GEOCON High Society Masthead

Christmas cheer in the city

Catherine Carter

A few years back, I spent my Christmas holidays in Europe.

In Paris, the Eiffel Tower was lit up like a Christmas tree, the Champs-Élysées was lined with market stalls and children rode the carousels for free. In Rome, each narrow laneway was festooned with different decorations: strands of twinkling lights in one, red umbrellas in another. And London’s Oxford Street throbbed with shoppers bagging a last-minute bargain beneath sparkling Christmas lights.

Europeans know how to celebrate Christmas. Thinking back on the eggnog and glühwein, handcrafted ornaments and window displays got me thinking. What Christmas traditions could we embrace in Canberra?

Fiona Doherty, who hails from Ireland, is a director with quantity surveyor Rider Levett Bucknall. She loves the Nordic Christmas experience and said the first time she ever felt “Christmassy” was in Scandinavia.

“I think the lights, the little markets, and the mulled cider with a shot of gin might have helped me to get in the Christmas spirit,” she laughs.

Fiona says she “loves the community spirit” found in Christmas markets, and Johnathan Efkarpidis agrees.

The director of Molonglo Group, and a driving force behind the NewActon precinct, Johnathan loves Switzerland’s markets, with their artisan crafts, sweet treats and glowing candles. He’s been to beautiful candle markets where revellers young and small can handcraft their own.

The big Canberra Christmas tree that has been a feature of the Canberra city over the past few years is “all right”, Johnathan says, but “if you’re going to do a Christmas tree, it needs to be the most amazing tree with interesting lights, plants and beauty – not just surrounded by temporary fencing.”

Johnathan says the best giant Christmas trees aren’t just about size and shape, but about what is going on “at the ground plane”. “What is underneath the tree is what makes it special – seating, activities, plants, markets,” he says.

Johnathan also loves the mulled wine stores which appear on European streets at Christmas and suggests we could create our own special Christmas drink such as a cooling spritzer which could be sold at little pop-up shops around the city. “Imagine pop-up bars with drinks for both adults and kids alongside market stalls,” he says, “so you can take a break from your Christmas shopping the way the Italians do”.

Lisa Cahill, a local glass artist, has spent many Christmases in Copenhagen, as her mother is from Denmark.

“It’s really dark in Denmark at Christmas time, so it’s a very different landscape to Canberra. It’s very bleak because of the minus 20-degree temperatures.” Brightening the mood means candles illuminate the night, and red and white decorations – the same colours as the Danish flag – adorn each street.

People make intricate hand-cut love hearts and stars from paper, Lisa says. “While we go for tinsel and bright decorations in Australia, the Danes love simple and traditional,” Lisa adds “we could make some of Canberra’s laneways beautiful with hand-made decorations rather than tinsel.”

Lisa loves the concept of “hyggelig” at Christmastime in Denmark. “It’s about being cosy and warm”. Think crackling fires, warm socks and hot chocolate. “It’s like walking into a fairytale” Lisa adds.

While the temperatures outside in Canberra may be more conducive to swimming than snuggling, Lisa agrees that we can create our own Christmas traditions.

“We made our own wreath this year, with little gold baskets from Denmark, beautiful bits of ribbon, handmade ornaments and leaves from the big old pine tree outside my studio. We did that as a family.”

For Loulou Moxom, half of dynamic Moxom & Whitney floristry duo, Christmas decorations don’t need to be traditional, and we can use our climate to be creative. “I would love to see a Christmas tree suspended upside down,” Loulou says.

Belinda Whitney agrees, adding that beautiful gums can make the perfect Christmas tree. “There are so many ways we can make Christmas Australian,” she says. Canberrans should be thinking less of fir trees and turkey, and more about “belladonna lilies, Christmas bush and prawns,” Loulou adds.

Hoa Luu, the design manager for Ginninderry, moved to Australia from Vietnam when she was 10. She distinctly remembers buying her first Christmas tree from Kmart when she was 14, and a new Luu tradition was born. Today, the family still gets together of the festive period, and Hoa makes “rice paper rolls with left-over turkey” each year.

Médy Hassan loves the idea of hosting a “big Canberra Christmas lunch” that brings people from across the capital who would otherwise be at a loose end, perhaps because they have no family in Canberra.

“Canberra can be still be an isolating place for some people,” Médy, the managing director of Haus Holdings, says. “But we should change that by activating the city on Christmas Day. We could bring people together to be part of a bigger, broader family for the day which would create life and community spirit in an otherwise dead space.”

“Food is always one of those things that brings the community together,” he adds. “Imagine being able to welcome people to a big city Christmas lunch with all the traditional European foods such as roast turkey and fruit mince pies, while at the same time including wonderful food from Asia, together with traditional Mediterranean treats such as baklava and delicious, extra syrupy pastries.” That’s definitely an idea that will work for kids!

Gaelle Tregoning, my widely-travelled French friend who now lives in Canberra, Christmas carols in San Francisco are hard to beat. “There is a giant tree in the main square, and children singing – it’s quite inspiring,” she says.

While her childhood memories are of white Christmases, and “sliding in the snow on old doors”, Gaelle brings a touch of Europe to her celebrations with “lots of candles and baking”.

“I draw the shutters so its dark earlier because I like to pretend we’re in the dark. And I still have my little snowman.”

Ann Jakle, community engagement specialist with Telstra, grew up just outside Chicago.

“The Magnificent Mile in Chicago is just spectacular at Christmas time. The window displays of the department stores are so magical,” and there is a great anticipation among shoppers keen to witness the “big reveal”.

No one does Christmas lights like the Americans, Ann says.

“Some are tasteful, some are bold and brash, but every home has some kind of Christmas lighting.” Ann wonders why it doesn’t translate in Australia. “Sometimes you see a couple of streets in Canberra that do lights, but it’s not the same – the dressing of the house, the wreaths on the front door, the incredible attention to holiday detail” is what Ann misses.

In America, “there’s this real hunkering down in the home and you do things as a family at Christmas. Every year, we used to listen to Cinnamon Bear, a radio series from the 1920s created to be listened to six days a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Watching festive films like Christmas on 42nd Street, Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life was also a special Christmas tradition”. Could we have outdoor film screenings in Canberra of Christmas favourites, Ann wonders?

She also points to the choirs and “people outside singing, which you don’t come across much here”, and the parades with “amazing giant floats” that create a street-party atmosphere. Perhaps something to consider for our new arts precinct?

Some of the events being held in Canberra over the next few weeks are cause for Christmas cheer. Glebe Park is being transformed into an enchanted wonderland with 65 Christmas trees, while Acton Peninsula is hosting an Aboriginal art market. So, join your fellow Canberrans in celebrating the festive season, and helping us to create our own Christmas traditions.


Catherine Carter

A lover of books and beauty, a seasoned traveller and a creative thinker, Catherine Carter is passionate about Canberra. Head of the Property Council of Australia’s Canberra office for more than a decade, Catherine now provides specialist business and communication consultancy services with a focus on urban environments, new forms of collaboration, community building and diversity. Catherine was the recipient of the Telstra Business Women’s ACT Community and Government Award in 2010 and the National Association of Women in Construction Crystal Vision Award in 2017. More about the Author