In an ABC program exploring Christmas experiences that stay with us, Norman Swan shares a childhood secret, an Indigenous woman tells of surviving Cyclone Tracy and the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Scrub Choir celebrates the end of a year like no other.

Last year I was driving back from a shoot for the ABC’s Compass program with colleague and cinematographer Richard Corfield.
There was a massive storm brewing and as the wind howled around us, he told me a story that was so moving, that by the time we got back to the ABC, I was in tears.
It was Christmas Day 30 years ago and Richard and his partner Juliet were on their very first date.
They were having a picnic in a national park in Sydney when a family approached them, visibly distressed.
“They came up to me and Juliet and said had we seen a little girl who’s gone missing? She’s a toddler, she’s wearing a blue sailor suit,” recalls Richard Corfield.
“We said we hadn’t seen her and we hoped they’d find her and we went on with our walk.”
They’d been walking for a while when suddenly they heard whimpering.
“It was an absolute sobbing sound,” says Corfield.
They looked up and could just make out a blue shape high on a ledge.
Cinematographer Richard Corfield recalls an unforgettable Christmas Day, 30 years ago, when he found a missing toddler and carried her back to her parents.(ABC News)
Without thinking, Richard hurtled off up the hill, fighting off the sticks and shrubbery until he reached the little girl.
She held her hands out to him as if to say, ‘take me’ and he picked her up and raced back down the hill to Juliet.
When they handed her over to the relieved parents, no-one said a word because everyone was crying.
It was a Christmas he’s never forgotten.
“I often think about that little girl,” says Corfield.
“She’d be in her early thirties now, an adult.”
Back at the office, I asked Richard to retell the story to the Compass team.
Same reaction.
It got us thinking about how we all have a Christmas experience that stays with us.
Sometimes good, sometimes bad.
That little story about the search for a missing child became the inspiration for a one-hour documentary That Christmas a collection of 11 personal stories about an unforgettable Christmas, told by the famous and not so famous people who lived it.
As well as Richard’s tale of the missing child, Noongar woman Pearl Chaloupka takes us back to being a seven-year-old girl living through Cyclone Tracy as it devastated Darwin in 1974.
“At one stage the roof completely blew off the house and I could see the sky,” she recalls.
“There’s a lot of us that can’t forget that Christmas.”
Pearl Chaloupka with a sketch of her father and her as a child sheltering in a bathtub during Cyclone Tracy.(ABC News)
Scottish-born ABC health journalist Norman Swan, who is Jewish, fesses up to a secret from his childhood.
“My mother was in a panic because not only did we have a secret Christmas with a Christmas stocking, she had a son playing in the Christmas carol concert,” Dr Swan says.
“We could not tell anybody, we were told we would be excommunicated if the rabbi ever found out.
“And the excuse my mother gave was that it was OK was that Santa Claus was Jewish, which made complete sense to us because Jesus was Jewish originally, therefore, why wouldn’t Santa be?”
Indigenous artist Blak Douglas tells of never really understanding an Australian Christmas until a chance encounter with a white kangaroo when his father took him on country.
Writers and siblings Benjamin and Michelle Law share a culture clash of giving and receiving gifts within their Chinese-Australian family and Benjamin coming out as gay on Christmas Day.
“Whenever we would get Dad a gift, he would flip it over and if it was made in China he would say, ‘Hmmm, not good quality’,” Mr Law says.
“Which is weird because, as we pointed out to him, he was made in China.”
Broadcaster Richard Glover’s dog Clancy gives his version of the so-called ‘great Christmas ham incident’ and there are another five moving, memorable and funny stories.
To wrap it up, Royal Melbourne Hospital frontline workers, the Scrub Choir, perform a rewrite of an old Christmas classic.
That Christmas tells the story of unforgettable Christmases, good and bad.(ABC News)
Recreating Christmas past
Wherever possible, we told these stories by filming recreations.
While recreating Pearl’s experience of hiding in the bath as Cyclone Tracy raged, we had a real-life drama.
Re-enacting Pearl Chaloupka’s Christmas Eve experience of sheltering in a bath during Cyclone Tracy.(ABC News)
We had worked hard at casting this scene.
Pearl and her sister as children were played by two young Indigenous girls who were very excited to be pretending to be scared.
Pearl’s mum was played by a dear friend who was doing it as a favour.
We had even borrowed a dog.
Our researcher had searched far and wide for someone who could match Pearl’s father, who had a long bushy beard, and found a suitable man named William.
Everyone was ready to start filming, with William due to arrive any minute.
The phone rang and it was William’s partner informing us that he’d just fainted in the shower and an ambulance was on the way.
But, she said, he still wanted to be in the scene.
Shocked and full of concern for William, I told her ‘No, do not even consider it, he needs to get checked out and tell him not to worry about us.’
But in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘Where can I find a bushy-bearded man at short notice?’
Thankfully, William was OK and we found someone else to stand in.
Unfortunately, he was clean-shaven so we had to film in a way that his chin was out of shot.
Norman Swan with the flute his father gave him and he played in a Christmas concert.(ABC News)
To recreate Dr Swan’s ‘secret’ childhood Christmas, we cast our family members and friends as the young Swan brothers, waking up excited and guilty to open their Christmas stockings.
And Dr Swan still had the actual flute his father gave him that he’d played in the Christmas concert.
It hadn’t been taken out of its case for about 30 years and he was nervous performing in front of the camera.
“My father the woodwind teacher is about to spin in his grave as I play [Silent Night] with almost the same skill as when I was 10,” he joked.
We decided to tell the story of Glover’s family’s memorable Christmas party from the point of view of his dog, Clancy, and fitted him with a small ‘dog cam’ on his back.
Clancy being fitted with ‘dog cam’ for his starring role in a tale about the ‘great Christmas ham incident’.(ABC News)
It showed his ears in shot as he wandered around the garden while pretend guests cracked the crackers and ate barbecued sangers.
One guest even said to me, ‘Today feels just like a real Christmas!’.
We dried lavender from our garden for Benjamin Law’s recollection of giving his father homemade potpourri.
We cooked food from the ’70s, decorated the same Christmas tree multiple times and walked around a hospital in a Santa suit in October to recapture these stories as accurately as possible.
A fitting finale in the year of COVID
The final story is one I feel immensely grateful for.
Emma O’Brien runs the music therapy program for the Royal Melbourne Hospital and started the Scrub Choir, a virtual choir made up of frontline workers nurses, doctors, cleaners who’ve been put to the test throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Emma does not do things by halves.
Within days of me inviting the choir to be part of our program, she re-wrote a classic Christmas carol, We Wish You A Merry Christmas, sent out the guide track to the choir and put out a call for anyone interested in being part to sing into their phones after work, waltz in the hospital corridors, and hold up Christmas messages.
Melbourne was deep in the second lockdown and the health workers were exhausted, but Emma received more than 400 responses, topping any other previous request for choir performances.
It was the perfect, uplifting, end to a program about a Christmas like no other, in a year like no other.
That Christmas goes to air on ABC and iview on Tuesday, December 8 at 9:20pm