Have you ever wondered how people in outback Queensland prepare for Christmas? How do they decorate their streets, buildings and homes, and with what? Where can they do their Christmas shopping? How and where do they worship? What is special about Christmastime in outback Queensland?
Two weeks ago, in early December, my husband Tony and I visited a number of towns in outback Queensland: Alpha, Jericho and Barcaldine (all in the Barcaldine Region); Longreach, Ilfracombe and Isisford (Longreach Region); and Blackall and Tambo (Blackall-Tambo Region). In south western Queensland, we visited Charleville, Augathella and Morven (Murweh Shire) and Mitchell (Maranoa Region). In each of these communities we observed how the residents prepare for Christmas.
About life in outback Queensland
The people of outback Queensland live in small towns or on properties that are long distances apart and far removed from the cities and towns of coastal and south-eastern Queensland. Longreach, for example, is 687 km (about 8 hours by road) west of Rockhampton and 1177 km (at least 13 hours by road) northwest of Brisbane. With a population of 2,970 (2016 Census), it’s the largest town in central western Queensland. Other communities we visited are very small. For example, Jericho has only 100 residents or thereabouts. In these small towns, shops and churches are few. Although many public services are limited, most communities have access to the internet.
In December, it’s awfully hot in outback Queensland. The weather is unpredictable. It’s usually dry at this time of year, although storms can bring welcome rain. Visitors are rare and tourist operations cease. The pace of life slows down (it’s just so hot). Schools close for the Summer holidays. Schoolteachers leave for cooler climes; residents who can, head for the coast. Those folk who remain prepare for Christmas.
Streets, buildings and homes dressed up for Christmas
Without exception, the heart of Queensland’s small outback towns is the main street. Typically it is wide, with large shady trees down the middle of the street or lining it. In most of the towns we visited, the main street is “dressed up” for Christmas.
Blackall is a good example. On each lamppost in Blackall’s main street (Shamrock Street) there are large banners displaying Christmas greetings. The bottle trees (not fir or spruce trees but Queensland native bottle trees) in the median strip are decorated with tinsel and there are oversized presents under the trees. There are sculptured reindeer eating the green grass (how funny is that), oversized candy canes, bells, stylized Christmas “trees” and much more. The display is an eclectic mix of “Aussie” and European Christmas symbols.
Charleville is another example. Its main street (Alfred Street) and other streets in the centre of town are decorated with 1.5 metre “Christmas trees” made of timber slats. “Christmas trees” of the same design are on display in nearby Augathella.
In the main street of these towns you’ll usually find a Post Office, a grand old pub (or two or more, depending on the size of the town), one or more shops, a tourist information centre, community (or town) hall and a park.
Many of these are decorated for Christmas. Take Tambo, for example. The Tambo Post Office, a lowset timber building dating from 1904, is located in Arthur Street, the main street, in the centre of town. On the grass in front of the Post Office there’s a metre-high snowman (so out of place, given the temperature here is around 40 degrees Celcius during the day), whirly-gigs and a miniature cow! Further down the street the Royal Carrangarra Hotel (the oldest licenced pub in western Queensland, since 1863) and the park next door to the hotel are also decorated for Christmas. The park, named after former local identity Ernest Edwin Parr OBE, is fenced and there is a large red bow on the wrought iron gate and a giant artificial Christmas tree just inside the gate.
There are no high-rise buildings in outback Queensland.
The highest structure is typically the town’s water tower. It’s a landmark and can be seen from afar. At Christmastime, some communities make their town water tower a feature. In Longreach, for example, there is a huge star at the top of the water tower, which is lit up at night.
As in other parts of Queensland, in the outback some folk deck their house and garden with lights at Christmastime.
We saw many amazing Christmas lights on show at private homes in the outback towns we visited. Most surprising to us was the number of private homes lit up in the small town of Alpha (population less than 500). It seemed like every third or fourth house had a light show! In Longreach, one of the most interesting and creative displays we saw features a miniature version of the town’s water tower (with the star on top, of course).
Some homeowners include a nativity scene in their Christmas lights display. As Christians, we looked out for these. After all, we celebrate Christmas to acknowledge that Jesus, the Christ, was born of a woman at Bethlehem over 2000 years ago (read Matthew 1:18-25). We saw a number of beautifully crafted nativity scenes. The most impressive one we encountered is at Morven. It comprises a stable, manger and large stand-up two-dimensional figures designed and painted by the homeowner (see later). Along with the house, the scene is lit up at night-time.
It’s Summertime in the southern hemisphere.
In outback Queensland in December, it’s hot and sunny. It’s not cold and gloomy, as in Europe or North America at this time of year. The skies are blue and the air is dry and clear. There’s certainly no snow or ice.
So, given that it’s summertime, why do people in outback Queensland decorate their streets, buildings and homes with snowmen, gnomes and reindeer? We saw quite a few examples of these in the towns we visited.
However, we also spied some “Aussie” alternatives, which (I think) are more meaningful. Instead of snowmen and gnomes: At a hotel in Isisford a one-metre high statue of a swagman stands in the beer garden holding a “Merry Christmas” banner. Instead of reindeer: Some folk use kangaroos in their Christmas light shows. We saw kangaroos (both live and dead) by the roadside everywhere we travelled in central western and south western Queensland.
Christmas shopping in outback Queensland
Shopping in outback Queensland is not the rat-race we experience in Brisbane or other Queensland cities at this time of year. That is our observation. While the main street of the larger towns we visited (Longreach, Blackall, Barcaldine and Charleville) is a hive of activity during business hours, the main street of some small towns we visited is almost deserted during the day. There are no crowds. There is certainly no traffic congestion and finding a park is not a problem. You just have to watch out for the 53 metre long road trains that travel along the main street of some of these little towns!
Out west there are no large fancy air-conditioned shopping centres and no Woolworths or Coles supermarkets. The majority of towns we visited have one IGA, Supa IGA or Foodworks store, where residents can buy groceries. At least one town (Jericho) currently has no grocery store.
In the larger towns, there are a variety of specialty shops where one can buy clothing, household and electrical goods, toys, books, arts and crafts, to name a few.
Some of these outlets sell items that you can’t buy anywhere else. They are unique to the town or district.
In Longreach we spent an hour or two exploring The Station Store, an amazing outback emporium owned by the Kinnon Family of Longreach. There you can buy outback clothing, hats, boots, leatherware, local crafts, toys, books, homewares, haberdashery and more. In Blackall, we discovered the beautiful glassware made by local artist Lorelei Kiernan (Glass from the Heart – Lorelie’s on Facebook) and visited one of the retail outlets for local handmade leather goods. We bought items from The Station Store and some of Lorelei’s glassware to give as Christmas gifts.
In one small town, Tambo, there is a business you’ll not find anywhere else in Australia: Tambo Teddies. The store, in the main street of Tambo, includes the workshop where you can watch these gorgeous teddy bears being made. They are made from 100% Australian wool. One of the “teddies” on display was dressed as Santa Claus. Actually, it’s not a bear, it’s an imitation Australian koala.
Happily, each of these businesses (The Station Store, Lorelie’s Glass from the Heart and Tambo Teddies) has an online presence, so people near and far can purchase their wares online.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if many folk who live in outback Queensland do quite a lot of their Christmas shopping online. I think I would.
Christmas worship in outback Queensland
In every outback Queensland town we visited there are at least two church buildings: an Anglican and a Roman Catholic Church. These buildings are maintained as places of worship and fellowship, despite intermittent (often monthly) use and dwindling congregations. The buildings remain as relics of the past, when the town was thriving and most people attended church on Sundays.
In the larger communities, there are a number of other churches and congregations. In Longreach, for example, besides Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, there are Uniting and Baptist Churches and an Australian Christian Churches (ACC) “Reach Christian Church”. The Salvation Army has a rural chaplaincy base in Longreach.
During our visit, we expected to see signs outside the churches advertising their Christmas services. After all, Christmas Day was less than 3 weeks away. There weren’t any. Perhaps it was too early. At Charleville, the billboard outside All Saints’ Anglican Church contained a Christmas message.
At Mitchell, we saw a sign outside All Saints’ Anglican Church advertising “Carols by Candlelight” at 5.30 pm on Friday 8th December. The event was also advertised on the Maranoa Warrego Anglican Mission Area Facebook page. Tony and I stayed in Mitchell that evening and there weren’t too many people out and about. I wonder how many people turned up for this special Christmas event?
At Longreach we met Reverend Graeme Liersch, Rector of the Longreach Anglican Parish. When Revd Liersch saw us taking photographs of St Andrew’s Anglican Church, he invited us in to show us the church. It was December 6, and he told us he hadn’t yet set up the church for Christmas. Clearly he is too busy. Among his many duties, Graeme conducts weekly services at Longreach, fortnightly services at Barcaldine, monthly services at Ilfracombe and quarterly services at Muttaburra and Jundah. It’s a huge area to cover. In general, the congregations are small but keen. Some folk in the outback travel long distances to attend church services because Christian worship and fellowship is important to them.
I perceive that Christian ministry and witness in outback Queensland is difficult. It’s no different at Christmastime. The small number of believers and infrequent gatherings, particularly in the smaller communities, is an ongoing challenge to the institutional church and the faith of the believers themselves. If you are a Christian, this Christmas you might like to pray for the believers and the many tiny congregations of Christians still active in outback Queensland. Also, consider providing them with ongoing prayer and practical support through your own local church or by contributing to mission organisations such as Bush Church Aid and Salvation Army Rural Chaplaincy, both of which have personnel working in outback Queensland.
So, what’s special about Christmastime in outback Queensland?
First, it’s the landscape.
There’s the wide open space. The dry heat (and the flies). The bright sunlight by day, the clear starry skies by night. The colours of the sunsets and the Australian bush. The distinctive flora. You won’t find red poinsettias and green holly (two traditional symbols of Christmas) in outback Queensland. Instead, after rain (and we visited soon after rain) you’ll find wildflowers, like the tiny native Blue Bells (Wahlenbergia gracilis) I found by the roadside between Ilfracombe and Isisford.
Second, and more importantly, it’s the people. The locals.
Tony and I made the acquaintance of local residents in each town we visited. We came across them down the street, in parks, at tourist attractions, information centres, in shops and pubs, and at the motels where we stayed. Each person we met was open, friendly and welcoming. It was easy to start a conversation.
At Morven, one homeowner I spoke with about the nativity scene in her front yard invited my husband and me to come inside for a cup of tea or coffee. It was around 1.00 pm, Tony and I hadn’t eaten lunch, but how could we refuse this stranger’s kind hospitality? We replied, “Yes, of course, we’d love to have a cup of coffee with you.”
Once inside, our host (Shirley) revealed she is a collector. She collects all sorts of things, especially salt-and-pepper shakers. Shirley showed us her huge and varied collection, proudly displayed on specially built shelves in her small kitchen and down the hallway. She held up two little ceramic angels she bought at a Charleville second-hand shop earlier that week. “I thought they would make nice Christmas decorations”, she told us. “But when I got them home, I realized I had bought another set of salt-and-pepper shakers!”
We spent about an hour with Shirley, enjoying her company, hearing a little of her life story, relaxing in her old lounge chairs over a coffee and a biscuit or two. We played with her pet dog, Teekah. Shirley showed us the Christmas decorations she puts up inside her house each year. Plainly, Shirley loves Christmastime and all the paraphernalia of Christmas. However, she was quick to point out that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, “That’s the real meaning of Christmas,” she told me when I first asked her about the nativity scene in her front yard.
Before we departed, Shirley asked us if we needed a place to stay overnight: “You can stay in my caravan if you would like.” We were surprised and somewhat humbled by her generosity, but this time we declined. We planned to stay in Mitchell that night.
Be assured: There’s nothing like genuine country hospitality.
On Christmas Day, if you happen to be in one of Queensland’s outback towns, after church (if there’s a service) head down to the local pub for a dinky-di Australian Christmas “dinner” (that is, lunch). You’ll receive a warm welcome there. You might even be invited home by one of the locals!