Ideas for a brighter future for all

Why do Australians celebrate “Gravy Day”?

You may have had gravy, but do you know how to make it? Sure. Gravy. Tasty. But what’s it got to do with Christmas? And why is it so significant that we now have Gravy Day? It all starts with Paul Kelly’s 1996 song, “How to Make Gravy”. By this time, Paul Kelly was already considered a national treasure as a songwriter and musician.

But this was his Christmas song. It’s an interesting song because it’s long, it has no chorus, and it’s from the perspective of a prisoner who’s writing to his family, saying it’s the 21st of December who’s going to make the gravy for the Christmas roast? Condiments, just like pop songs, might seem like a minor thing, but we can see them as the tip of a cultural iceberg, and they connect to very deep and powerful notions of who we are and where we belong.

And that’s why 25 years after its release, thousands of people gather each year to sing along to “How to Make Gravy”.

Backstory

Paul Kelly was already an Australian icon at the time when the song was released in 1996. He was invited to provide a song to a Christmas charity CD, the cover song he wanted to do was taken so he wrote his own song, and it was “How to Make Gravy” and it became a classic in its own right.

It’s an interesting song as Paul Kelly often points out, it’s a long song. It’s got no chorus, and it’s set in a prison. So how could this be a hit? But there’s a number of reasons why, in fact, even having a song from the perspective of a prisoner is the sort of thing that appeals in a pop song. Either way, great songs don’t just reflect our own experience, they also have the power to bring us closer to other people and points of view, allowing us to feel what we have in common.

The song is actually an epistolary song, which means it’s in the form of a letter, like “P.S. I Love You” by the Beatles. It’s a classic format, so the song has a large amount of detail. It starts with It’s me, Joe”. It’s the 21st of December, he’s writing to his family and listing their names. He’s listing the locations they now live and talks about the weather, all of these specifics, and of course, the food. He gives the recipe for how to make gravy.

"When you have a song called “How to Make Gravy”, it's actually about a certain idea of what Christmas is. What does one do at Christmas? Who do you do it with? And what does that say about the kind of people we are and what we value?."
Gravy Day in culture

One of the ways to think about culture is as an iceberg. At the tip of the iceberg there is food, language, dress, and rituals, the really obvious things that lead to a much deeper and larger set of beliefs and values and identities.

When we talk about something like food, or events like Christmas, or music, including popular music, we’re often talking about identity – our individual identity, our tastes and our personal memories – but they’re always connected to and only really make sense in relation to larger collective identities. When you have a song called “How to Make Gravy”, it’s actually about a certain idea of what Christmas is. What does one do at Christmas? Who do you do it with? And what does that say about the kind of people we are and what we value?

Author

Dr Ben GreenDr Ben Green is a Griffith University Postdoctoral Fellow in the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research where he is studying crisis and reinvention in Australia’s live music sector.

Ben is a cultural sociologist with interests in popular music and youth studies. His previous work includes research for local governments on cultural infrastructure and live music planning and policy; a national study of young musicians’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic, in collaboration with researchers in Portugal and the United Kingdom; exploring experiences of COVID-19 in the arts sector, and research into regional music scenes across Australia.

Ben’s first book is Peak Music Experiences: A New Perspective on Popular Music, Identity and Scenes (Routledge 2021) and he has published in journals such as Sociology and Popular Music as well as chapters in various edited collections. He is a co-editor of Popular Music Scenes: A Regional and Rural Perspective (Palgrave Macmillan forthcoming) and is currently co-writing a book for Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series.

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