From Gift-Giving Koalas to Surfing Santa, How Christmas Imagery Gets Australianized - Atlas Obscura
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From Gift-Giving Koalas to Surfing Santa, How Christmas Imagery Gets Australianized

Christmas Day, Australian style. (Photo: aidan casey on Flickr)

Frosty the Snowman. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. (Or, well, ghosts of chestnuts past.) A bundled-up Santa in his sleigh. The imagery of Christmas inevitably incorporates the coziness of winter.

But Christmas isn’t cold for everyone. Head south of the equator, where Santa makes his rounds a few scant days after the summer solstice, and the imagery of the festive season starts to gets a little confused. This is particularly evident in Australia, where British and American cultural influences collide with the inescapable realities of the weather, resulting in a lot of sweaty people in Santa hats lolling about on Bondi Beach.

So how does this work, exactly? 

A look at archival images from Australia’s state libraries shows some of the odder ways the country combines traditional Christmas images with Down Under culture. The incorporation of indigenous animals is popular—sometimes Santa was replaced with a benevolent anthropomorphic koala toting a sack full of gifts, as this poster from around 1920 illustrates:

(Image: State Library of Queensland)

The sprig of foliage in the Christmas koala’s right paw is golden wattle, a plant indigenous to Australia’s southeast.

In other cases, Santa is seen riding a kangaroo, as in this 1882 woodcut from the cover of the Christmas supplement to the Illustrated Australian News

(Image: State Library of Victoria)

The small child riding a cockatoo and a group of seemingly humorless women on emus fit in with the native wildlife theme. Santa’s fancy, flower-laden hat and the mini cutlass tucked into his belt are a little more mystifying.

Father Christmas doesn’t always get assigned new animals in Australia. Sometimes he keeps his traditional reindeer, but gives them a beachy twist. This 1934 magazine cover image shows the big guy riding a wave atop an inflatable member of his caribou crew:

(Image: State Library of Queensland)

The tank top and swim shorts are clearly a summer modification of the traditional red suit. This poor 1930s Santa below, on the other hand, was made to stick to his usual boots-and-cloak combo when dropping by to say hi to some bathing beauties and beaus:

(Image: State Library of Queensland)

As this 1880s toy fair advertisement shows, sometimes Santa went casual, donning a button-down and white jeans before mounting his emu steed and going on a hands-free joyride:

(Image: State Library of Victoria)

Summer Christmas met winter Christmas in the 1940s, a time when hundreds of thousands of American servicemen came to Australia in preparation to be sent to the Pacific Front of the World War II. The photo below, taken circa 1942, shows U.S. Army Captain John Gonzales dressed up as Santa, handing out gifts to fellow American soldiers who were patients in an Australian hospital. Judging by the picture, the Aussies were so unfamiliar with the imagery of a frosty Christmas that “This is a sleigh” had to be written on Santa’s sled.

(Photo: State Library of Victoria

Head to Australia during the festive period and you’ll still see the seasons clashing in its Christmas decorations and traditions. It doesn’t really make sense, but neither do pumpkin spice lattes.