Monday, June 09, 2008

They Call It 'Autumn'

For better or worse, I grew up without seasons in southern California. I have memories of splashing in my cousin's pool and jacuzzi on Christmas day, and none of sledding and school cancellations due to heavy snowfall. You'd think as a SoCal kid I'd be more prepared for Sydney's hot summers in January and mild winters in July, but I've actually found the reversal of seasons pretty disorienting.

I was taking an afternoon stroll in mid-May and noticed it was suddenly fall (or 'autumn' as they say here). The air was crisper and the leaves on the maples and oaks were beginning to turn brown and fall off their branches. These were the slight changes that always signified fall to me. We couldn't expect big drops in temperature or the leaves to put on a fiery show as they do in New England, but there were subtle changes nonetheless.

Like any SoCal kid, I relied on marketers to remind me what season it was supposed to be. Fall catalogues depicted children bundled up in scarves and sweaters, kicking piles of leaves and thrilled about returning 'back to school.' I loved the idea of needing those clothes, but they'd only be practical for over air conditioned classrooms, not the temperature outdoors.

My student days are long gone, but the coolness in the air brings back those feelings of excitement and expectation surrounding the first day of school. Who will my teacher be? Which of my friends will be in my class? As the season goes on, there's always something new to look forward to. Once you've settled in to your classroom routine, there's your Halloween costume to plan. When you're left with nothing but Jujy Fruits and Smarties (bleh), you can begin to think about feasting on something other than candy: Thanksgiving dinner. And when you've eaten your last turkey sandwich, it's time to string lights around your Christmas tree (but you've actually been itemizing your wish list since September).

It didn't matter that the transition to fall required only jeans and a light sweatshirt for chilly mornings instead of the shorts and T-shirt that is the norm from March to October. We watched the store window displays and the classroom bulletin boards rotate from apples to jack-o'-lanterns to turkeys to Santa and for me, that was just as good a season as any.

Here in Australia, though, everything is different. The seasons are reversed, so the changes in temperature that we're used to in November and December occur here in May and June. Here we are in the first week of June; the weather is slightly cooler, light breezes blow crackling brown leaves off the trees, surely pumpkins will begin appearing on doorsteps, but they don't. It's a little bit like the twilight zone; kids aren't going back to school because they've been there since January. Somehow, this is fall, but the stores aren't selling pumpkin carving kits and Thanksgiving turkey tea towels. Hold on... this is winter with chilly mornings, early sunsets, wet weather and NO CHRISTMAS. It's actually kind of awful. Didn't the wicked queen of Narnia cast a spell on the land that made it always winter, but never Christmas? I wonder if Australia would be a kind of hell for C.S. Lewis. I certainly wouldn't call it hell, but it does remind me that I'm down unda, in a place where my expectations feel upside down.

As Australia was first settled by English people, we aren't the only ones who feel like Santa on a sleigh makes more sense than Santa on a surfboard. Thus, the good folks in the Blue Mountains host a Yulefest in July when there's a chill in the air, occasionally a bit of snow on the ground and clearly, nothing else this side of Labour Day to look forward to. (Thank you, benevolent marketing geniuses for saving us from our seasonal-holiday delusions).

Anyway, you too can join in the Yuletide fun any Saturday night in July at the Mountain Heritage Hotel & Spa in Katoomba. One hundred and thirty dollars buys you a six course Christmas dinner with a roast, pudding and all the trimmings. A pianist plays Christmas songs and all are expected to sing along. At some point during the evening, Santa's going to make an appearance to spread holiday cheer. It sounds like a touristy, cheesy way to celebrate a holiday that gets more than its share of attention and money later in the year, but we couldn't resist. We booked a table for ourselves, my mom and four of our friends. Will the food taste like Christmas dinners of the past? Will Santa's beard look real? Does he know that I still want a pony even though I'm grown up, married and live in a high-rise apartment? Who knows, but it will probably be the merriest Christmas in July we've ever had.

Because this continent is a land of extremes (lush coastlines and barren outback desert, etc.), it seems fitting that all significant holidays are crammed into a single season: summer. I can imagine a modern day creation myth in which the gambling-obsessed Aussies established their calendar with a roll of the dice. They lost on winter, but upped the ante to double or nothing on summer and won big. After a wet, chilly winter, the spring/summer season is kicked off with a huge horse racing event. Apparently it takes place in Melbourne, but is celebrated and watched nationally, like the Superbowl, but with hats and on a weekday. Then, of course, there's Christmas, New Year and Australia Day (this country's Fourth of July, but on January 26). Don't forget that all of these events take place during summer vacation. As a kid, the two happiest times of the year are Christmas and summer vacation; can you imagine experiencing both at the same time? I can't, but I'm going to try.

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