I’ve been a very good boy all year

Multi armed goddess at Bhaktapur, Nepal, (writer’s picture).

Have you ever thought what it would be like to live your life as some sort of multi armed, Hindu deity? She who I share my breakfast table with probably knows. She’s often said she could do with an extra pair of hands about the place but maybe that’s got less to do with the domestic goddess in her and more to do with her ongoing passion for old keyboard instruments and the consequent number of fingers needed to bang out a tune on the same. At last count she owned three pianos of varying descriptions and in fluctuating playing condition. She also has a pedal pump parlour organ, a folding church reed organ and even a virginal style, rectangular harpsichord, but unless things have taken a turn in a decidedly Zaphod Beeblebrox direction lately, at last count she only had the usual issue of piano playing arms.

I’d been thinking there must be some other purpose for having all these keyboard instruments around our shared domicile, other than the obvious musical motif. Then it struck me. The folded up tops of those instruments are where the annual harvest of Christmas cards get deposited each and every December, come what may in the Yule tide Season. In the days before television and wireless when most homes owned an upright, the piano top was an obvious and apparently ready made shelf for all manner of things, albeit the place where the cat would sometimes jump to knock it all flying.

But that was then and fashions change. Nowadays the cat plays the piano on the internet while the piano itself has been replaced by an App on your lap top that will do just about the same thing with an on-screen keyboard. Pianos struggle to make a hundred dollars at auction and I’ve even seen them left out on the side of the road. It’s all a bit sad really but, more to the point, it’s not like anyone even sends out bundles of Christmas cards these days.

Christmas cards in a New York shop window, 1910. (Source: Wikipedia, from The New York Times photo archive)

Every year it seems our Christmas card list is pared back ever more and I don’t think that’s just a reflection on my dwindling list of friends, although maybe I should take that as a hint. I reckon I could now fit the Christmas card list onto the back of a postage stamp but wait, when’s the last time you actually saw a postage stamp outside of a philatelic album? The reasons for the decline are obvious and represent another change in societal fashion. Log onto Facebook or send an e-card out to your contacts and the job is considered done for another 12 months, and that’s without any of that tedious and unhygienic business of licking stamps, addressing envelopes or perish the thought, actually writing anything resembling a properly personalised message.

Christmas theatre programmes from Ocean Island.

My maternal Grandfather, Alfred St C Compton designed his own Christmas theatre programmes on Ocean Island in the Central Western Pacific in the 1920s. As with most things, there’s something to be said in favour of the effort required to achieve a little home grown originality although I must say, in my case I gave up making my own cards at about the time I paid a swan song to a much loved first car.

The Noddy car leaving Yallambie for the last time.
The “Noddy” car Christmas card.

I guess the decline in the popularity of the printed Christmas message could be seen as saving a tree from giving up its life to cardboard, but does it really have to be like this? A friend in the UK still sends me her “Advent Calendar” which is a series of emailed illustrations sent one day at a time in the days leading up to Christmas. They never seem to quite follow a Christmas theme but recipients on the CC list “Reply All” with stories inspired by the images. It’s quite random and evidence perhaps that there’s still room for creativity even inside the digital age.

Christmas card by Gibbs, Shallard & Co, 1881, from the collection of Michael Aitken. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
The world’s first commercially produced Christmas card, designed by John Callcott Horsley for Henry Cole in 1843. (Source: Wikipedia)

It has been recorded that the very first printed Christmas cards were created in England in 1843 for use in the newly founded penny postal service. This was about the time that the Bakewells were settling in to their new surroundings at the Plenty Station, Yallambee, but it wasn’t until three decades later at a time concurrent with the building of the present Homestead that the giving and receiving of cards at Christmas became widely accepted. At that time inexpensive, mass produced chromolithographic cards became available and these were posted to Australia by friends and family living back “home” or were imported directly into Australia for domestic use. These cards of course typically depicted scenes from a Northern Hemisphere winter, scenes that were somewhat at odds with the heat of an Australian summer or life in the bush, so it was not long before card manufacturers started producing cards in Australia with a distinctly Australian content.

Christmas postcard showing rural scene at Heidelberg, c1918. (Source: State Library of Victoria)

In the days when you might need a bank loan to place a long distance telephone call, the so called trunk call, letter writing and dropping a card of some description into the corner letter box was the easy and inexpensive alternative. There are people who probably still remember a time when the post man on his bicycle rode past their house with a delivery on Saturday. At Yallambie we share our Post Code number with neighbouring Macleod and while Yallambie has never had its own Post Office, the Simpson Barracks up the road apparently had an office located inside the camp before the postal services were removed about 20 years ago. Maybe they got confused by people continuing to incorrectly address mail to the garrison which is located in Yallambie, to Army personnel at the “Watsonia Barracks”.

But as for what people actually write at Christmas, the other day I was looking through a collection of old Christmas cards and turned up a couple of hand written notes that had been written to Father Christmas by a boy at some now long forgotten Christmas eventide. The story of the fox recalled to mind a recent post and brought back to me nostalgic memories from another time, a time before the boy stood six foot in his socks and when the magic of Christmas on Christmas night was very much a real thing.

It is said we all yearn for the Christmas times of our youth – a time of long, hot summers in Australia and a time when people still wrote those copious quantities of Christmas greetings. In those days the scent of spruce seemed to fill the house in the weeks leading up to Christmas, just as it does now. Somehow though the idea of a jolly fat, fellow dressed all in red and flying through the night sky on a sleigh pulled by magic reindeer, landing on the roof of your house and climbing down your chimney even if your house didn’t have a chimney, seemed not an altogether impossibility. In the uncertain world of today, maybe that is one thing that hasn’t changed.

Who am I to say?

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