Katrina Hall speaks to some of Melbourne's favourite people about Christmases of the past.

Christmas stories

15:23:PM 25/11/2010
Katrina Hall

GORGI COGHLAN

It’s not surprising multitalented performer and television host Gorgi Coghlan spent her childhood Christmases around a piano. Coghlan, a presenter on Channel Ten’s morning show The Circle and a regular on The 7pm Project regular, grew up on a sheep farm in Warrnambool and Christmases at her grandparents were always filled with songs.

“My cousin Philip would play the piano, my relatives and I would harmonise together and the in-laws were always made to do a performance. My mum used to play the piano accordion ... so daggy but fabulous. For as long as I can remember my grandfather would sing Amazing Grace and my grandmother would do the highland fling – at 80-plus years old, mind you.

“They've both since passed away but I will never forget the special memories of Christmas they gave me and my extended family. Our Christmases were never about gifts and materialistic things, it was always about sharing the love of music and enjoying each other's company; this was the greatest gift of all and I really want to pass this on to my children one day.”

Gorgi is planning to stock up on sleep this Christmas before her first baby arrives in January. “My girlfriends tell me to sleep as much as I can now ... it's the calm before the storm ... I also have the best excuse to have double helpings of everything this year ... my waistline is already gone ...”

Favourite Christmas present? Why?

"My darling husband gave me the most beautiful antique wardrobe for our first Christmas together. It was significant because it was his way of saying that he wanted me to move in with him and take our relationship to the next level of commitment, which was very romantic and it meant a lot to me. It was an example of the old 'actions speak louder than words' and it made me fall further in love with him. It's a really stunning piece of furniture and I'll cherish it forever.

I was living between Melbourne and Ballarat and tossing up my future plans, so this certainly helped cement everything."

Worst Christmas present?

"No, even 'questionable' gifts come from a good place in someone's heart. It's always the thought that counts."

Your favourite Christmas foods?

"My absolute favourite is pork crackling ... nothing better ... followed by a huge serving of Christmas pudding with loads of brandy custard. Heaven."

RED SYMONS

For Red Symons, Christmas is predictably bah! humbug! Presents exchanged between the grumpy old ABC radio breakfast announcer and his three sons, Joel, Raphael and Samuel, usually come wrapped in the receipt, with the shopping-tag intact. “My kids approach Christmas with the same level of enthusiasm as me,” he says. “We always put the receipt on the outside of the present, so it can be exchanged.”

As a kid, Red spent Christmas Day working. His dad was the resident social photographer at Emerald’s much-loved Cuckoo Restaurant and Red would go along to help, processing film in a makeshift darkroom in the back of the family Volkswagen.

Christmases for the Symons family were celebrated on Boxing Day, and that day remains a favourite on Symons' festive calendar because “it means it’s all over”.

“The only time Christmas really works is when your kids are between five and eight, and genuinely understand there are such things as presents and are genuinely excited by the prospect. When the kids are older, the only thing left to buy them is cars – there’s nothing they haven’t got.”

These days the former Skyhooks guitarist and his family spend Christmas with wife Elly’s extended Greek family. “They’re tribal. It will be somebody's turn to have Christmas and the whole tribe will turn up.” Red’s carefully constructed stooge façade unravels slightly when discussing some of the family’s Greek food traditions – dolmades served in zucchini flowers seems a particular favourite.

But the sentiment doesn’t last long. “Whatever we have, it’s usually on a spit,” he says. “I never know what it is I’m eating.”

Best Christmas present?

"Nothing. I remember feeling guilty as a child for receiving presents. I probably thought present giving was frittering away the family’s common wealth. Creepy isn’t it."

Worst Christmas present?

“Everything I’ve paid for that I didn’t want. The worst thing about presents is paying for them and then knowing they’ll be discarded by my kids within hours.”

Favourite Christmas food?

"Actually, I recommend kippers 365 days of the year. You just grill them and then eat them. I eat them whenever I can. Makes you really intelligent."

MOLLY MELDRUM

Australia’s favourite music personality spends Christmas Eve preparing a traditional Christmas feast for about 40 friends, who descend on Molly’s Richmond home on Christmas night for an annual Christmas party that is as renowned as it is raucous.

The guest list is made up of friends who don’t have families nearby, or who spend Christmas alone. And everyone knows to bring gifts for Molly’s much-loved dog, Ziggy. (Molly has had four dogs named Ziggy – this one is just over a year old).

“Last year Ziggy got a St Kilda rug, which he loves to sit on. He also gets Christmas bones and new collars,” Molly says.

Molly grew up in various towns around country Victoria, including Orbost and Kyabram, and his family celebrated Christmas the traditional way, with turkeys, hams and plum puddings. While he serves similar fare at his own Christmas shindigs, he refrains from filling the pudding with sixpences and shillings. “I’m terrified someone will choke,” he says.

Usually, Molly spends Christmas lunch with one of his “second families” – the Foxes or the Gudinskis. “Sue Gudinski does the most amazing Christmas spread, with all the decorations and trimmings,” he says. “And then I race home to cook dinner for my friends.”

This year’s party, however, will be a quiet affair, and for good reason. Following the controversy surrounding an extended, all-night, end-of-season Melbourne Storm party that left neighbours complaining furiously, Molly is aiming to keep the noise levels low.

“I usually have a party every year for Storm,” he says. “But this year was different and because it was the end of the season and the boys were going away, we had the party on a Sunday night, forgetting that mad-Monday was the next day, so it went a bit over time.”

“So it won’t be a loud one this year. We might have the Mariah Carey and Susan Boyle Christmas albums on, but they’ll be definitely on low.”

Favourite Christmas present?

"I’m great at giving presents, but terrible at receiving them. One time it took me a whole year to open my Christmas presents."

Worst Christmas present?

"One year, Yael’s (Molly’s personal assistant) present disappeared. That was really the worst."

ROBERT DOYLE, LORD MAYOR OF MELBOURNE

For lord mayor Robert Doyle, the best Christmas memories are from when his three children were young. “We used to spend the holidays in Anglesea, and (first wife) Jenny and I and the kids would have a big family lunch and then go down to the beach to see Father Christmas arrive on a surf boat to give lollies to all the kids.”

These days, Doyle celebrates Christmas a few days early, while Christmas Day is reserved for helping out at the Salvation Army’s annual Christmas lunch for the homeless at Docklands. “There are a lot of people I really enjoy talking to there,” Doyle says. “(The Salvation Army’s) Brendan Nottle is one of the great unsung heroes of Melbourne and this is something I really like to do, but on the quiet.”

Doyle grew up in Myrtleford, in those days a tobacco-producing town. His parents were divorced and his mother supported her three children (Doyle has two younger sisters) by hairdressing. The family lived in a small flat behind the salon, and Christmases were alternated between there and his father's house at the beach.

While Doyle grew up feasting on traditional Christmas fare (mostly turkey, but one year his mother roasted a goose), his preferred Christmas lunch is what he calls the "Australian seafood lunch". "On a hot day, that’s my favourite – local fresh crayfish.”

Favourite Christmas present?

"I was eight or nine, and it was a brand new Malvern Star two-wheeler. Money was tight, and I don’t know how mum did it. This was a very sophisticated bike – instead of the cow-horn handlebars, it had a straight handlebar, which was the ultimate in bike technology. I rode it to school every day."

Worst Christmas present?

"Don’t know you’d call it a present, but a few years ago I had to have a major back operation on Christmas Eve, so spent that Christmas Day in a fair degree of pain."

Christmas recipe tip

"I have a real weakness for plum pudding with hard sauce. I put custard, ice-cream and sauce on my plum pudding. The pudding is really just the garnish."

KATE CEBERANO

Clearly, this is a special time for songstress Kate Ceberano – she has just released a Christmas album to prove it. But for her, the best thing about Christmas is being able to tune out of performance mode.

“To sit and not have to perform but simply relax into my role as one of the clan. I love each and every one of my family members so much I inhale them in and stock them up for when times get a little busy in the new year. They are quite eccentric and colourful like my favorite Christmas movie,” she says.

This year, half of the Ceberano clan will be spending Christmas in Sydney – a “blasphemous” situation, tempered by the fact that Kate’s brother, Paul, will be bringing new baby Luka to the Melbourne gathering. New puppy Banjo will also help fill the gaps.

But old habits die hard. Brother Phil usually quotes an old war-time poem, continuing a tradition begun by her late grandfather. "It’s “about a soldier who had been relegated to scrubbing pots and pans because he's ‘dreaming of my darling love of thee’. It's pretty moving considering our grandpa is no longer with us. And my other brother has taken on his role as Santa.

“And all the gals have been charged with puddings (takes a few of us to fill grandma Kath's place) and we often invite a stray back for lunch . When (comedian) Jimeoin had just recently arrived from Ireland, we had him come for lunch. He was of course charming and hilarious. We’ve made a habit of it since.”

Favourite Christmas present?

"Any present that has been thoughtfully offered as an expression of love, rather than the ‘what do you give a girl that's got everything’ card attached to a bar of soap. I'd be just as happy to have my husband wrap himself up with a bow and card that says "EAT ME". But that might frighten the children."

Worst Christmas present?

"Actually, I can't remember a bad Christmas present ... You'd be a pretty grinchy kinda gal if ya did, I reckon."

Favourite recipe?

"I highly recommend Nigella Lawson's Christmas ham marinade. Makes a ruby red, sweet and spicy ham … perfect for a hot Aussie backyard Christmas."

PARIS WELLS

Soul-funk singer Paris Wells may be taking Melbourne by storm, but she grew up at Maroubra Beach in Sydney, “oblivious to the gang wars going on there at the time”.

As a child, the singer-songwriter enjoyed idyllic Christmases in the sun at Sydney’s Bronte Beach, playing cricket with about 30 family members and friends, eating prawns and copious other things. “Any female from my family can devour half a barbecue chicken along with two snags and some lobster. If this is a tradition, then amen,” she says.

Wells, who sang the St Kilda team song at the opening of the first 2010 grand final and has supported the likes of Justin Timberlake and Jamie Lidell, started out as a DJ while making money selling advertising space in the early part of the decade.

She moves quickly though, and not only on stage – her song Grace Baby was picked up for a Myer advertising campaign, and she received the Big Day Out's Jessica Michalik contemporary music endowment last year.

Hopefully, she’ll be taking time out from promoting her second album, Various Small Fires, to consume her favourite Christmas foods – ham, lobster, pudding and champagne, and relax. “The best thing about Christmas is the vibe of the community – no one seems to be in a rush and for a brief moment, the rat race rests.”

Favourite Christmas recipe?

Old Christmas Cake Pudding:

1 x old dry Christmas fruit cake sliced

1x good quality port

1x tub of cream

"Heat port over cake in microwave, serve with cold cream or custard. Seems way harder to make than it actually is."

Best Christmas present?

"My green Sony tape-playing boom box with detachable mic. Mum and dad gave it to me when I was about five. It was Whitney and Janet concert time right there in my mirror."

Worst Christmas present?

"A soap basket regifted. My lazy cousin got it for me in Kris Kringle, so the following year I rigged the Kris Kringle so I had to purchase his gift, which was a stolen/broken gnome from my neighbour's garden and was covered in bird poo. I wrapped it in newspaper and watched in delight as he opened it ... An elephant never forgets."

MORGAN BAKER

What kid doesn’t look forward to Christmas? And like most children his age, Morgan Baker can’t wait. This year he is hoping for a remote-controlled car.

“I want one every year,” he says. “I usually have them for a month and then for some reason they either stop or break.”

But Baker, who plays Callum Jones on Neighbours, is not like most kids. The 11-year-old has already appeared in several films and TV series, including Underbelly, and has played the precocious Jones since 2008. With such a busy filming schedule, Morgan looking forward to taking a break and relaxing at the beach with his family and friends. The eldest of three brothers, he also looks forward to an annual Boxing Day get-together with his cousins and extended family.

For Morgan, there are other great things about Christmas – not just the presents and holidays. A keen cook (his specialty is chicken and leek pie), he loves Christmas food. “Besides the giving and receiving,” he says, “I do like having the roast. Sometimes my nan cooks it, sometimes mum – but we all work together in the kitchen. I peel the potatoes.”

Best Christmas present?

"When I was five I got my first bike. It was a Mongoose. It took me a few weeks before I could take the training wheels off."

Worst Christmas?

"Once during the summer holidays I had gastro. I’m sitting there with my hydrolite icypoles while everyone’s eating the roast. That was really terrible."

KAIYA JONES

Born in Scotland, 14-year-old Kaiya Jones loves living in one of the most famous neighbourhoods in Australia – and especially loves Christmas here.

Kaiya migrated with her family in 2005 and within a year had lost her Scottish accent. Her first acting role was in The Saddle Club, and she has been playing Sophie Ramsay on Neighbours for almost two years.

A passionate animal lover, (Kaiya is a supporter of the Australian Orang-utan Project) it’s no surprise her best ever Christmas was last year, when she found a piece of paper under the tree announcing she was about to get a dog. Only problem is she had to wait until the puppy was born.

Ruby, a cavoodle (Cavalier King Charles spaniel crossed with a poodle), arrived in January. “My family travelled 3 1/2 hours to get her, and we had to wait weeks before she was old enough to be away from her mother, but she was the best Christmas present ever.”

This year Kaiya is hoping for something more simple. “Probably just some stationery or a 2011 diary to keep myself on track.”

She also looks forward to spending Christmas night with family. “My second aunty makes a Christmas pudding with chocolate-cookie dough, it is really yummy. I like making ginger bread houses, too. It’s just fun to relax with the family, hang around, and eat nice food."

Best Christmas present?

"My dog Ruby."

Worst Christmas present?

"I wouldn’t like to say. I don’t want to upset anyone."

VERITY HUNT-BALLARD

If you’re Mary Poppins, do all your Christmas wishes come true? For Verity Hunt-Ballard, who plays the world’s favourite nanny in the hit production currently showing at Her Majesty's, Christmas is great whether you’re magic or not.

For her, it is a time to reflect on all that is good in the world – and this has certainly been a stellar year for the musical-theatre performer. Hunt-Ballard’s credits include productions of Jersey Boys and The Rocky Horror Show and many productions in her home city of Adelaide, but winning the sought-after lead in this blockbuster musical is certainly the highlight of her career.

An only child, Christmas mornings were relatively calm affairs. “It was a tradition in our family to have choral music playing on Christmas morning. We’d sit around the Christmas tree exchanging carefully selected presents.”

The atmosphere ramped up later in the day, when lunch was spent with cousins, aunties and uncles at her maternal grandmother's houses. Her father is from Northern Ireland and his family remains there.

“Because I live in Australia and we’re such a multicultural diverse country, I think Christmas is a time to spend with loved ones and family and remember the important, simple parts of life. I think it is important to know the origins of Christmas, but Christmas for me is a time of gratitude and love.”

Spoonful of sugar, anyone?

Favourite Christmas present?

"Very stereotypical, I know, but when I was nine my parents bought me a pink bike.

"My dad helped me learn to ride it properly and it was well loved over the next few years as I rode it all the time with my little friend down the street, who had a blue bike to match."

Favourite Christmas foods?

"Turkey with cranberry sauce. I have to say I am not a fan of Christmas pudding but I love custard, so just a bowl of custard for me for dessert."

ROBYN BUTLER

Robyn Butler, star and creator of the television comedy show The Librarians, is a "sucker" for Christmas. “I’m not at all religious, but I love the ritual of friends and family putting on a kilo or two that you had to get rid of in January.”

Butler, who grew up in Sydney, used to spend Christmas lunch with Seventh-Day Adventists. “My father’s family didn’t drink alcohol, eat pork of shellfish. It was still always fun, but you could sense the palpable relief in my family as we drove from there across to my mother’s pagan side of town. We’d spend the evening with her family, where beer, prawns and pork crackling were, in fact, part of the religion.”

These days she and husband Wayne Hope, who also plays her husband on the hit ABC show, take a break from running their production company Gristmill, to make Christmas really special for their family – it’s a tradition Butler has carried on from fond memories of her own childhood Christmases.

“I remember one Christmas when my mother made a whole wardrobe of dolls' clothes and my father made wooden cradles. Everything was laid out all over the lounge room and it looked like a toy shop. Even when they didn’t have much money, my parents always went to a lot of trouble to make Christmas very special. I really like making a fuss for my kids too."

Favourite Christmas present?

"I absolutely loved the doll, named Jan Brady, I’m holding in this photo. Like TV’s Jeannie, Samantha and obviously Jan Brady, she had long blonde hair and huge blue eyes, both of which I was desperately keen to have. All the girls at my pre-school had long hair but my mother kept mine short so it would ‘thicken up’.

"My parents gave the the doll when I was five. My big sister and I were given identical dolls and we played with them all summer until I accidentally broke off Jan’s legs and secretly swapped Jan for my sister’s still-intact doll. She really was the most patient sister in the universe."

Worst Christmas present?

"Bongo drums. Twice.

"When I was in my early twenties my mother went through quite a long phase of buying all our presents from Community Aid Abroad, which is a very nice thing to do, but after I received my second pair of bongo drums in as many years, along with a bamboo xylophone and a wooden piccolo, I really had to remind her that I was trying to be an actor and not a busker in Nimbin."

Favourite Christmas foods?

"I’m a modernist. I like barbecues and seafood. And ice-cream. Not necessarily with the seafood."


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