In two day’s time I’ll be getting in a car with several friends and together we’ll drive from Melbourne to Canberra for Christmas. We won’t be having Christmas together: I’ll be going to my family and my friends will be going to theirs. One of the reasons I moved to Melbourne in the middle of 2004 was because so many of my friends from Canberra had moved down here before me, and inevitably, like the Bogong Moths (Agrotis infusa) which sweep in their millions through Canberra every spring, come Christmas we all head back to the town that raised us.
Christmas is a hectic time for everybody but in Australia all that frantic to-ing and fro-ing, planning and cooking, travelling and shopping, is softened by the drowsy rhythms of summer. Christmas in Australia is as much about the boozy, overfed afternoon sleep on Christmas Day as it is about turkey and plum pudding and Christmas crackers; it’s as much about leftovers for lunch in front of the TV for the first day of the Boxing Day cricket test match as it is about giving.
Though Australians have held fast to the traditions of our nation’s British ancestors, we’ve found a way to make them our own. Many of the traditions and expectations of Christmastime in Australia are as much to do with the season, summer, as with the celebration. There’s a correctness to having summer at the end of the calendar year which makes me wonder how anybody could tolerate anything different. The end of a year is an introspective period at the best of times; heaping cold and dark and short days upon that mood seems cruel. Although winter is actually my favourite time of year, I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that in Australia it falls in the middle of the year, at a time when the season can feel like an adventure in a year still only half-lived, rather than an ordeal at the end of a year now exhausted.
Christmastime in Australia is a time of bare concrete glaring in the sun like new-fallen snow; of cicadas singing the heat into the air; of bark and leaves piling up beneath eucalypts in desiccated brown mounds like middens. It’s a time, too, of Christmas Beetles.
Christmas Beetles are named for the time of year at which they emerge, but when I was a child I believed that they were also named for the iridescent metallic colours that glitter like tinsel across their carapace. They’re reasonably large beetles, with the species prevalent in Canberra being about the size of a man’s thumbnail. That species’ base colour is orangey-brown, but over that is a sheen of green which flashes in the summer sun. The animals are cumbersome in the way of all beetles, stumbling over leaf-litter and opening their wings to launch themselves in rattling, ponderous flight. They’re one of the few insects which can claim to be fondly regarded by humans.
If they’re found in Melbourne, I haven’t recognised them: there are thirty-four species of Christmas Beetle, all in the genus Anoplognathus, but the only one I’m familiar with is the one that’s common in Canberra. I can’t recall having seen that particular species since I moved to Melbourne. Melbourne has nothing like the large and disjointed network of areas of remnant bushland that collectively make up the Canberra Nature Park and which provide habitat and refuge for any number of native animals, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I haven’t noticed any Christmas Beetles here; but what is surprising is that I’ve gone back to Canberra nearly every Christmas since I moved to Melbourne, and I can’t recall having seen a great many Christmas Beetles on any of those occasions, either.
Perhaps they’d all died off by the time I got to Canberra, having emerged from the earth at the start of the summer and completed their brief lives before I had a chance to see them – though from what I’ve read the adult beetles live relatively long lives, being prevalent throughout summer, so it seems unlikely. Perhaps there simply haven’t been any good seasons for them in the last seven years: I can still recall a summer about ten years ago when Canberra was deafened by an extraordinarily large number of Black Prince Cicadas (Psaltoda plaga), yet in the years before and after that there were hardly any.
Perhaps, too, my memory is simply incorrect. I’ve written before on this blog about the unreliability of memory, and childhood memories are probably more unreliable than most. I recall from my childhood great numbers of Christmas Beetles every year, Christmas Beetles everywhere: getting underfoot, dying on hot driveways, crawling under doors. But were they real? Did these things really happen? I remember also summer nights so hot I had to lie beneath a damp sheet just to get to sleep; yet from the time I was old enough to put a specific age to my memories to the time I left Canberra for Melbourne, there were no such nights. Perhaps the sensations of childhood – both as experienced at the time, and as recalled years later – are just more intense than those of adulthood.
When I was a child I could barely get to sleep on Christmas Eve, so excited was I about the day to come. Such excitement – derived exclusively from the promise of presents on Christmas Day – can’t last, or at any rate it would be deeply concerning if it did last. Although it’s still a few days away, Christmas this year hasn’t gone to plan, and in terms of gift-giving it’s going to be a more restrained affair than usual. If that had happened when I was a child I would have been bitterly disappointed. But I’m not a child any more, and I’ll get to spend a day in a road-trip with my friends, and I’ll get to spend a week with my family, and I’ll get to play with the family dog – and before returning to Melbourne for New Year’s Eve I’ll have a week to try to spot a Christmas Beetle. If I find one I’ll pick it up, and place it on my hand the way I did when I was a child, and feel the strange and slightly frightening sensation of its claws anchoring into my flesh as it crawls across my hand, and then I’ll place the beetle back on the ground to continue towards its lumbering, unknowable purpose, while beneath us the larvae that will become next Christmas’s beetles feed, and grow, and wait for the sun to call them out of the earth.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org