Today is the 21st of December, the setting of the greatest Christmas song ever produced. Paul Kelly’s ‘How to make gravy’ should be on endless repeat today, because it is honest, it is real, and it is very much us.
We’re a land of fine Christmas tradition. The tree goes up, the baubles emerge, and eyes are cast across both the retail scrum and whoever is diving too far into the punch.
However, as we ring in the silly season, our soundtrack doesn’t seem to fit. We drop the needle on the Christmas standards of others. Let it snow! Doesn’t really work (maybe ‘hail’ would be a fair substitute), White Christmas is more assumption than truth, conversely, the closest we have to an Australian take on Christmas is Kevin ‘Bloody’ Wilson querying Santa Claus on the location of the bicycle he doesn’t have, labelling Kris Kringle a female reproductive organ. If you think that is Australian, good on ya, and I hope you turn down the music when the constabulary raps on the door at 2 am.
But, we do have something to cling to. Something inherently us, something we can play in front of the family. Today is the 21st of December, colloquially known on Twitter as “#gravyday”, in reference to Paul Kelly’s seminal Chrimbo banger, How to make gravy.
Paul Kelly has long been our only poet of note. The rest were articulating nationalistic nonsense, a horse down a hill, a verandah out the back and lonely drinking establishments minus the VB. Jog on. Kelly has always cut directly to who we are: A shagging, baleful mass that makes mistakes, and forever regrets the actions you made for reasons you don’t understand.
How to make gravy was born from charity, as Kelly was asked to write a Christmas song, one that he later described as “it doesn’t have a chorus, and is set in a prison.”
Much like ‘White Christmas’, we open with a lack of Christmas. Joe is ringing from prison, musing about the upcoming Christmas he will be missing out on. As we understand only when we stop doing it, the absence of tradition makes tradition important. The pedestrian nature of Christmas, the drag, the relatives, the faff, the arguments, the garbage, we tend to take it all for granted. Boxing Day is a relief, a feeling of thank god that’s over. Joe will be absent, but he’s making us feel it, optimistically setting a date for his parole: ‘If I get good behaviour, I’ll be out of here by July’, but, invariably, his mind slips from the singular to the collective, and what he’s missing most, asking Joe to ‘kiss my kids on Christmas Day, please don’t let ’em cry for me’.
The beauty of the song, is its timing. In prison, you have a surplus of time. One day feels like forever. Kelly, marvellously, had Joe make his call days before the date, indicating that Joe has had nothing to do but ruminate on the upcoming holiday, the meaning of, and the fears it enables. He has the same terror of Christmas we all did as kids. We want to be the day already. That, or he didn’t want to torpedo the actual day itself, having the family disappointment ring from prison. Shame is the engine that powers the verse, but Joe is wonderfully confused. He wants to be there, but he doesn’t want them to remember he’s here.
The proceeding verses speak loudly to the capitulation of Joe’s stoicism, woe cascading, musing on all the things he won’t be experiencing, the heat, the small talk about how long it took whoever to get there, and crucially, who has replaced him in the family unit, the eponymous making of the gravy. Who’s gonna make the gravy now? I bet it won’t taste the same, is the hook, but the subtext is that he’s hoping that whoever makes it, ruins it, hoping that someone loudly muses on the quality of last year’s gravy, when Joe made it. The gravy is crucial, both in him offering his secret recipe, both to be remembered, and to soften the blow of his absence. He might have ruined everything else, but not the gravy. The gravy remains pure. He wants his absence to be noted, and not noted. This is Joe’s recipe we’re making. Of course, no-one cares about the gravy, they’ll invariably ask Dan about the phone call they’re having now.
Joe’s mind is a mess at this stage, criticising the liberally perfumed ghosts of Christmases past, the contours of his annual punching bag, Roger, musing that their holiday ruining fight had meaning, stating that there’s no-one in prison worth fighting with. At this point of the song, I’m wondering if Dan might be glad that his problematic brother will be absent. There’ll be no fight to break up, he won’t have to protect Rita, we won’t have to taste Joe’s garbage cooking.
Joe may suspect Dan is feeling this way, as Joe accuses Dan of theoretically stealing the object of his affection, Rita, imagining that Dan will move in, mind building the tableau, soundtracked to the tune of Junior Murvin, with his own flesh and blood sampling what he can’t, music, the touch of love, someone to dance with. Joe will be thinking of her, hoping, wishing, that she’ll be thinking of him, but she won’t, she’ll be having too much fun, probably making out with his villainous brother. The only thing he can do is make his brother promise that he won’t do the thing to that he made up: ‘Just don’t hold her too close, oh brother please don’t stab me in the back.’
He fucked up, he fucked everything up.
The gravy, of course, is his link to the past. The time before prison. If he makes it, like he used to, all will be forgiven. It’s ambrosia of the gods, it’s redemption, it’s a Christmas miracle. All it’ll take, is a shitload of gravy. Frankly, I hope Joe made it out of prison, to attend the next Christmas, gleefully drowning plates in gravy, as his relatives, and Rita, smile with darting eyes, unsure how to, or if they should ask him to stop.
You know one of these days, I’ll be making gravy, I’ll be making plenty, I’m gonna pay ’em all back
Brutally, we’re spared the day itself. Much like the standard horror movie trope, our minds are left to tie up the loose ends. Did he make parole? Did he call on the day? Did he the phone just ring? Who did he speak to? Did he survive Christmas Day? Did he make that gravy?
We don’t know, but Kelly offers a clue, stating: “That’s the great thing about Christmas, it comes around every year, so you always get another shot.”