But we've a bush for Christmas…

But we've a bush for Christmas…
The Australian carol tradition
4 December 2014

Alongside my work at the National Library of Australia, I'm a choir conductor. It just doesn't feel like Christmas until I’ve sung my favourite carols many times over. By the time Christmas Day rolled around last year, I'd sung and conducted approximately 5,600 verses of O Come, all ye faithful that month in carol services, concerts, rehearsals, midnight mass, and a live radio broadcast. Or it felt that way, at least.

Many Australians my age (30-something) and older will probably know and love the immensely popular Australian carols by W.G. James and John Wheeler dating from the 1940s and 50s. How many of us sang the Carol of the Birds (you know, 'Out on the plains, the brolgas are dancing'), Three Drovers ('Across the plains one Christmas night, three drovers riding blithe and gay'), or Christmas Day ('The north wind is tossing the leaves, the red dust is over the town') at sweltering school concerts, year after year? You might have seen the great article in the Library's magazine a couple of years ago that explored the James/Wheeler collaboration in depth.

However, Australian carols have a far longer history. Christmas was one of the most cherished traditions that the early colonists brought with them to the antipodes. Of course, winter imagery became absurd in the searing landscape. In parallel with their artistic and literary colleagues, musicians began to create works that better suited the climate.

Samuel Calvert - Bushman's Dream

This glowing colonist is dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know. Samuel Calvert (1828-1913) The Bushman's Dream, 1869. Wood engraving, Pictures Collection, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an8927781

Christmas music had been composed in Australia during the 1850s, but the earliest example of a carol with specifically Australian words dates from 1863. Our Australian Christmas Song was composed by the delightfully named Ernesto Spagnoletti, and published by Alonzo Grocott of Bathurst Street.

We have a copy of Our Australian Christmas Song in our Music Collection, and you can view it both online and in our Forte sheet music app. Maybe the musical types out there would like to sing it during their Christmas break, or even lead a grassroots campaign to have it included in next year's Carols by Candlelight.

Our Australian Christmas Song - cover

The front cover of the sheet music for Ernesto Spagnoletti's Our Australian Christmas Song. It was published in 1863 and is believed to be the first carol written with specifically Australian words. Music Collection, http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-an13413458

The tune is a lively romp in D major, and the rather charming words go like this:

We welcome thee, old Christmas,
to this happy land of ours,
we welcome thee with sunshine,
we'll strew thy path with flowers.

Our beauteous birds shall greet thee,
glad welcome they shall sing,
and wildflowers' fragrance meet thee,
borne on the Zephyr's wing.

We have no wreath of holly,
no branch of mistletoe,
but we've a bush for Christmas
and smiling lips below.

No fireside cheer we offer,
no yule log blazing high,
but the sunny smile of heaven
beams in our summer sky.

There were, in fact, two composers in Sydney named Ernesto Spagnoletti, a father and a son who had arrived from England as part of a family of eight in 1853. The family quickly established themselves as music teachers and performers, and you can trace many of their activities using Trove newspapers. The elder Ernesto had studied violin at the Royal Academy in London, where his own father Paolo was a respected teacher. They associated with the likes of Sir Henry Bishop (1786-1855), who is now chiefly remembered for Home, sweet home, the signature song of Dames Melba and Sutherland.

We are not sure which Ernesto was responsible for Our Australian Christmas Song. The elder had died the year before, so the younger seems likely, unless of course it was published posthumously.

Nor is name of the lyricist given. Spagnoletti the elder had collaborated in 1860 with 'An Australian Lady', author and naturalist Louisa Atkinson, on another popular bush-themed song titled Cooey! It is tempting to speculate that she also penned the words for the Christmas Song. We may never know.

Lionel Lindsay - St Philip's Church, Sydney, 1919

Sir Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961) St Philip's Church, Sydney, near which Our Australian Christmas Song was first performed. Mezzotint print, Pictures Collection, http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an10757446

We do know that the first performance of the carol took place at a concert in the schoolroom of St Philip's Church, Sydney, on 10 November 1863. The Sydney Empire reported the next day:

One of the greatest treats of the evening was 'Our Australian Christmas', composed by Ernesto Spagnoletti, sung by Miss Spagnoletti, and which satisfied the most critical, while the delivery of the melodious passages must have convinced all of the delicacy and natural rendering of the performance. We understand this song has just been published.

Many other Australian carols appeared through the ensuing decades. There's even one by Ron Grainer, a Queensland-born composer later associated with the Dr Who theme. But that's a story for another day.


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Reader Wendy Davis tells me she has made a piano recording of the Our Australian Christmas Song, which you can hear at https://soundcloud.com/wendyldavis/our-australian-christmas-song
amazing how this arrived in UK and sent onto me last night. John was most impressed and forwarded it onto me this morning. A wealth of information there Matt.
Thank you Noeline!
Well done, Matthew. I admire how you combine your vocation and avocation in such interesting ways! Regards, Colin.
Thanks, Colin! M