‘For a secular country’, he said, ‘we make a big deal of a religious event. And how many people celebrating Christmas know what it is about, really?’

‘For most people, it’s just culture’, I countered, ever rational.

After graduating from university, I’d left Australia in 1967 to work in Fiji, convinced there was no culture in Australia. I found it there, among the Fijians, Indians, Chinese. I found it in Malaysia, too, Malays, Chinese, Indians. But it was in 1971 that I discovered I did have some culture of my own after all.

Serendipitously, during my Asian travels, I’d been given a job in an institute of technology in Kuala Lumpur. I’d become friends with Eileen, an Australian who taught in a secondary school. We decided we’d spend Christmas that year on Kuta Beach, Bali.

We were both employed on local wages, so the cheapest way to get there was overland via Singapore, by bus and ferry. The longest part of the bus trip was a bone-shaking 2000-km trip across Java, with regular stops allowing the driver to pump up a leaking tyre. By the time we reached our homestay with a local family we were wrecked, but soon found our way along a dirt track to the amazing Kuta Beach.

In 1971, Kuta was a sleepy farming and fishing village (picture below) but already it was gaining legendary status on the hippy and surfer trail. Among the other travellers we met,  Peter was special. A New Zealander, he was well educated and great to talk to, in search of something missing in his life. We became a threesome.

Suddenly, Christmas Day loomed. Eileen was good at keeping track of the days. We decided to have a simple celebratory lunch in the cool of the bedroom Eileen and I shared. I can’t picture the house now but recall its light and spacious feel – small but plenty of room for everyone.

First, we visited the local markets to buy presents for each other. I scored a thick novel, pre-loved by an unknown backpacker. It would keep me occupied on the return bus trip. Peter wanted a new cap, and Eileen chose a candle for our ‘table’. We found a bottle of Fanta to share.

Back at the homestay, our hostess was hunched over a single burner stove, rather like a primus. As we entered, she and her teenage daughter smiled at us, looking secretive.

In the bedroom, Eileen cleared a space and spread out her batik beach wrap to make a picnic table on the floor. I brought in hibiscus blooms from the garden to lace around the base of the candle. Our unwrapped gifts designated where we’d each sit on the floor.

Then, the pièce de résistance! Before leaving KL, Eileen had received a brown paper parcel from her parents. She’d valiantly carried it in her backpack all this way without opening it. Now was the moment!

First out was her own Christmas present, which took up most of the room in the package. And as promised, her mother had squeezed some goodies into the odd spaces around it – a Big Sister plum pudding, mouth-watering cashews, chocolate ginger, and I don’t remember what else. That day, it seemed a feast!

We were beginning to realise we had a nutritional hole in our Christmas menu when there was a rustle at the door. In came our hostess bearing a steaming dish of Balinese nasi goreng, followed by her daughter with glasses, small bowls and spoons. Exclamations of joyful surprise and thanks filled the small room.

Communication with our hostess was rudimentary and I’ll never know how they guessed what we were planning. I’m not sure why we didn’t buy food in the market but in these days, street food wasn’t that plentiful. I think we just had Eileen’s Christmassy snacks in mind.

I will always remember that day, 52 years ago, as a ‘loaves and fishes’ experience. We had very little, but through ritual, friendship, and generosity, what we had was transformed. And I loved it that the centrepiece of our Aussie celebration was simple Asian comfort food.

This 25 December, thousands will be gathering around tables on which there is less than in the past. May human gifts, and the kindness of those of us who are better off, help transform the little into much, much more. That, perhaps, is culture.

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15 Responses

  1. Hi Ruth,

    Interesting post of times back in the 70’s, makes me reminiscent also of those times.

    This gives me the opportunity to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas.

    I will spend Christmas Eve with my daughter with her family at Speers Point. Then on Christmas Day I will join my church family at the Christmas Day Service at Scots Kirk, Hamilton and then join with the few who would normally spend Christmas alone, at the Church for lunch. It is usually well patronised, a great time to get together and enjoy the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the true meaning of Christmas.

    Have a wonderful festive season, hope to catch up sometime in the new year.


  2. Dear Ruth. What a great story. Thanks for sharing. I also love the photo of the lane in Kuta, with the kids on their bicycles. It is interesting that you discovered culture on Kuta Beach of all places. But it was a very different place back then. We will be having our cross cultural Christmas dinner with Dam’s Thai food, followed by Christmas Pudding and Brandy Butter from the Oriental. Keng, Dam’s son, is very much looking forward to the feast. My other news is that I’ll be in Sydney in May and June looking after Kerryn’s dogs and house. Wishing you, with love, a great festive season, possibly with new cultural insights.

  3. I love this memory, Ruth. How those with little gave you a Christmas feast to remember.
    Some are certainly doing things less extravagantly this year- not a bad thing if it opens our eyes to growing inequality.
    So many are helping out, formally and informally. Lovely to see and hear.
    Warmest wishes, Ruth. Thank you for these posts of yours keeping us connected. ???

  4. I feel the festival of Christmas transcends religion. There is a purity to it…a time when, at least for a short while (usually early on Christmas morning) we let go of the world and it’s problems and feel it is a more soft and gentle place as we all endeavour to be more loving, more giving, more peaceful, more restful.
    We don’t always succeed in being those things of course…but to find someone… somewhere to share a meal like you did Ruth…helps us all feel connected. Happy Christmas to all.

  5. Lovely post Ruth, Bali sounds like a very different place back then and I love the old photo too. We will be having our first proper Christmas for years. The first time in four years that we’ve had them all together and at our place. Xx

    1. Vicki, I am so glad your family are gifting you what you most want, Christmas all together. I am sure it will be worth the wait. About Bali in the 1970s – I think I am surreptitiously making my surfer-daughter aware that I have a few adventure credentials, too!

  6. Thank you!
    A lovely story and journey into a ‘past’ of you I didn’t know about Ruth. Hope you tell us more!
    I suspect Christmas day for me will be alone with my Charlie, here in Alice, by our pool.
    Already I steel myself for the loneliness I will most likely feel at times, during that day. I am so well inculturated to the expectations of Christmas. Charlie on the other hand does his best to ignore it, a consumerist blight in his mind, although he likes to celebrate the Summer Solstice on the 23rd with local friends!
    Rest assured I will connect with my beloveds on the phone that day and I’ll be counting down the days until I see them next. But I think I’ll use the quiet of my Christmas Day to reflect on how lucky we are not to be living in the torn apart ‘holy lands’ right now. I’ll think of all those devastated people who will never see their over ones again, ever… all in the name of religion and ‘culture’…. whichever it is!
    And who knows what little ‘miracle’ may or may not show up to brighten the 24th here in Alice Springs?

  7. Whoops I even got the dates wrong!
    Our Solstice gathering is on the 22nd, and I meant to say 25th for Christmas of course!

  8. What a wonderful experience Ruth and it looks like paradise in the picture above. I hope you and yours have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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