual or exaggerated, poignant or amusing.)
  • Write a poem titled Christmas Is… (substitute  your special celebration/belief if it differs from Christmas)
  • List all the trappings, events, beliefs, ‘to do’ list that make your  celebration memorable.
  • How has the celebration changed for you since childhood.
  • Is there one particular year that stands out?
  • Write a memory of the happiest Christmas.
  • A Christmas that was a disaster.
  • Have you ever celebrated Christmas,Hanukkah, Ramadan,Diwali… away from home? With people who had a different custom?
  • Have you a favourite recipe to share that marks these festivities?
  • What difference has technology made to your celebrations – do you still post cards? Have you discovered old or new friends through social media?
  • Did you believe in Santa Claus? When did you stop? Were you honest with your children/grandchildren?
  • Did you ever take part in a school play – what part did you play?
  • What’s the best present you ever received? Why?
  • What’s the worst present? Why?
  • Have you ever regretted or been embarrassed by a present you bought?

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