While talking with a friend whose mother recently moved to Australia, she mentioned how the only thing her Mum couldn’t get her brain wrapped around was their bizarre version of Santa Claus. I’ll not spoil things by going into detail about what happens to Kris Kringle when Yuletide comes to a convict colony during summertime. Instead, I’ll leave it for a fine 'strine (or three) to guide us Northerners through the tortured folkloric tangle known as “The Jolly Swagman.”
Apparently I’m labouring under the misapprehension that “Guy in red suit with flying quadrupeds giving presents to children with nary a consideration to whether they’ve ACTUALLY been nice” is a distinctly Australian phenomenon.
Father Christmas == Santa Claus in every way except for the one I’ve just given reference to.
“Jolly swagman” is, IIRC, a portion of the lyrics to “Waltzing Matilda” which is a song about a sheep stealer who throws himself into a river so The Man doesn’t Bring Him To Justice. People want it as our national anthem. I’d actually prefer to get away from the “Nation of Criminals” look.
I must say I have the strangest feeling of air passing above my head…
Basically, there’s this swaggie (hobo) dossed down next to a billabong (a still-water part of a river) under the shade of a coolabah tree, when, to his delight, a jumbuck (sheep) pops down for a drink.
Thinking all his Christmas’ had come at once, he stuffs the sheep into his tuckerbag (hessian or canvas food-carrier) in the hope of cooking himself up a roast dinner later.
But then some trouble starts when a squatter (one of the privileged land-owner aristocracy who held title to said sheep) and a couple of troopers (police-men) happen along to witness the theft.
On attempts by the squatter and wallopers to question the swaggie about the current location of the sheep, the swagman chose to invoke his right to remain silent, and jumped into the billabong, crying, “you’ll never catch me alive!!”. Sadly, he died in the process, and now his ghost is to be heard (as you pass by the billabong) plaintively crying out “Who’ll come a’Waltzing Matilda with me?”
However, the political overtones (it was written by Banjo Patterson who was a social-commentator back in the late 19th C) relate more to the class struggle that was a defining force in Australian colonial history. The landed elites (who mostly aquired their weath through concessions by the govt.) and the working classes (who were entitled to no such privileges) were antagonistic towards the other: songs like Waltzing Matilda gave the common-man a ‘voice’ and eroded a little bit of the symbolic power of the squatters.
Even today, one of our defining characteristics as Aussies (IMHO) is our basic lack of reverence (some would say distrust) for those who claim privilege, while we correspondingly place larrikins and the working classes on a bit of a pedestal.
Sorry to disappoint you Zenster, but mostly our Santa Claus looks much like the dude that pops up in December round the rest of the world. In shopping centres, where the jolly fat bloke has to listen to whingeing 5 year olds recite off a list of chrissie presents that they expect to see under the tree, he is to be found wearing the fur-lined coat, hat and boots as the northern variety (despite the temp. being nearly 40 deg. c).
But much like the Bilby, who is vying to do the Easter Bunny out of business, we like to offer a bit of competition. Sometimes Santa will rock-up to Christmas parties with a swaggie hat (an Akubra with dangly-corks to keep out the blowies), a pair of Stubbies (footy shorts) and a Bluey (a sleeveless blue singlet) but with the traditional Santa red jacket so we at least have some idea who this yobbo is.
However, is THIS what you might be referring to by any chance?
Or this: fromOutback Santa by Brian Procopis (1999)
It’s hot here in December, Santa’s in his shorts and thongs,
He says to Rudolph, “Fly in low, we’ll skim those billabongs.”
And he doesn’t look for chimneys for flying backwards down,
He’ll just tiptoe up the back steps when there’s no-one else around.
No sense wondering where the bikkies or that glass of milk might be,
He’ll just settle for bush tucker and a pot of billy tea.
Over creaky wooden floorboards Santa quietly moves his feet,
And he’s hoping that those snappy cattle dogs will stay asleep.
Glad to be of assistance to our culturally-challenged northern friends…
I’ll bow out to kambuckta for any actual information about this guy, but I’d like to say that outside of the Waltzing Mathilda song*and a couple of kitschy paintings I’ve never heard of what you’re talking about.
*The gradeschool lyrics are so much better: "Waltzing Mathilda/Who bloody killed her/Lying in the grass/With a shovel up her arse… "
I’m not sure what a jolly swagman has to do with Xmas or Santa, Zenster. The term “jolly swagman” is probably best known here as being a character in a traditional Aussie folk song called Waltzing Matilda by Banjo Patterson. At school we were told the song was about a man who’d gone walkabout looking for a job. The title came from “Waltzing”, which more or less meant an apprentice who gained employment with master craftsmen in various towns. He earned his living as he went and slept where ever he could. When his apprenticeship was completed, he was no longer on the waltz, which meant he was qualified to practice as a tradesman in his own right. “Matilda”, was the name given to the swag they carried that kept them warm at night. A swagman was a name given to sheep shearers who were following the sheep shearing season by going from town to town seeking work on sheep stations. They basically got their name because they carried a swag - a rolled up blanket which held the tools of their trade and I guess they were called jolly because they did their back breaking work with wit and humour, despite the tough conditions they had to endure. kambuckta, I liked the link you posted. I’ll be singing that ditty all day now.
I don’t really mind Rolf. He’s kind of an interesting bloke. I remember seeing an interview with him and he talked about how he used to work at the blue asbestos mines at Wittenoon. He’s lucky he hasn’t died from asbestosis…though some people probably wished he had. Anyway, I’ve been trying to think of what Zenster was referring to. Maybe it is that song, TBU…or maybe someone was pulling that woman’s leg about what an Aussie Santa is.
Rolf Harris is part of our Cultural Cringe repetoire…people we transport offshore so they can bug the bejesus out of others. Like many others of his ilk though, no matter how much they make you shudder, ya’v gotta give 'em kudos for surviving in the cut-throat world of entertainment.
kambuckta has explained things perfectly. The only thing I can add is that the original origin of the phrase “waltzing matilda” isn’t entirely clear, although it certainly was used to mean carrying yer swag. There is a theory that it was a bawdy reference to the habits of nineteenth century outback gentlemen in a time and place where women were few and the sheep were plenty, if you get my drift. Seriously.
I’d also like to reinforce the idea that Christmas in Australia is a very traditional affair as far as the big stores, malls, and advertising go. Lots of fake snow, and (very sweaty) Santas. Indeed, one of my favourite memories, for its high bizarreness quotient, was working at a department store in Bondi Junction, and standing next to Santa Claus at the urinal in the staff toilets:
kambuckta, that version of “Jingle Bells” is nothing short of flippin’ hilarious. I’ll have to say it looks like someone was having a go around with me friend’s Mum.
I’m very happy to add that I have worn Akubra hats for donkey’s ears and regard them as among the finest toppers that are made. My first real brim was an Akubra Dunberkeley Austrailian army officer’s hat. Can you still get them at surplus shops down there? I’d trade what all to have another.