Christmas Birrimmbirr

The Yolngu’s Christmas ritual

Excerpt from Jennifer Deger’s chapter in the book ”The Lives of the Dead” published in connection with the exhibition at Moesgaard Museum.

Every year, the rainy season and the heavily rising waters of the rivers bring new life to the land and the people of Arnhem Land in the northeastern Australia. In the middle of October, the thunderclouds begin to roll in. They are the first signs of the life-giving rain that in the following weeks and months will emerge from the ‘pregnant’ female Wolma clouds. It makes sense to the Yolngu people that the birth of Jesus – a story they first heard told by missionaries in the middle of the 20th century – coincides with the season for dramatic change and revival of Nature. It also makes sense that the newly introduced holiday is a very important time of the year for remembering and reconnecting with your deceased loved ones.

The Yolngu families begin their preparations for the Christmas ritual in the middle of October, when the Wolma clouds begin to rumble. They decorate their homes and the graves with coloured light bulbs and brightly coloured decorations, thereby creating a small oasis of light. The desired effect is – according to Paul Gurrumuruwuy’s – to ‘attract everyone’. At the same time, it purposefully enhances the emotional effect. Family members hold pictures of their deceased relatives and recall memories of their loved ones – even painful memories. Carefully selected songs are played repeatedly, e.g. Mariah Carey’s “All I want for Christmas is you”, while silent tears fall.

The Yolngu call this form of insight into grief and loss “warrwuyum”. It is a valued dynamic in the lives of the Yolngu. The lights and the emotional expressions bring the new and the old generations closer together and reunite the families on Christmas in a place of absence and presence.

The Yolngu Christmas ritual can be experienced in the exhibition. The book “The Lives of the Dead” can be purchased in the museum shop (DKK 98).

Jennifer Deger is an anthropologist and researcher at James Cook University, Australia. For the past 20 years, she has created media projects with the Yolngu, an indigenous people in the northeastern Arnhem Land in Australia. In 2009, she established Miyarrka Media with two Yolngu – Paul Gurrumuruwuy and Fiona Yangathu – and Australian video artist David MacKenzie. Miyarrka Media produces movies and exhibitions, e.g. Christmas Birrimbirr (ie. The spirit of Christmas) which has been shown in Australia, and is currently displayed at Moesgaard Museum.