Christmas with Henry Lawson

The Ghosts of Many Christmases is one of Henry Lawson’s classic short stories. In it he recalls events on Christmas Days over the years, where they were spent, and with whom he shared them. Like many of Lawson’s stories the atmosphere is occasionally melancholy, but he tells his tale with the dry, bushman humour and careful, spare prose that was his hallmark.

There were two Christmas Days spent at sea:, going saloon from Sydney to [Western Australia] early in the Golden Nineties with funds; and one, the Christmas after next, coming back steerage with nothing but the clothes we’d slept in. All of which was bad judgement on our part – the order and manner of our going and coming should have been reversed.

He had spent the first of those Christmases on the “Westralian” diggings in a hessian tent, and in the company of so many of his old mates from earlier diggings in the east, that it felt “just like the old times”.

Henry Lawson: The Ghosts of Many Christmases

They had a joint of corned beef lined up for Christmas dinner, Lawson remembers, and a kerosene tin to boil it in. Then:

….while we were talking of old things the skeleton of a kangaroo dog grabbed the beef out of the boiling water and disappeared into the scrub – whichmade it seem more like old times than ever.

After returning to New South Wales, he received a letter from one of his mates, still  in the west. The mate was with a party prospecting the “awful desert out beyond White Feather”, and camped at a soak some three hundred miles “from the nearest grocer’s shop”.  With Christmas coming up:

… they ordered a case of mixed canned provisions from Perth to reach them about Christmas. They didn’t believe in plum pudding—there are a good many British institutions that bushmen don’t believe in—but the cook was a new chum, and he said he’d go home to his mother if he didn’t have plum pudding for Christmas, so they ordered a can for him. Meanwhile, they hung out on kangaroo and damper and the knowledge that it couldn’t last forever.

It was in a terrible drought, and the kangaroos used to come into the “Soak” for water, and they were too weak to run. Later on, when wells were dug, the kangaroos used to commit suicide in them—there was generally a kangaroo in the well in the morning.

The storekeeper packed the case of tinned dog, etc., but by some blunder he or his man put the label on the wrong box, and it went per rail, per coach, per camel, and the last stage per boot, and reached my friends’ camp on Christmas Eve, to their great joy. My friend broke the case open by the light of the camp-fire.“Here, Jack!” he said, tossing out a can, “here’s your plum pudding.”He held the next can in his hand a moment longer and read the label twice.

“Why! he’s sent two,” he said, “and I’m sure I only ordered one. Never mind—Jack’ll have a tuck-out.”

He held the next can close to the fire and blinked at it hard.“I’m damned if he hasn’t sent three tins of plum pudding. Never mind, we’ll manage to scoff some of it between us. You’re in luck’s way this trip, Jack, and no mistake.”

He looked harder still at the fourth can; then he read the labels on the other tins again to see if he’d made a mistake.

He didn’t tell me what he said then, but a milder mate suggested that the storekeeper had sent half a dozen tins by mistake. But when they reached the seventh can the language was not even fit to be written down on a piece of paper and handed up to the magistrate. The storekeeper had sent them an unbroken case of canned plum pudding, and probably by this time he was wondering what had become of that blanky case of duff.

The kangaroos disappeared about this time and my friend tells me that he and his mates had to live for a mortal fortnight on canned plum pudding. They tried it cold and they tried it boiled, they tried it baked, they tried it fried, and they had it toasted, they had it for breakfast, dinner and tea. They had nothing else to think, or talk, or argue and quarrel about; and they dreamed about it every night, my friend says. It wasn’t a joke—it gave them the nightmare and day-horrors. They tried it with salt. They picked as many of the raisins out as they could and boiled it with salt kangaroo. They tried to make Yorkshire pudding out of it; but it was too rich.

My friend was experimenting and trying to discover a simple process for separating the ingredients of plum pudding when a fresh supply of provisions came along. He says he was never so sick of anything in his life, and he has had occasion to be sick of a good many things. The new chum jackeroo is still alive, but he won’t ever eat plum pudding any more, he says. It cured him of homesickness. He wouldn’t eat it even if his bride made it.

Lawson remembers other Christmases on other goldfields, especially at Gulgong in the last of the roaring days, and the various Santa Clauses he encountered:

Santa Claus, young fresh-faced and eager; Santa Claus, blond and flaxen, Santa Claus dark; Santa Claus with a brogue or Santa Claus speaking broken English; Santa Clause as a Chinaman (Sun Tong Lee and Co., storekeepers) with strange delicious sweets … and Chinese dolls for the children.

Christmas on the diggings, before the gold ran out, brought out the “wild generosity of the luck-intoxicated diggers”, and the well-remembered rows of lighted tents and campfires, and the bonfires and singing and dancing at New Year a few days later.

And what of that same camp thirty years later? Now it is:

… a wretched little pastoral town; a collection of glaring corrugated-iron hip roofs, and maybe a rotting propped-up bark or weatherboard humpy or two, relics of the roaring days; a dried-up storekeeper and some withered hags, a waste of caved-in holes with rain-washed mullock heaps and quartz and gravel glaring in the sun; thistles and burrs where old bars were; drought, dryness, desolation and goats.

Lonely graves in the bush and grey old diggers here and there, anywhere in the world, doing anything for a living, lonely yet because of the girls who couldn’t wait, but prospecting and fossicking here and there, and dreaming still.

Readers who know their Lawson will recognise this scene. It is one he often conjures up – the ruined bush and lonely bushmen.

Amongst his Christmas ghosts, I particularly liked Lawson’s account of Christmas at Eurunderee Creek, where we are taken onto one of the early selection farms on the western slopes of the Blue Mountains. The story is fictional, but is no doubt based on Lawson’s recollections of his childhood on a selection at Eurunderee, and of his father who had once been a digger  We meet up again with a number of familiar characters, whose travails are told in other Lawson short stories and poems:

They used to call it “Th’ Pipeclay” thirty years ago, but the old black names have been restored. They make plum puddings yet, weeks beforehand, and boil them for hours and hang them in cloths to the rafters to petrify; then they take them down and boil them again. On Christmas Eve the boys cut boughs or young pines on the hills, and drag them home and lash them to the veranda-posts.

Ted has turned up with his wife and children from his selection out back. The wheat is in and shearing is over on the big stations. Tom—-steady- going old Tom—clearing or fencing or dam-sinking up-country, hides his tools in the scrub and gets his horse and rides home. Aunt Emma (to every one’s joy) has arrived from Sydney with presents (astonishing bargains in frocks, etc.) and marvelous descriptions of town life.

Joe, “poor” Mary’s husband, who has been droving in Queensland since the Christmas before last—while poor Mary, who is afraid to live alone, shared a skillion and the family quarrels at home—Joe rides day and night and reaches home at sunrise on Christmas morning, tired and dusty, gaunt and haggard, but with his last cheque intact. He kisses his wife and child and throws himself on the bed to sleep till dinner-time, while Mary moves round softly, hushes the baby, dresses it and herself, lays out Joe’s clean things, and bends over him now and then, and kisses him, perhaps, as he sleeps.

In the morning the boys and some of the men go down to the creek for a swim in the big shady pool under the she-oaks and take their Sunday clothes with them and dress there.

Some of them ride into town to church, and some of the women and children drive in in the spring-cart—the children to go to Sunday school, leaving mother and the eldest daughter—usually a hard-worked, dis­appointed, short-tempered girl—at home to look after the cooking.

There is some anxiety (mostly on mother’s part) about Jim, who is “wild,” and is supposed to be somewhere out back. There was “a piece of blue paper” out for Jim on account of sweating (illegally using) a horse, but his mother or father has got a hint—given in a kindly way by the police-sergeant—that Jim is free to come home and stay at home if he behaves himself. (There is usually a horse missing when Jim goes out back.)

Jim turns up all right – save that he has no money – and is welcomed with tearful affection by his favourite sister Mary, shakes hands with his father and has a long whispered conversation with his mother, which leaves him very subdued. His brothers forebear to sneer at him, partly because it is Christmas, partly on Mother’s account and thirdly because Jim can use his hands.

The family sit down to dinner. “An old mate of your father’s”—a bearded old digger—has arrived and takes the place of honour. (“I knowed yer father, sonny, on the diggings long afore any of you was ever thought on.”)

The family have only been a few hours together, yet there is an undercurrent of growling, that mysterious yet evident undercurrent of nastiness and resentment which goes on in all families and drags many a promising young life down. But Aunt Emma and the old mate make things brighter, and so the dinner—of hot roast and red-hot plum pudding— passes off fairly well.

The men sleep the afternoon away and wake up bathed in perspiration and helpless; some of the women have headaches. After tea they gather on the veranda in the cool of the evening, and that’s the time when the best sides of their natures and the best parts of the past have a chance of coming uppermost, and perhaps they begin to feel a bit sorry that they are going to part again.

The local races or “sports” on Boxing Day. There is nothing to keep the boys home over New Year. Ted and his wife go back to their lonely life on their selection; Tom returns to his fencing or tank-sinking contract; Jim, who has borrowed “a couple of quid from Tom, goes out back with strong resolutions for the New Year, and shears “stragglers”, breaks in horses, cooks and clerks for survey parties, and gambles and drinks, and gets into trouble again. Maybe Joe knocks about the farm a bit before going into the Great North-West with another mob of cattle.

The last time I saw the Old Year out at Eurunderee the bush-fires were burning all over the ranges, and looked like great cities lighted up. No need for bonfires then.

Lawson’s story of his Christmas ghosts ends on an up-note, with memories of a happy Christmas Day on Manly Beach and of “two names that were written together in the sand when the tide was coming in”, followed by a ferry trip back through the Heads to the moonlit harbour. It reminds us that Lawson’s stories were not all sorrowful, or dwelling on the effects on lonely men and women of the “blasted scrubs” of the western plains.

There is also a lovely picture of Eurunderee Creek in another of my favourite yarns, The Story of Gentleman Once. Here we finally come to understand the backstory of Lawson’s wonderful character, the bush missionary Peter M’Laughlan. With the shearer Joe Wilson and the swagman Jack Mitchell (who had been “starved off a selection up-country”), Peter is camped in a bend of Eurunderee Creek:

It was a grassy little flat with gum-trees standing clear and clean like a park. At the back was the steep grassy siding of a ridge, and far away across  the creek to the south a spur from the Blue Mountain range ran west, with a tall, blue granite peak showing clear in the broad moonlight, yet dream-like, and distant over the sweeps of dark green bush.      

There was the jingle of hobble-chains and a crunching at the grass where the horses moved in the soft shadows amongst the trees. Up the creek on the other side was a surveyors’ camp, and from there now and again came the sound of a good voice singing verses of old songs; and later the sound of a violin and a cornet being played, sometimes together and sometimes each on its own.

It is a charming picture, despite being the setting for the tragic story of Peter M’Laughlan that is soon related.

Henry Lawson had an unhappy childhood, and later suffered from deafness, alcoholism and penury. Yet his humour strikes through, and his insights into the bush and bushmen ring true to this day. I love his short stories and can read them over and over; the book of them I acquired when I was a student in Canberra in 1962 is beside me as I write.

My own Christmas memories contain some ghosts — my grandparents and parents among them — and also some trying times, including being called away to bushfires on two successive Christmas Days back in the early 1970s, on both occasions the phone ringing just as I had the carving knife poised over the roast duck.

But I am lucky. I remember no Christmas sorrows, no tragedies, and especially no dining on fried plum pudding mixed with salt kangaroo.

Roger Underwood is a retired forester. This essay was first published at Quadrant Online in 2016.


  • en passant

    You say: “My own Christmas memories contain some ghosts …”.
    I am sure they do as you witnessed the destruction of everything that real foresters built and maintained. Your ghosts have watched good forest management destroyed by the inner city green numpties and their scientifically illiterate political acolytes.

    Perhaps in 2017 the tide will also turn in Oz and we will TRUMP them all and return to Earth from the parallel universe we visited during the climate hoax.

    Curiously, I have a country-born friend who watched a bushfire bypass her home on a rural property by just 200m, yet she believes what she is told by city folk. She has drunk the green kool-aid and swears that there is no proof that low-intensity burn-offs do any good. She says her CWA had a capital city ‘scientist’ come and talk to them about it. He demonstrated with graphs and charts that nothing made any difference – except abandoning the bush entirely and returning it to uninhabited nature …
    I think they then chanted “Omm, Ommm, Ommmm” and sipped kool-aid.

  • Jody

    I taught five of Lawson’s short stories for English for the HSC several years ago, “In a Dry Season”, “The Drover’s Wife”, “The Loaded Dog”, “Joe Wilson’s Courtship” and one more whose title I cannot remember. Each of them was remarkable and terribly evocative of Australia’s landscape, culture and humour. Not to mention the bravery and tenacity of women like the character in “The Drover’s Wife”. (Rather co-incidentally and ironically, I worked at the ABC decades before teaching these for an award-winning director at the ABC who had directed the dramatization of that story, with the lead role taken by James Mason’s wife, Clarissa, and which garnered its director a Prix Italia award!).

    I doubt any of Lawson’s stories would past muster, as it were, in the new world of identity politics and political correctness; in short, in an ideological landscape every bit as bland and sterile as that described in “In a Dry Season” – yet devoid of one scintilla of wit, intelligence, observation and humour that Lawson’s fecundity is able to enliven it with.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Welcome back, Jody. Missed you.
    I love all those old Australian poets and yarn tellers. We learnt to love them in school. Anyone who can read those stories and still subscribe to the idea that the weather we are experiencing today is in any significant way different than that experienced in the late 19th and early 20th century has simply not been paying attention.

Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.