Every Christmas Australians hit peak irony: belting out songs about snow and ice, while dressed in their ‘good thongs’ at the local carols.
Apart from ‘Six White Boomers’ and Bucko and Champ’s take on Jingle Bells, Aussie Christmas tunes have struggled to make headway against the Northern Hemisphere favourites.
But in 1996, Paul Kelly changed that with a Christmas song that by his own admission should never have lasted the test of time.
He told the ABC in 2017 that How to Make Gravy “was a song that doesn’t have a chorus and it’s set in prison. I never thought it would be a hit song or anything.”
The song now ensures that December 21st is known as Gravy Day, and paints a picture of a traditional Aussie Christmas, with a twist. The lyrics tells the story of a prisoner, and his heartbreak at missing not only Christmas with the family, but his only job – making the gravy.
It’s the song writing genius of Paul Kelly that tells the story of Joe through a letter written to his family, although I always imagined it as a message left on an answering machine. It’s the ultimate way of thinking outside the box as to whose heart yearns to be with their family at Christmas.
Hello Dan, It’s Joe Here
In the first verse we learn that Joe is doing time, for an unknown crime. He’s hoping to be out by July with good behaviour, and it’s at this point that Kelly humanises him. When Joe asks his brother Dan to ‘kiss my kids on Christmas Day’, we’re immediately on his side. Joe isn’t some monster in the slammer, he’s just an ordinary bloke who’s made some mistakes and misses his family. As the song progresses, we find out just how much Joe is sorry for letting his family down.
The song features the all too familiar scene of an Aussie Christmas – sitting down to a roast dinner in sweltering heat. It’s here that Kelly unleashes the secret gravy recipe, just four ingredients – ‘flour, salt, a little red wine, and don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for that sweetness and extra tang.’
And for the record the recipe is a legitimate one, picked up from Paul Kelly’s first wife’s father just on 40 years ago.
Please Don’t Stab Me in the Back
Throughout the song we’re introduced to other family members as Joe apologises for ‘screwing up’. But it’s his love for Rita that is laid bare as he asks Dan to dance with her after Christmas dinner – but with one condition: ‘Just don’t hold her too close’.
It’s at this point in the song that Kelly name checks the Jamaican reggae artist Junior Murvin. It’s an interesting choice, over the countless musical heroes that could have been mentioned. Paul had been a long time fan of his music and voice, and in the late 90’s was involved in the reggae/dub side project Professor Ratbaggy.
We see another side of Joe – the dismay at not being in control of his destiny, and the hope that Rita hangs in there and stands by him. For Joe, Rita is the one that’s going to save him.
In the final verse Joe pleads with his family for forgiveness, instructing Dan to ‘tell em all I’m sorry.’ And there’s a promise for the future that Joe will make good on his mistakes by once again making the gravy.
To Joe the gravy is a symbol of bigger things; it’s a chance at forgiveness, reconciliation and hope. It’s a reflection of what we all wish for, not just during Christmas but all year around.
We never find out what happened to him, but every year on Gravy Day I think about Joe. I hope he got out and stayed out. I hope that he found his saviour in Rita and that every Christmas there was gravy for all.