Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hijinks underscore tribal holiday cheer

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BRISBANE -- Christmas Day, 11:30 a.m., and four men, two boys and several cans of beer are gathered in a backyard pool on a broiling Australian morning.

The four adults -- who range from a miner to public servant to talented linguist working in the nation's capital -- are chatting happily, pausing only to place one hand on the head of one of the boys, pushing the child down into the watery depths.

It's a dunking. An ancient tradition whereby a senior member of the tribe attempts a murder-by-drowning of a younger member of the tribe, aided and abetted by all members of the tribe.

The potential homicide is only aborted when an ever-so-slight change in the tempo of the child's theatrical struggles below signal the fun is ending and death, while not imminent, is now definitely on the table.

And so he surfaces spluttering "you just about bloody well killed me, Uncle Paul,'' to the cheerful grins of the gathering who all have an element of their DNA invested in this precious child, yet happily lend their moral authority to an attempt on his life.

To press home the point, the boy's own loving father lazily swims over and subjects the child to another brief submersion after allowing an acceptable time for recovery.

All know the rules. All have been dunked by an elder. My father dunked me in the clear blue waters of Queensland's Pioneer River one sunny Sunday afternoon in 1971, possibly in the same stretch of water his own father dunked him 40 years earlier.

And no doubt his own father was dunked in the more-chilly waters of the Shannon River one summer's day in the late 19th century, while the grinning, pock-marked faces of his famine- surviving elders gazed on with that same look of benevolent amusement.

It's a ritual, time-honoured and linking one generation to the next. Yet the fact an adult might enter a body of water after drinking just one can of beer is regarded as an abomination by the ever-widening sector of enforcement officials acting on behalf of our growing nanny state.

If those whose instinct for punishment is most powerful have their way, the harmless dunking may soon find its finale in a criminal trial, a can of beer tendered as a contributing factor.

And yet, on this one day of the year, that clipboarded world of thin-lipped regulation and enforcement is banished.

For Christmas, even with its still recognizable spiritual undercurrents, is tribal.

For millions fortunate enough to have even a few strands of a family, Christmas is first and foremost a clan gathering where inappropriate calorie intake, potentially dangerous alcohol consumption, criminally irresponsible dunks and the crude mischief of otherwise well-bred children are not merely tolerated, but encouraged.

On the last point, Maggie, a whimsical 13-year-old with the soul of an angel and the mind of a ruthless Tudor queen, won our own gong for joke-of-the-day.

Australians have long embraced the globally circulated urban myth that those who drink beer in a backyard pool, and secretly relieve themselves without taking a trip to the bathroom, will be exposed by an incriminating red dye that will billow around them.

Maggie, knowing the minds of men and their propensity to accuse others of the very crime they know themselves capable of committing, listens to the routine round of threats and accusation regarding toilet etiquette accompanying any pool gathering where drink is taken.

She slips into the kitchen, steals a vial of her mother's red food dye, joins the pool gathering for a few languid strokes then exits swiftly to join her father, a co-conspirator already hanging over the pool gate waiting for the game to begin.

The dye is as a friendly as a Labrador pup, swirling around one man who is shouted down as the culprit before moving swiftly on to his chief accuser, slowly implicating every self-righteous pool occupant by the time its work is done.

Crude toilet humour? Certainly, perhaps leavened by the fact Australian men don't routinely relieve themselves in swimming pools.

And just one of a million stories from a wonderful Christmas Day in a sweltering Southern Hemisphere.

Happy New Year.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2013 A17

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