The FOMM alt-Christmas playlist

Alt-Christmas playlist Santa escaping shopping centres to go fishing in Ewen Maddock Dam, photo by Bob Wilson

The first thing you’ll notice about my carefully curated alt-Christmas playlist is the absence of Six White Boomers and The 12 Days of Christmas. I’ll walk out of the room if someone starts on that tedious epic. I was intending to write a Grinch-like piece this week, but instead decided to share my eclectic view of the world through an alt-Christmas playlist.

What set me off on this tangent, dear reader, was making visits to three different shopping centres in the past three weeks. It wasn’t so much the crowds, the noise, the proliferation of tattoos or the inappropriate wardrobe choices that got me down. It was being assailed, or should that be wassailed on all sides by different streams of Christmas music. It ranged from Bing and that tired old northern hemisphere trope to Jose Feliciano wishing us a merry one from the heart of his bottom.

For someone whose preferred background music is Bach or Riley Lee playing the shakuhachi, it is an assault on the senses. It seemed to me, though, that most people were oblivious to Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman, as they trudged around shopping centres at Carindale, North Lakes and Morayfield. In fact, as their laden trolleys would indicate, they seemed intent upon spending.

A survey this week by reckons Australian shoppers will spend $492 (each) on Christmas gifts alone. Women will apparently spend $58 more than men. Finder’s Bessie Hassan said the 2017 spending estimate was slightly lower than 2016, when Australians spent on average $539 on Christmas presents.

The shopping swarms were probably to be expected, given the 3.6% rise in the consumer confidence index between November and December. The Westpac Melbourne Institute’s Index is 5% above the average for the September quarter, which saw a ‘disturbing’ slump in consumer spending.

While consumer confidence may have bounced back at a critical time for retailers and their landlords, the keepers of the index are circumspect.

“…with ongoing weak income growth, a low savings rate and high debt levels, we cannot be confident that consumers have the capacity to sharply lift spending, despite higher confidence.”

The irony of my three visits to large shopping centres is, had I planned ahead to buy the small but well-chosen gifts, I could have done it online and saved myself the grief.

So to the FOMM alt-Christmas playlist; they’re not all leftie, anti-Christmas rants and there’s a thread of peace and love running through all of them.

There are a couple of genuine carols, a peace anthem or two, some Australian content and more.

My music correspondent Franky’s Dad offered to create a Spotify alt-Christmas play list for me. Until he did that, I had not subscribed to Spotify. (Hands up who else has no idea what ‘Spotify’ is. Ed.) Unlike many list stories you will find on the Internet, these songs are not in order of preference. I happen to like all of them, but feel free to disagree or tell me which alt-Christmas song I should have included instead.

All of the links here are to YouTube videos. Just dip into them as the spirit moves you. For those who have Spotify, here’s the link:

1/ The Little Drummer Boy, interpreted here by my favourite acapella group, Pentatonix. If you like the group and this genre of music, they do a splendid version of Jolene with songwriter Dolly Parton.

2/ River, by Joni Mitchell. Ah, what a wistful, sad song. They’re cutting down trees and putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. But Joni just wants a river to skate away on (as you do if you live in Canada).

3/ Fairytale of New York, The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl, a bawdy anti-Christmas ballad of drunkenness and fractious relationships. I like the bit where the boys from the NYPD sing Galway Bay. A classic.

4/ I’m growing a beard downstairs for Christmas, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Beards. This quirky, M-rated Christmas satire won the best Comedy/Novelty song category in the 2015 International Songwriting Competition.

5/ 7 O’Clock News/Silent Night, Simon & Garfunkel, 1966. Half a century later, this timeless carol’s theme of peace and goodwill is still being drowned out by the negativity of global news.

6/ Suddenly it’s Christmas Loudon Wainwright III. Yep, it starts with Halloween (forget about Thanksgiving, that’s just a buffet in between). As Loudo sings – it’s not over till it’s over and they throw away the tree.” The Spotify version is a remix, but the impudent tone is still there.

7/ Happy Xmas (War is Over). One of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s many pleas for world peace.

8/ Getting Ready for Christmas Day, Paul Simon. From early in November to the last day of December, he’s got money matter weighing him down. Simon cleverly intersperses the lyric with a 1941 sermon, voiced by black American preacher, Rev J.M Gates.

9/ The Silver Stars, Brisbane Birralee Voices. This is an Australian carol by William James which has also been sung by our Maleny chamber choir, Tapestry.

10/ Little Saint Nick, the Beach Boys. I’ve got Macca from Australia all Over to thank for this as he played this merry tune to close out his show last week. It sounds a bit like a rebadged Little Deuce Coupe, but who’s complaining.

11/ How to Make Gravy, Paul Kelly. Where would we be in Australia without the letter to Dan from Joe, who’ll be spending Christmas in jail? Kiss my kids on Christmas Eve and make sure you add a dollop of tomato sauce to the gravy.

The Christians and the Pagans, Dar Williams. The definitive song about disaffected families and how they come together at Christmas and try to find common ground.

(Our friend Rebecca Wright does a cracker version of this one).

Meanwhile, people, there are only 2+ days more shopping days to spend your quota. The Australian Securities and Investment Commission’s Money Smart tells us that the average credit card debt after the holiday season is $1,666.  While 82% of Australians will pay this off in up to 6 months, 11% will take six to 24 months; 4% will take two years or more and 3% believe they will never pay it off.

If you are worried about waking up with a debt hangover, go here, where you’ll find helpful tips, It’s probably too late for this year, but as Loudon Wainwright observes, of all such holidays, ‘it’s not over till it’s over’.

Season’s Greetings and take care on the roads – Bob and Laurel.

Flashback to Christmas 2015

Catch a (brush) turkey for Christmas

Brush turkey for Christmas dinner? – image by She Who Takes Bird Photos, aka Laurel Wilson

The only thing more difficult than taking a photo of a brush turkey is selling the notion of preparing one for a (budget) Christmas lunch. Those of you quick on the uptake will have already registered that Mr FOMM is being ironic. Brush turkeys as you may know are a protected and even endangered species. Besides, they have a “stuff you’ attitude which is refreshing (bok!) And the chicks are cute.

As it happens, turkey is the least popular meat for people laying in provisions for Christmas. The ubiquitous Christmas ham leads the pack by a good margin, along with chicken, then turkey.

Northern hemisphere folk might find this hard to fathom, but rich hot food is not a priority for the Australian Christmas lunch. No, we prefer ham, chicken, prawns, a variety of cold salads and condiments, followed up with fruit salads, ice-cream, custard and yoghurt, all of it more befitting our typical 30+ degree Christmas Day. The diehards do Christmas pudding, but as we all know, it takes a long afternoon nap to sleep it off.

Retailers work hard at this time of year to sell us on the idea of (a) over-eating (b) over-spending and (c) eating food we rarely eat. The latter includes turkey, which has its biggest sales between December 20 and 24. I’m aware turkey is very big in the US and Canada on November 23 (Thanksgiving). According to the University of Illinois, 88% of Americans surveyed by the National Turkey Federation eat turkey on Thanksgiving; 46 million turkeys are eaten each Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas and 19 million at Easter

Compare that with Australia, where 3 to 5 million turkeys are killed and sold for meat every year. On average, Australians eat approximately 1kg of turkey per person per year, most of which is consumed during one week at Christmas.

You’ll pay about $110 for an organic turkey, or about $22 a kilo.

You can find loads of information on the Internet about meat consumption, much of it available on animal welfare websites, which point out the factory-like habitat of animals being fattened for consumption. I have a few things to say about that and one is that after being sent on an assignment to one of Queensland’s largest (cattle) feedlots, I went vegetarian for two or three months.

As you may not know, there are 2.1 million Australians (11.2%) who say they are vegetarians (Roy Morgan Research, 2016). Vegans are lumped in with vegetarians, though it’s not the same thing.

If you were curious about what vegos eat at Christmas, musician Emma Nixon says she makes a roast vegie, quinoa and lentil salad.

“It’s good hot or cold. I take the leftovers to Woodford

Another muso, Karen Law, says her family eats fish but is otherwise fully vegan. This year they might throw some salmon on the bbq, plus a lot of salad, bbq sweet potato and kipfler potatoes.

Folk dancers Peter and Linda Scharf favour tofu kebabs, with satay sauce, falafels, bean patties, salads with extra trimmings and dressings. Not to mention plum pudding (no suet) and a couple of glasses of ‘fermented grape juice’.

To spew or not to spew

Meanwhile, non-vegan Aussies are very big on eating prawns at Christmas – 50,000 tonnes were consumed last year at this time. Just so you know, 80% of prawns sold in Australia are imported and it costs about $50 a kilo to buy locally-caught prawns.

As I am one of an indeterminate number of people for whom prawns induce violent chundering*, I cannot explain the appeal. I watch people spending inordinate amounts of time shelling prawns (is that the right term) and it always seems to me there is more to throw out than what makes it into the ice bucket.

One Christmas past we returned from a holiday at the beach to be greeted with an awful smell, which was quickly traced to a full, broken, leaking and putrid wheelie bin on the street outside our house. Someone had waited until our (clean) bin was collected and replaced it with their munted* bin full of prawn waste. Eeuuw, people!

Full credit to Brisbane City Council waste management who (a) picked up the offending bin within 24 hours and (b) replaced it with a brand-new bin.

But I digress (yet again)

We are a wealthy country with relatively high disposable income, low-ish unemployment and a reputation for spending more than we earn.

Australian Retailer Association executive director Russell Zimmerman told SBS News last year that food and drink accounts for 40% per cent of the total Christmas spend.

The Pork Producers of Australia said that in the four weeks leading up to Christmas, 8.4 million kilos of ham was sold in 2015 and about the same in 2016. In terms of traditional bone-in hams, it was about 4.3 million kilograms in 2015 and 4.6 million kilograms in 2016 – an increase of 7.6%.

Our local research found that the price of Christmas hams can range from as little as $7 a kilo in discount supermarkets to $18 a kilo for organic and/or free range ham bought from a butcher. A premium boneless leg of ham could cost you upwards of $30 a kilo.

That seems cheap when you read about Spain’s jamon imberico, the truffle of the pork world. A 7.5 kg leg can cost between $A180 and $A720. Iberian ham comes from blackfoot pigs, raised on pasture planted with oak trees. According to my favourite source (The Guardian Weekly), the demand for Iberian ham in China is such that the escalating price is denying humble Spaniards their once-a-year treat.

Just so you know what you’re eating, all fresh pork sold in Australia is 100% Australian grown. However, approximately two thirds of processed pork (ham, bacon and smallgoods products) is made from frozen boneless pork imported from places like Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States.

According to an international study by Caterwings, Australians chew their way through 111.5 kilograms of meat per year, per person. (Someone’s eating our share). This data probably does not take into account the 11.2% of Australians who are vegetarians and vegans, the 604,000 Muslims as well as those of the Jewish faith who do not eat pork; or the unknown number of people who have developed a mammalian meat allergy by exposure to ticks (more on that topic next week).

If you can’t afford $90 or so for a leg of ham, I have a suggestion. There are these prehistoric-looking birds that roam around the scrub. They are notorious for scratching up people’s vegie gardens and using leaf litter and mulch to make huge mounds, inside which they lay their eggs. Yes, they are protected and indeed endangered (the chicks are left to fend for themselves as soon as they can walk around). But who’s to know if you knock one off, pluck and gut it, stuff it and cook for 17 or 18 hours or until tender? Don’t forget the basil.

Just don’t throw the waste and left-over meat in the wheelie bin and forget to put the bin out. That would be unneighbourly.

*Munted – Kiwi for ‘damaged or unusable.’

*chundering – Oz for vomiting

Christmas 2016

Cucumbers and the silly season

Photo by Scott Elias

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”


Obama’s last Christmas card

Image: White House

The first you know it’s getting close is when you receive the first Christmas card. Like many of you, though, we’ve been receiving fewer cards each year as friends and family switch to email and social media.

But it was so nice of Barack, Michelle and the girls to remember us! #dontleave

We are organising a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving ritual. This means if there are 10 people coming for Christmas dinner; each person buys one gift to an agreed value. The Secret Santa organiser assigns shopping tasks – “You can buy a gift for Auntie Val. I heard her grumbling last week that her pruning shears have had it.”

So rather than 10 people each spending about $599 (the average Christmas gift spend, according to a Commonwealth Bank survey), you each spend $50 and there’s a good chance the person receiving the Secret Santa gift will get something they actually want/need.

An international survey by ING Bank conducted in October found that 82% of Europeans received one or more gifts in 2015. One in seven (15%) were given something they didn’t appreciate, didn’t like or couldn’t use. The proportions were only slightly different in the US and Australia. Of the 15% who admitted to receiving unwanted presents, more than half kept them anyway. Others gave them to someone else (25%), sold them (14%) or tried to return them to the store (11%).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that $798 million of the $8.8 billion spent on Christmas loot goes on unwanted gifts.

There are three basic options if you want to rein in your Christmas gift spending. The family could agree to (a) not buy gifts at all (b) organise Secret Santa or (c) donate money to organisations like World Vision or Oxfam; the latter uses the money to buy practical items for poor African villages. The gift recipient receives a certificate, which says something like, Congratulations (name), you have bought a goat for a village in Sudan. The certificate goes on to explain what a goat can mean for a poor African village. You can pin the certificate to your office noticeboard and feel virtuous for a whole year. (Or as Little Brother says, you could go to a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas and give the whole circus a swerve.)

Some children get $200 cash and more!

The Australian and Securities Commission (ASIC) website Moneysmart, which aims to educate consumers, compiled an Infographic (see fact sheet link which shows how much money Australians spend on Christmas gifts. The average spent on gifts ranges from $401 (South Australia) to $548 (NSW). Sixty percent used savings when they went shopping, 20% used a credit card, 10% borrowed money from family and friends or used a bonus/tax refund and 10% used lay-by. Of those who used a credit card to pay for Christmas, 80% paid it off within three months.

Nine out of 10 children received some cash as Christmas presents with 20% receiving between $100 and $200 and 22% more than $200! Boys spent the cash on console games (45%), computer games (24%), and other games (22%), put the cash toward saving for a big item (31%) or banked it (43%). Girls spend the cash on clothes (40%), music (22%) and going out (20%), though 29% put the money towards saving for a big item and 45% put the cash in the bank.

Australians will spend all-up around $48.1 billion in the six weeks leading up to Christmas, with this weekend and December 23 and 24 identified as the bonanza shopping days. This massive spend includes $19 billion on food (we all have to eat) and $2.8 billion on on-line shopping. The Retailers Association of Australia and Roy Morgan Research say Victoria will show the biggest increase in spending ($11.6 billion, up 4.6% year on year followed by Queensland ($9.5 billion, up 4.2%).

And if you’re wondering on Christmas Day how Little Johnny could afford to give Dad the boxed set of Game of Thrones, ARA’s research shows that shoplifting will cost retailers $1.4 billion over the six-week period.

Of course buying gifts is only one part of it – then you have to buy wrapping paper and either wrap presents or pay a professional to do it for you. Australian Ethical and Clean up Australia provide some tips for people who feel bad about the 50,000 trees that get pulped every year to make your Christmas gifts look appropriately festive.

Australians use more than 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper each year and, as Clean Up Australia chairman Ian Kiernan points out, foil sheets are hard to recycle. His suggestions for a sustainable Christmas include:

  • Rather than buying someone a physical gift like a CD, consider buying them a service, like a singing lesson;
  • Buy yourself a real Christmas tree – they smell fresh, last well, and are biodegradable through your green waste (they can also be planted out);
  • Cut back on gift wrapping, resize large cards to make gift tags, get creative with newspaper or magazines for wrapping presents and recycle the wrapping that you can’t use anymore.

“It’s not over till it’s over and you throw away the tree” (LWIII)

There is an unhappy trend to brand someone trying to moderate spending at Christmas as a Scrooge or a Grinch. The inference is we are spoiling the festive season by questioning excessive consumption.

And then there are Christmas cards, which come in ever-diminishing numbers, despite assurances that the market is doing better than ever.

The Greeting Cards Association of Australia says Australians spend $500 million on greetings cards and ours is the world’s third largest market per capita.

In the US, Christmas cards represent about 25% of the $6.5 billion greeting card market, where sales are steady, although profits are declining. Marketing expert Brandon Gaille expects global sales to keep declining as multiple issues confront the industry, including rising postal rates and competition from DIY cards and low-cost e-cards.

The Obama family sent out their last Christmas card this week, which created a sentimental outpouring around the hashtag #dontleave.

The cards are sent only to friends, supporters, White House staff and the media (which explains the hurriedly scanned copies on Twitter, Facebook and just about any traditional media outlet you can name).

The White House can afford to send out at least one million* cards featuring the Obama family’s last hoorah. Since 1960 the incumbent President’s political party has paid for this indulgence.

Back home, listeners told 720 ABC Perth the cost of postage is the overwhelming reason people are resorting to emails, texts and social media messages. I can vouch for this, having spent $70 at Australia Post sending a few calendars overseas and buying a dozen Christmas cards and stamps for friends who don’t do email.

Even though you get a 35c discount when buying card-only stamps, the high cost of postage is pushing more people to compose annual “e-letters” (complete with happy snaps).

But as one ABC Perth listener lamented, “You can’t really put an email on the mantlepiece, can you?”

*Ronald Reagan set the one million White House Christmas card benchmark in 1983 but was upstaged in 2009 by George W Bush Jnr (1.5 million).