Sunday, December 20, 2009

traditions (part two)

Warning warning warning - I'm about to tell you a rather sweet personal Christmas story that contains genuine christmasy sentimentality - it may cause sudden attacks of 'bah-humbug' in the less christmasy minded....

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.

(here I am with Santa and Nana A - Christmas Eve circa 1967)

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.

(sorry it's a terrible photo – its also from the late 1960s... and THIS is what Christmas looked like to me as a child – by Christmas Eve my Nana's entire staircase was a mass of balloons – hundreds of them were tied to the rungs. From about 7 years of age my Christmas Eve job was to maintain the balloon supply to Santa – a very responsible position and one I took very seriously - I was even allowed to use a nifty pocket knife to cut the balloon strings free.... I remember once threatening some interloper with that knife when they got too close to my balloons... decades later despite this 'incident' I'm still the balloon girl....)

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.

(Nana A and Santa and Cobargo kids - 1968 – check out my nan's mini dress....
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.

Merry Christmas everyone


  1. The point about traditions is(or should be!) that they hold personal relevance. All this commercial "must-have" is what drives me nuts.
    I like it when anything given, whether a gift or a greeting, is genuine.
    Clearly, your Nana was, even if she didn't realise it, starting a tradition founded in love.
    It's good to see it being upheld.

  2. What a wonderful tradition! I can't see anyone accusing you of sentimentality. What your family is doing is upholding your Nana's gift to your town and just from reading your blog posts it's obviously a community you love. This is one of those great stories that rarely get told. I'm so pleased you shared it with us.

  3. I just sent the link to your post to my local-historian mother, and I hope she properly documents it! I love all those little reminders that big things often start from small impulses.

    My memories of community Christmases revolve around army kids running around sports ovals trying to catch minties being chucked down by Santa in a military helicopter! We were also running to cut down the chance of being brained by the lollies, as they moved through the rotating air like bullets :)

  4. Hey Ronnie, that's a lovely story even though it's tinged with sadness. I have a vision of you as an old lady, wearing something outrageous, still dispensing lollies and balloons to the kids! Merry Christmas to you too and hope to catch up with you via the blogs soon, Sara x

  5. Great story Ronnie!
    I love that your Nan chose to give in order to find some consolation ... that she saw it as so important to make the gesture to other children ... some no doubt who'd perhaps have missed out on this sort of thing.
    It reminds me of a story I recall attributed to Buddha where a grieved mother who's lost her child had come to him to ask why she should suffer this loss. Is this familiar to you?
    He sent her off with the single mission to spend a period of time meeting people and hearing their story.
    She returned finally to tell Buddha that she'd come to realise everyone suffers and experiences loss... that if there is any point at all to loss it is in sensitising one to the suffering of others and being more compassionate and giving.
    So what a fine tradition... one that sounds like it truly binds people across time and place... rich with meaning and memory!
    Have a wonderful XMas and may you have a bright and prosperous 2012 !!


thanks for all your lovely comments - your words are greatly appreciated xx