Sunday, January 10, 2010

New Year's Eve picnic in the park

In Australia the world happens in opposites. Summer is winter, winter is summer, water spins counterclockwise and mammals lay eggs.**

And while the U.S. is undergoing a record cold snap, we’re sweltering through an unimaginable heat wave. The native Aussies tell me these temperatures are normal for this time of year, smack-dab in the middle of summer. But we’re sweating, praying for clouds, and avoiding any activity between 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., when it’s just too darn hot to even walk down the street.

But the upside to all this was feeling the heat during the holidays. I was ecstatic for my first summertime Christmas.

After all, the cartoons I watched as a child sometimes jokingly featured a “Christmas in July,” featuring Santa Claus sipping an iced lemonade from a lawn chair as a soccer game unfolded in the background. This is what I imagine Sydney’s Christmas in December would be.

We arrived in Australia in the blustery month of August, when we wore wool socks to bed and jackets in the middle of the afternoon. As the clock inched towards December and the days became longer and hotter, I noticed excitement building for summertime Christmas: from the pomegranate-martini Christmas cocktail recipes printed in ladies home magazines, to the ads for pre-Christmas barbeque grill sales, to the shopping mall Santa Claus wandering around in shorts.

So, what was it like? Did it meet my expectations of Santa sipping iced lemonade from a lawn chair? No. It was even stranger. Because, you see, if you let the entire country’s population off work in the middle of the summer when the weather is good and the beach is the best place to be, what are people going to do? Party, of course!

Christmas in Sydney is a massive beach party. The bars and sidewalks are overflowing with Christmas revelers wearing Santa hats and beads. People are throwing back the Christmas beers and chilled spritzers, firing up kangaroo meat on the grill, and tossing beach balls.

Here's one kid who's really looking forward to Santa in the summertime!

But that wasn’t the strangest part. See, I can accept spending Christmas Day sipping vodka-Sprites on the beach. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was a warm New Years night.

As a lifelong Northern Hemispherian, hot weather and the New Years Countdown just don’t mix. In my mind, sandals and New Years go together like peanut-butter and anchovies: the combination just doesn’t make any sense.**

Yet here we were, less than a week after Christmas at the Beach, making plans to spend all of New Years Eve at the Botanical Gardens, where 20,000 like-minded people queue from 5 a.m. to get a prime spot from which to watch the midnight fireworks.

We reunited with some longstanding British friends and queued at 9 a.m. for what felt less like a typical blustery New Year’s Eve than like an re-enactment of a summer rock festival. I wore a skirt and SPF 30; my British friends carried lawn chairs and beach towels. Others tossed Frisbees and snacked on potato chips.

By 12 noon, we made our way through the gate and spread our picnic blankets on a grassy hill overlooking Sydney’s trademark Opera House and Harbor Bridge, and for the next 12 hours, we had a New Year's Eve picnic in the park.

The summer solstice, more commonly known as the longest day of the year, had just passed on December 21, so the sky stayed bright until late in the day. By the time the little kids New Years Eve fireworks lit the sky at 9 p.m., the sky had barely grown dim.

A few of my friends brought a sweater or light jacket along, but didn’t need it. One friend from Colorado even lost her jacket at the end of the night; she hadn’t paid any attention to it all day.

Again, Summertime Christmas I can hang with. For some reason, there’s nothing abnormal to me about Santa Claus in shorts. Okay, maybe the holiday menu is strange: instead of hot gravy and stuffing, everyone spends Christmas Day sipping sparkling white wines and eating peaches. But watching a Christmas tree wither in high heat doesn’t faze me, because I’ve been preparing for a Summer Santa for months.

But I’d never considered New Years in the summer! Now THAT was something I that took some getting used it. But now that I’ve felt it … now that I’ve spent 16 hours laying in the grass waiting for the countdown, now that I’ve watched the fireworks from the comfort of a t-shirt …. I can’t imagine how I’ll ever go back to a blustery New Years again. Give me Dick Clark’s Down Under, please, with pomegranate martini to go.

Next stop: a bright summertime Valentine’s Day?

The two cutest kids on earth, otherwise known as "my nieces," live in Sydney and eagerly await
Santa in Shorts.

Footnote: ** Yes, crazy Australia has every type of animal on the planet, including an egg-laying mammal. Can you guess which one? It’s the platypus. Native to Australia and spotted by us in several national parks along the eastern seaboard, the platypus is a mammal that lays eggs. (Technically, the platypus only has one hole instead of multiple – i.e. it uses the same hole for both mating and excretion – which classifies it technically as a monotreme rather than a full mammal.)