Tales of Christmas in the Rocks
With the aura of Christmas waltzing in the air, 107 Presents and The Rocks teamed up to create an installation that celebrated Christmases gone by in The Rocks.
We took you on a Christmas journey through history with poetry by Tug Dumbly, alongside artworks by 107 artists and designers. We explored The Rocks in 1820 from the eyes of a child, cheered on Donovan in 1933 playing backyard cricket on Boxing Day and joined Sonia in the year 2000 as they share their family’s Christmas cooking tips for savouries and sweets.
Christmas in the Bush
Ma’ma instructs me not to wander. Mr Benedict is due at noon for my lesson. But he is always late, and red and fussing. Arabella is busy in the kitchen, ghostly with flour, kneading our pudding. Ma’ma is pink with despair that we must have fish rather than fowl for our Christmas lunch. She does not see me leap the stream and explore where the bush fairies dream. Such strange sights I’ve never seen! A deafening cathedral of grey-green trees, whose spires kiss a harsh blue sky. They worship a spitting yolk of sun that makes me freely perspire.
I tear my stockings on brambles, blacken my hands and face on charcoaled stumps, as I stumble over hidden rocks. Above a swooping magpie flock and for a moment I am frightened and fear I am lost. This foreshore teems with alien life, and seems indifferent to my small being. A beetle whizzes to my breast but my terror turns to wonder at its rainbow hue. I reach the edge of the harbour, dive into a vast, empty, glittering blue. This is now my secret spot where Christmas is made anew.
Why not Christmas in July?
Dear Sir, we are aghast at this hot Southerly Christmas, so far from breast of Mother Empire – no snow, no coats, no partridge shoot, no frosted cheeks, no play on ice. The only fire the bush ablaze and cruel joke of double-roasted meat, dust, flies, mosquitoes, and, blast it, man! This infernal heat! Dear Governor! Dear God! Think upon our English Reason. Our dear Lord, after all, was born in a cold season. I therefore, propose a small change of date, that we might celebrate his birthday in July.
Then we, poor exiles, might coolly preserve the true scriptural spirit of His winter nativity, and ancient holy-day customs of our Fathers. Woe that our young should forget our traditions! No, if forgo we must our sacred Christmas rites of skating, shooting and snow, then grant us at least a climate fit for digesting a hot bird with stuffing. For in this steamed heat the pudding is melting! Grant us caroling and churching before a merry grate. Surely our Saviour would not deny us this simple change of date?
Bessy and Dolly
Dolly barely believes this bustling harbor! She sits up in my arms, wide-eyed at these great ships that crowd the skirt of The Rocks. They have come from the Americas, the Orient, the Indies – impossible places beyond the sea. Sun and sky sparkle through masts and sails, foreign flags fly in the Christmas breeze. Tattooed sailors cry like gulls from ropes, merchants crawl like ants over docks, loading wagons with dresses, tables, shovels, clocks … a thousand things for our colony. Dolly too came by sea, on the Hampden from London, with Father’s wares.
Back at his shop, Father swears at a red-faced sailor over a shirt’s cost. We sneak next door to George Ah Lan’s. He is a friendly man. His store smells of spice. He smiles, with three brown teeth, from behind tea and oranges, and smokes his sweet pipe. His wife, Chin Shen, unloads tobacco and rice. She twitters at George, like an angry bird. He just smiles, ‘ah, Miss Bessy! Fo’ you some huo yao come’! My heart leaps as he reaches deep for a dark red box – rockets! Fizgigs! Roman candles! I squeeze my friend tight, ‘oh, Dolly, do you see? Our Christmas fireworks!’ We are in ecstasy!
A long dark time of death and plague. This year our Queen, and then my Henry, taken by the sea. Before that the rat contagion, the worst of it gone. Yet still we cling on, like oysters to these rocks, in fear of the slum clearance, and the demolition man’s knock. Yes, it might be worse, regardless we soldier on. Yesterday two charity marms left Christmas alms. I ain’t too proud to take their basket of taters and turnips and clothes. Today young Annie found a posy of Christmas Bells – hardly much crushed – they glittered by the gutter down near Rowe Street’s flower shop.
They take centre stage in our decorations laid. I have knitted my six kids each a stocking to fill with trinkets and treats. The little ones deck our walls with shiny found scraps, and streamers and stars cut from newspaper sheets. We’ll make much from little, and keep the Christmas habit. But now with great rush the front door flies in and children pour in screaming! Their brother Arthur stand panting, beaming – in each hand a fat rabbit! Ha, my boy! Christmas joy is in such surprise makings!
Christmas under the bridge
Hoy! Jacko, Charlie, Billy, Sam… bottoms up chums! Ahh, this beer’s colder than that barmaid’s thumb. Well bloody done! Today I reckon we defined the mettle of the man. And so I dips me lid to a hot fought game. Gen’lemen, here’s to the first – if unofficial – The Rocks Boys Brigade Boxing Day Test, played best and fair in good sport – mostly – on the noble brown paddock under our Harbour Bridge’s glorious new span! Now, some strokes were ungainly, and the scorekeeping loose. Might have been sixteen-a-side at one time, and then Granger – you goose!
– thought he’d clench the day with a ball from Jardine’s book of dirty Pommy tricks. But his body-line bumper got its just reward – smashed sailing for six into the setting sun, by our celebrated tailender – and special guest – Mr ‘Hooky’ O’Shea. Now that was a cricket match! And so, fellow sportsmen and scholars, up she goes and down the hatch – here’s to a beautiful end to a bloody great day’s play! The first of many noble games of cricket on Boxing Day.
Hard Earned Gift
With the lunch rush done, I plead leave from my beetle-browed papa, I stow my apron and speed from the milk bar, down through The Rocks to brother Christos fishing at the wharf. Gold light glints on the chip oil faintly spattered on thin wrists. And me thinks of the cuff links and the leopard pendant in the David Jones window. Coins jingle and chink as I outrun a tram. Nearly a year to scrimp and save, whole family gave. All the milk bar staff went in on this – mama and papa’s special gift. Christos is sulky, squints after a ferry. He’s caught just one fish – a tiny bream, gasping its last on the hot splintered jetty.
Its brilliant glitter urges ideas on. So I pluck up the fish, chucks it back in the harbor, grabs my protesting brother’s rod and wrist and drags him back uptown, towards the gifts in that shining window, towards the coming Christmas, when for a day, at least, a small house in Sydney becomes a small village in Greece, crammed with a feast of family and friends, of singing and dancing, sweet biscuits and lamb, with the war and hard work in some other place. And then the presents, and the best gift the astonishment on my mama and papa’s face.
Billy Carts and Sprinklers’ Spray
It’s too hot to trot, but all along Lower Fort Street kids skip under the sprinklers’ spray as billy carts rush past in a blaze. Less ya give me a go, I cries. ‘Fair crack’ whines Tom. ‘Billy carts ain’t kid’s stuff, y’know!’ But then we’re drowned by the howl of our big brother Ben, blazin’ by in Kamikaze – knocked up from a fruit box and my old pram. Only problem’s stoppin’ at the bottom, not stackin’ it in the harbour.
Big brother Ben’s a red blur, like Santa’s sleigh, racin’ them cars crawlin’ like Chrissy beetles over the new expressway. While tears keep running away. ‘Stop bawlin!’ snaps Tom. ‘Ya could fry an egg on the letter box, it’s that hot! Cripes, everyone else loved the sprinklers’ splash! Your whingeing is like a stinking heat rash!’
Carts are dragged back to the top of the Observatory Hill. Tom’s next to race. I looks from his hard brown feet to his choice-torn face. He lifts me off the rail and says: ‘Quit grizzlin. Ya can race with me, Grace.’ Soon we’re doing a hundred, screaming free, hot wind ripping through my hair. Hey Tom look at me go! Whoa, whoa, WHOA!!!!
Pop Rocks The Rocks
Chrissie goes off at Pop’s place down the Rocks. ‘Poppas got Poppers!’ screams Evie, pulling more from his present pile of hankies and socks. He already wears the Ninja Turtles t-shirt young Ollie gave, though a bit loose on his old wharfie frame. Evie claps as Beth lets rip another, exploding a spider web of streamers over her Pop, and this lorikeet flock of his rellies and friends now… now spilling from his place into the pink dusk of the Rocks. ‘Red sky at night, Santa’s delight’. They clink. They drink to the harbor, laid out like an angel’s table. ‘Million buck view’, says Pop. ‘I bin here since ’52, and only leavin’ in a box’.
There’s three of his kids then their kids, crazy on snakes and coke, playing tricks on Pop’s many colourful mates. Another propper rains streamers on the king prawns and fairy bread. ‘Hey, who wants ta pull me finger?’ shouts Pop, with a Ninja Turtle move. Kids squeal. ‘Oh Daaad, stop!’ laughs Deb. ’Well jeeze, I’m glad you’re not the chef on this merry Christmas Eve, your girlfriend does a much better job,’ says Pop, scoffing another Bo Bia spring roll that Bian’s made. Bian laughs, then points. ‘Hey, look kids!’ Over the bridge a crimson contrail plays. ‘Must mean Santa’s on his way’.
Christmas and Free
Millennium Bug didn’t arrive, but she did. She steps, fresh, from shower to balcony, and tastes… Freedom! So blissfully strange. Her skin tingles in the warm wind. She’s an eagle up here, the harbor below her glittering reign. But eagles don’t have designer eyries, or the luxury of sushi and Moet champagne. They won’t sweeten their beaks on the profiteroles she’s made for her Sex and the City besties – two old, two new – due to toast Christmas in her chic new domain. They taught her to party in this Olympic year, her blooming like the flowering of the city’s good cheer.
All made possible because she won the job! She bites her lip again at the dream – three nail-chewing interviews, then the call: ‘You’re leading the team!’ Yes, free of school, and insane degrees, and study weekends under lock and key, and the loving whip of her parents’ academic zeal. Free of suffocating brothers in that suburban box, now she has views looking over The Rocks. She zips up her black frilled Prada cocktail frock, and blushes, like a passion fruit, to blurt out loud: ‘Bara Din Mubarrak Ho…! Yo! Merry Christmas to all, now let’s go boogie on the dance floor!’
Red and Green Picnic
A sea of red and green, that’s this charity picnic theme. It’s like a giant’s butter knife spread an avalanche of Christmas elves, like strawberry jam, across the grass of this Dawes Point lawn. Or a South’s footy match, with supporters tipped from the grandstand onto a field of festive rugs, under a menagerie of monster balloons – Santas, kangaroos, Christmas trees – bouncing in the harbour breeze, bopping along with this fizzy crew to the tune of a mad rhumba, blasted by a band of the swingin’est Grinches you’ve ever seen. It’s to raise dough for sick kids, and everyone’s come out to play – Peter Pan, Robin Hood, Yoda, Shrek …
‘Hey, you got a permit, Kermit?’ jokes the MC from the stage. There are Santas and satans and a Red Queen – ‘Off with the frog’s head’! she screams, as the MC hollers ‘Today, for the Children’s Hospital, we’ve raised over ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS!… now get ready teams, for the biggest tug-o-war the world’s ever seen!’ It’s red versus green, as a giant snake of charitable givers saws back and forth, pulling each other, laughing like kids, into the beautiful mess of a red and green jelly lake. Christmas is about what you give, not what you take.
It’s old tech meets new, as the James Craig sails an IT crew under the bridge, into the glittering net of a fat orange moon. The Rocks and The Quay are lit like a fairyland. Ferries, like lit harmonicas, scarper. The Opera House is praying nuns, swirling with gulls, like scraps of paper. Mary’, the CEO is in fine form. She tosses back her hair, plants her foot on a barrel of rum and growls like a pirate:’ This is all about you me chums. It’s been a blissful trip for our feisty FireFly. Our little tech startup hit the market running, and now floats high as this old boat. Our ship’s come in!
‘We kept our heads while other startups lost theirs. We stole triumph from disaster, took talent from Berlin, Boston … hell, for Mr. Tarik Young, we went as far as Wollongong!’ There is laughter aplenty and strong spirits on the Craig. The celebrity chef slaves in the gallery at Salt Beef & Ship’s Tack. Fat bonus bags swing form a rack. ‘And now,’ says Mary, ‘Our high-tech band’. Squeezebox & fiddle begin a nautical jig. ‘C’mon’, me hearties my tip top team who win… let this pirate party begin!’
Christmas All Wrapped Up
A chorus of cicadas sing a soundtrack to our summer,
the humming of our Christmases past.
Let us wrap ourselves in nostalgia,
and open ourselves with lasting laughter…
Where the harbour hugs the Rocks.
107 Presents would like to recognise the efforts of the following contributors:
Creative Director Jess Cook
Project Management Miquela McGuiness
Poet Tug Dumbly
Artists, Designers and Builders