Tim Minchin says he is not often fond of his own work. But if there is one song the famed composer and director (among other things) is truly proud of, it is White Wine in the Sun. His song, released in 2009, has become a Christmas phenomenon, with millions of views on YouTube. "Writing White Wine remains the most emotional experience of my songwriting life," he says. "[My daughter] Violet was about two weeks old when I wrote it, so I was pretty tired and strung-out, but even so, it made me sob."
Minchin argues that the secret of White Wine in the Sun is in the way he subverts listener expectations. "The initial verse and chorus structure juxtaposes scepticism of religion with love of family, and the listener thinks they have the measure of the song," he says. "But then it goes and throws in a tiny baby as the listener, and starts talking directly to her. Pretty manipulative, really."
Another reason why the song has been so popular is that it feels true emotionally: while we Australians may be dreaming of a white Christmas, we're much more likely to have white wine in the sun. You don't have to agree with Minchin's stance on religion, to think about how many Christmases we've spent eating food with the family while trying to avoid the heat.
Much of the imagery of Christmas that Australians see each year may as well be imagery of Narnia. The only snow we see in Australia in December is at the back of the freezer. Many primary schoolers probably think that reindeer are fictional magical animals like dragons. Australians roasting chestnuts on an open fire in December are probably flouting fire bans.
This fantasy Christmas does have an emotional pull for many Australians. Michael Buble's Christmas album – an album that's full of songs like White Christmas and Winter Wonderland – has sold a staggering million copies in Australia. Even when mainstream Australian pop singers such as Olivia Newton-John and John Farnham release a Christmas duets album, as they did this year, it's full of the same old northern hemisphere imagery. After all, when Aussie Christmases are regularly in danger of being disrupted by bushfires, all that Christmas imagery seems like a sort of airconditioned nirvana.
However, there's also a very distinct emotional pull in songs like White Wine in the Sun which are truer to our lived experience of Australian Christmas.
"From quite early in my childhood, the push to make Christmas more Australian began," Minchin says. "From our nation's most famous pervert singing Six White Boomers, to children's books with bethonged Santas, Christmas started Aussie-ing up. In the corner of my family's loungeroom stood a big, dead Eucalyptus branch, bedecked in tinsel and baubles."
Minchin, in trying to draw a picture of Christmas as it is, also draws attention to the sadness in the holiday that gets hidden under all the tinsel. "I think Christmas is by its nature slightly melancholic, as well as lovely. For those who have lost people, family gatherings are a reminder of the loss. Even without significant loss, it's a reminder of time passing, of childhoods coming and going, of kilograms stacked on. Perhaps Australians are just more honest about it."
White Wine in the Sun, of course, isn't the first song or poem about the Australian Christmas experience. Henry Lawson's The Fire at Ross's Farm, first published in the 1890s, tells the story of two feuding farming families brought together by a Christmas Eve fire.
In 1948, William G. James, the first Federal Director of Music to be appointed at the ABC, wrote a set of Australian Christmas carols with ABC colleague John Wheeler. These carols, which became Christmas standards in the decades that followed, including Carol of the Birds and North Wind, transplanted traditional Christmas themes into Australian settings – Carol of the Birds mentions brolgas, bellbirds, and lorikeets.
There are other modern songwriters who have turned their hands to the Australian Christmas experience, including Darren Hanlon, an indie folk singer-songwriter who grew up in Gympie, Queensland. Hanlon released a 7-inch record in 2005 called Christmas Songs, featuring the songs Spend Christmas Day with Me and The Loaf.
Like Minchin, Hanlon is conscious that Christmas imagery doesn't always appeal to everyone. "So much about Christmas is saccharine for a lot of people, and they can't handle it. I think that it's a difficult time for a lot of people. So when I was writing The Loaf, I was like, OK, I want to write the first Christmas death ballad!"
"Most Christmas songs that we have – and our Christmas cards here in Australia – are covered in snow and these Winter Wonderland kind of scenes," says Hanlon. "And I guess I wanted to write a song that said a bit more about the experience that I had in Gympie at Christmas time. It's just so hot, you know? We'd have a game of cricket and then usually everyone passes out."
A one-off show at Sydney's now-long-defunct Mandarin Club to promote the 7-inch, says Hanlon, somehow turned into an annual Christmas tour of Australia that Hanlon says "has pretty much become the biggest thing in the year for me", despite that the Christmas shows have "never really been promoted. It's grown from word of mouth."
Perhaps the most iconic of all modern Australian Christmas songs is Paul Kelly's 1996 single How to Make Gravy. In the song, a narrator called Joe writes a letter to his family, from jail, ostensibly to explain his gravy recipe. The very clear subtext of the song, however, is that being forced to be away from family during Christmas is a special kind of hell.
How to Make Gravy made little impact on the Christmas charts in 1996, but the song has exponentially increased in popularity in recent years. Kelly named his 2010 autobiography after the song, and played it at the 2012 AFL Grand Final. Last year, there was even a fake Twitter account, @thegravyman, that was reported on by music websites such as FasterLouder. @thegravyman parodied Kelly by humorously obsessing about the song; one of the Twitter account's most retweeted tweets was "Some people ask how I make gravy. The recipe's in the song!!!!!!".