On Christmas Eve the population of our small township of Cobargo and surrounding district will gather in the local park (there is little or no advertising about this – it just always has been – and so everyone figures it always will be...). About 500 or so people just turn up (more than actually live in the town) – kids will scramble over and under the overburdened few playground items. There will be a chocolate wheel and everyone will buy tickets to support the Cobargo Rural Fire Service. Santa will arrive in the local fire tanker (with full lights and siren – which must scare the hell out of poor unknowing tourists and bystanders!) – where he will give out balloons and ice-creams to all the local children. He will then preside over a variety of lolly scrambles before heading off on the back of the fire truck (more lights and siren action). The crowd disperses and all go home with thoughts of the Christmas day to come after the sleep.... Few will be thinking about where this tradition came from or what it is all about..... and few outside our small world will think of this quaint small moment as anything other than a quaint small moment.
This is the 60th year that this has happened – for 60 years my family has been the force behind the tradition.
Christmas 1949 my father's mother – my Nana Ayliffe - wrapped some little trinkets in Christmas paper, blew up a couple of dozen balloons and invited the local children to come down to the General Store on Christmas Eve for a 'christmas tree' party (I have no idea why it's called this...). My Ayliffe grandparents had moved to the township of Cobargo a few years earlier to take over the general store – they came with my father and his younger sister. I suppose her small gesture might have been seen as a way to ingratiate the family to the community....
But her gesture actually held a very sad tale, rarely retold to happy christmas crowds.
In 1942 my father's elder sister, Frances, suddenly, mysteriously, tragically died at 3 years of age. My Nana Ayliffe was understandably completely devastated – and never really got over her overwhelming loss. The family moved to Cobargo in the mid 1940s to make a new start – and my Nana dispensed little presents, balloons (and then also ice-creams - a rare treat in the early days of refrigeration!) in memory of her lost daughter – my unknown aunt Frances. As she told me when I questioned her sometime in the 1970s: 'well I would have spent this, and so much more on her anyway.....'
So every year since 1949 my family blows up a few hundred balloons, gives out a few hundred ice-creams and throws a few thousand lollies for the local kids to scramble after.
And each year I think of my Nana who found solace and renewal in a small act of giving.
Through this act and story I've come to understand that traditions don't start with a grand vision (I know my Nana never set out thinking that this was something that would still be happening 60 years down the track) – mostly they are understood retrospectively, when folk look backwards and forwards simultaneously – and realise the significance of a small act that recurs without much fanfare.
way to go nana! That'll hold back the hordes of kiddies!)
I hope to continue this Christmas tradition until my final days – and I hope it inspires my children (or dare I even imagine, grandchildren?) to do likewise.