A few years ago I found myself in Adelaide, Australia in the days before Christmas. Because I’d been traveling around the continent, including in the searing outback of South Australia, Christmas was pretty far from my mind. But I encountered something in Glenelg, a seaside suburb of Adelaide, that brought many things home to me. My account of this experience, reproduced below, originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and on the Travelers’ Tales web site.
Christmas Carols in Adelaide
I didn’t have high hopes for Adelaide. No one I knew had ever said anything good about it. They’d raved about Melbourne and Sydney, even Darwin, but Adelaide hadn’t generated much enthusiasm. So I planned just one quick overnight before heading up to the tropical Northern Territory after a week in the arid outback of South Australia.
I was staying six miles from Adelaide’s city center in Glenelg, right on the beach at the end of a streetcar line adjacent to Moseley Square. The December sun was still high above the sea when I looked out my window and saw the party going on. The wide, brown beach was full of people enjoying themselves. The sea was calm, a bay without breakers, and people were strolling along a jetty that reached far out into the harbor. I was hot, tired, and dirty after a long ride from the outback, and it took a heartbeat to decide the best way to cool off was to go for a swim in the sea.
The water caressed me as I swam back and forth, floated endlessly under the blue sky wondering if I should just stay there until the sun went down. I didn’t, but after I took a shower and looked out my window again, I knew I had to be outside. It was one of those moments when everything conspired to create good feelings: the balmy evening, the sunset, the people enjoying the festivity of simply being out together seemingly with no cares.
I strolled along the jetty with toddlers testing their legs, kids chasing each other, adolescents and singles strutting their stuff, parents and infants and grandparents all out in a display too wholesome to be believed. Summer dresses, bathing suits, rollerblades, fine figures of both women and men, it was all there, bathed in the end of a fine summer day. The sun was a red dome on the horizon, rays shooting up from beneath the sea illuminating high clouds in breaths of fire. For a moment everyone fell silent in awe, except for the daredevils leaping from a platform where a sign read, “Diving or Jumping from Jetty Prohibited.”
I exchanged glances with a handsome grandmother in a blue sun dress and soon she was looking over my shoulder as I scribbled in my notebook.
“Oh, I thought you were sketching,” she said, both embarrassed and disappointed to see that I was a mere note taker.
“No, I’m afraid that’s a talent that’s escaped me.”
“Are you from the States?” she asked, and then we were off and running. She told me about her visit to relatives in Florida, how she was afraid to be in New York alone, about her son who competed in the Americas Cup and will do so again. Before long her husband was at my side showing me photos of the hovercraft he had built himself because a fisherman swore there wasn’t such a vessel in all of South Australia.
In time we said good-bye and I wandered to Jetty Road as darkness fell. The street was lined with pizza parlors, Greek delis, restaurants, and fast-food joints; people spilled over outdoor tables. I ate a souvlaki sandwich on the fly and watched vintage 1929 tram cars come and go from Moseley Square.
A crowd of rugby types drank loudly outside a bar at the edge of the square. Next door a jazz band was ripping through some riffs and inside people were dancing wildly. Outside, a three-year-old mimicked the dancers in a hilarious performance that soon drew the attention of everyone inside except those being mocked, even the band members nodded to the little impresario. Her mother stood back and watched, charmed to see her child entertaining so many people and happy to be relieved of her motherly duties for a spell. Inside, the non-dancers were doubled over with laughter.
I made my way across the square and past an amusement area with video games, a waterslide, dodge-em cars, a carousel. Ahead a Ferris wheel turned but I was drawn by familiar music, voices raised in song. The music came from a long, grassy area rimmed with Norfolk pines and sunken like an amphitheater. It was full of lights, burning candles in the hands of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. The candles illuminated their faces, captured the sweet expressions of people singing with feeling in the warm, warm night. “Hark the herald angels sing” rose into the balmy breeze. On a stage at one end a woman led the song. Behind me the carousel spun. I stood there, inexplicably transfixed, moved beyond words. Christmas. Yes, it was almost Christmas. But how could that be? The days were so long, the nights so warm.
“Silent night,” the congregation began, and I felt a flush rise to my face. “They’re singing Christmas carols,” I thought, almost saying it out loud. Around me everyone held candles in makeshift holders to protect their hands from the hot wax. Lights glowed like fireflies in the darkness, and the band played. I stood there a long time, then sat in the grass with my neighbors, even joined in singing the familiar songs. It was astonishing how homey this moment was, how welcome I felt and how comforted I was celebrating Christmas with strangers in the dark so very far from home. I was suddenly aware of how important this kind of event must have been the first time it was staged, how symbolic of the settling of Australia it was. In the early years this would have represented the powerful need of these people to create something familiar, a piece of England in this distant, desolate land. Today, the settlers are settled, and this piece of England is thriving.
As if in a childhood dream I was drawn to the Ferris wheel. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on one and suddenly it seemed important to take a ride. I’d spent most of my small bills but the operator let me ride for the change in my pocket, and as I rose up into the black sky the stars came out in the heavens. Descending toward the amphitheater was like dropping into a pool of lights. Rising again I entered the constellations, dropping I fell into candlelight. Christmas carols followed me high into the sky and greeted me as I dropped toward the glowing lights with that tickle in my belly you get when the bottom falls out beneath you. Up again into the stars, down again into the candles, stars and candles, stars and candles, until the sky and the ground and the sea and the breeze and the song all merged into one. Tears welled up and I thought, “My God, this is Adelaide? I planned only twelve hours here? Does this sort of thing happen all the time?”
I had no answers, of course. No longer a child, I just rode the Ferris wheel on the edge of the sea through constellations of stars.