Mallacoota was a very isolated town in the Depression years of the 1930s, with fishing our only industry. Transport was limited, so our groceries and other goods came very irregularly. Everything came by rail to Orbost, then by truck to Mallacoota. The fish was sent to the Melbourne Fish Market in the same manner. The fishermen sent their catch to Orbost railway station where it would be iced and put on the rail to Melbourne. Fish kept much better in those days! When Jim Luckins put in a freezing works down by the Government Wharf it was an extra bonus for us because we were able to buy blocks of ice for our ice-boxes. Remember this was years before electricity; candles and kerosene lamps lighted our homes. Another reason why the freezer was of help was that it enabled us to buy wirelesses (not called radios) and we could have the batteriesrecharged there.
For us children, the greatest event of the year was the school break-up concert, and Christmas held in the Old Hall, situated near what is now the National Parks Office. We practiced for weeks for the concert. There were at most 14 children and at times when the numbers got down to 8 the school was threatened with closure. The mothers of the school committee cooked for the supper and decorated the Hall with tree-fem fronds, paper chains and paper Chinese lanterns, plus a few balloons if they were obtainable. We stood on stage for our school songs, plays-recitations, whistling, gum-leaf playing, and of course bird calls.
After the concert it was time for Santa Claus to give out the gifts. I remember many of them over the years, particularly years later when my own children were small and a very inebriated Santa with arms outstretched, chased the mothers around the hall instead of the children and it was us mothers who squealed in fright when we had to go up to the tree to receive our gift.
Then the floor was given a liberal amount of candle shavings in readiness for the dance. This was the parents’ turn but we kids were not to be deterred. We danced in the comers trying to emulate the adult’s steps, slipping and sliding and making general nuisances of ourselves. After a time the floor would get some more candle shavings and we would run up and down it -testing it, of course -but with our new slippery soled Christmas shoes we mostly landed on our ‘rears’.
The water for the tea (coffee didn’t become popular till the Americans introduced it to us during World War II) was boiled in kerosene tins out at the back of the Hall, and the local men sat around the fire yarning and drinking beer. The two toilets were in the same vicinity and made it a bit. embarrassing to wend our way around the men.
We girls loved Christmas Tree night as it meant a new dress. This was purchased from Catalogues. There were eight firms in Sydney and two in Melbourne, so we had some choices, particularly if they were in the price range.
Dances concluded at midnight, and in those days the pianist. would play ‘God Save our Gracious King,’ we would all stand at attention … and it was all over for another year.
Christmas day was the next biggest event in our lives. Dad had shares in the Merimbula Bacon Factory, and each year he would order our Christmas ham. It duly arrived and Dad would cook it in the copper. When it was cooked and the rind peeled we kids would decorate it with cloves. For me the Tree was very important, and I would go up in the bush on our property in search of a Cherry Ballart. We owned all the land the other side of Mirrabooka Road down to Shady Gully creek. I would cut the tree down with a tomahawk and drag it down the hill to our home ‘Raheen’. By the time I got. it. there it would look very bedraggled and too large to get. in the door. No bright tinsel to decorate it in those days but we cut and pasted plain streamers to make paper chains.
No frozen chooks either in the 1930s but we had our own poultry so a rooster was selected and beheaded, not always successfully, and” they had been known to take off around the yard. The bird was hung, and plummeted into boiling water to enable feathers to be plucked more easily. Roast vegetables were a treat as veggies were hard to obtain. Everyone grew their own, but they were seasonal, and we only had leftover bathwater to keep them alive. The water supply was many, many years away. We always had wine trifle for dessert, and of course the Christmas pudding boiled in a floured cloth. The sixpences were boiled separately, as were the other important items for the pudding. I remember one year Mum purchasing a collection from Winns store, Sydney…
among them was a ring (to signify marriage-), a thimble (old maid),and Mum always made sure our Grandfather got the small piece of straw for longevity. I always thought it a bit mean that our unmarried uncle always got the ‘bachelor button’. We had special treats on the table, too, such as nuts and crystallized fruit and sugar almonds.
It took us hours to recover from all this unaccustomed feasting, but late afternoon we would all crush into the old Buick (without windows for coolness) and loaded with slices of ham, chicken and other leftovers, head for the far end of the Foreshore Park overlooking Devlins Gulch for Christmas Tea. There were no eskies so it was amazing that we kept everything cool.
I cannot say that they real meaning of Christmas was observed -there wasn’t a church nor a service -unlike most towns we never knew the tradition of Midnight Mass nor of attending Christmas morning services.
New Year’s Eve was reason for another dance, and the little Hall would literally jump off its stumps with all the hilarity taking place inside, and crackers and skyrockets outside. There never was a more wonderful feeling of friendship as we sang Auld Lang Syne.