22 December 2022

All hail the harvest as Christmas arrives in the bush

| Edwina Mason
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It’s all about the harvest in the lead-up to Christmas out here in the west of the Hilltops region where there’s no stopping for some. Photo: Edwina Mason.

It’s the week before Christmas and all ‘round the farm the only thing that matters is harvest.

Of the critters stirring it’s the snakes and lizards, the occasional goanna trailing, head up, across dusty roads. The cattle are laying low, standing in dams, and the sheep convene in peculiar hot little clusters, heads down, as if deep in conversation.

The kids are far from nestled snug in their beds, dive-bombing off couches and into pools, their visions of Santa loom large in a glittering light show surging across the corrugated iron roof.

There, like anywhere there’s light, is ideal entertainment for dive-bombing moths and insects, the remnants of their parties a carpet of carnage swept up each morning.

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And the sprinkler slowly rotates its spluttering head.

The third sitting of dinner surfaces as another wave of the great unwashed – blackened faces, puffs of dust and wafts of diesel – walk into the house, plonk down and quietly start eating.

It’s the only quiet. The choir of King’s College surrendered to the two-way years ago – the clamorous chatter peppered by crackling and cackling is all anyone hears. Okay, apart from the crickets and kookaburras and the cacophony of cockatoos who make merry from dawn through to dusk.

Our Christmas in the bush was always, always bookended by harvest and bushfires. Never bedfellows, more ‘beddevils’ where one became a little heated and ignited the other with scorching ramifications.

When we didn’t have an eye to the sky looking for smoke we’d have another scanning for snakes as we went about our days which would inevitably involve chasing down flystruck sheep. Usually after lunch when Dad had a captive workforce seated around the table.

All hands are deployed for the management of livestock and wandering elves at this time of year. Photo: Edwina Mason.

But there were moments that did make Christmas Christmas.

Each year we’d accompany Dad down the road to select the Christmas tree – an indigenous, rather scrappy looking pine – with strict instructions from Mum not to get one that was too large.

Of course, out in the natural cathedral that is our landscape, in the eyes of babes, no tree seemed large enough for the hallowed place before our fireplace at home – so inevitably we’d debate, select, Dad would chop, yes, chop with an axe, we’d sort of help load it (really just get in the way) and cling to the trunk like Bradman a bat all the way home.

Before Dad could disappear out to the man cave that was his paddocks, there would follow several attempts to get the tree into the house, only to have to lug it back out several more times for the trunk to be trimmed to fit. It was ostensibly a tense time.

Finally strung into a rather macabre position where it would sit, slightly lopsided for weeks, you could almost hear it groaning in glory and decorations. And the same coloured twinkly lights we dragged out each year. The mix of pine, ancient lights and electricity a moot point.

By night the lights would continue their slow flicker on and off as we attempted Christmas plays and carols that inevitably ended in tears.

Poor Dad was always caught between home and a hard place when it came to juggling work with play and for Mum Christmas was her organisational nirvana, until that time she dropped the pan of freshly chocolate-coated cherries on the floor near the fridge.

Chuck a machinery breakdown, a few extra relatives and the blazing hot days into the mix … it was little wonder one year we had to retire before the plum pudding came out, so solid was the intake of fizzy beverages.

That doesn’t include that time Dad disappeared. Went to change a record – undoubtedly Nana Mouskouri – and fell asleep behind the couch.

Christmas Eve was early to bed under threat of Santa’s arrival but definitely because Ma and Pa had to dispense with certain amounts of beer and cake before morning. As a ma later in life I can attest to the horror one feels when a child walks out to see you drinking Santa’s milk with ice and Kahlua.

Christmas Day dawned around five for us but that didn’t ever prepare us for the mad dash to Thuddungra Church – a tiny white weatherboard building, seventies frosted stained-glass windows in its one-bell churchyard – fighting over what time we had to be there.

We were always late. Dashing over the dry brown grass, hooting out to each other, laughing, shusshing.

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The timber floors didn’t delight in our tardiness, nor did the pews which thumped and squeaked as we sat, wriggled, dropped prayer books and fixed our clothes and hair, rubbernecking and waving at those gathered who soberly sighed.

But it was the one time of the year the church was filled – never to capacity, I can’t remember people standing outside – but amid the whistling of the crickets and the crackling of heat on a tin roof – the simplicity of neighbours gathering and singing heartily was unsurpassed.

The year the organ was sacrificed, the minister instead pulling out a guitar adorned with giant flower stickers was less sublime.

We all know the flow of the day – it’s about frenzied unwrapping, feasting and frivolity … the roast turkey and the coins in the pudding that foretell our future.

I’ve had Christmas in the snow, New York and stood in a church in Quebec where the service was entirely French.

But nothing actually comes close to the Christmas of a farming family who pull together to get that harvest in, just in time for the big collapse over full tummies before Test matches on the lawn that descend into a tumult of song and dance that leave us hoarse for weeks.

Merry Christmas everyone from our patch of stubble out here in the west.

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