‘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.