How To Make Gravy (and good Christmas music)

This month in Australia, countless folk will relish Paul Kelly’s unforgettable narrative, How To Make Gravy.

In this sunburnt country, Christmas rolls around in the humid summer. America’s soft power ensures that imagery of sleighs, Santa, and snow still nestle their way into our shopping centres and advertisements; but there’s no denying the cultural disconnect.

An Australian Christmas is celebrated in a vastly different environment, and no artist has captured this reality more vividly than Paul Kelly. The observant storytelling found on How To Make Gravy is the closest thing we have to an ‘Australian Christmas Carol’. To commemorate this timeless classic, we’re scouring the lyrics for timely themes and emotional brilliance. The findings are unsurprisingly lucrative.

How To Make Gravy
Image: Cybele Malinowski


“Hello Dan, it’s Joe here. I hope you’re keeping well”

Kelly adopts a fictional protagonist, Joe. He’s writing to his brother Dan from behind the bars of a prison cell, coming to terms with the fact that he’s going to miss the beloved family Christmas. The warm electric slide guitar bleeds empathy, alongside the devastating lyrics.

Prison may seem like a foreign concept, but amidst COVID restrictions and Aussies stuck overseas, feelings of isolation have become increasingly familiar. This year, Kelly dropped a new music video for the track, dedicated to “those who can be there and those who can’t”, solidifying this new dimension of relatability.

It’s also well worth mentioning that Indigenous Australian’s are the most incarcerated group on Earth. This inequality has been explored consistently by Kelly throughout his discography, alongside other Australian legends like Midnight Oil.

Family Traditions

Every family has those little traits to make Christmas lunches their own. Maybe it’s grandma’s keen insistence on a gift-spending-limit, that everyone always breaks. Maybe it’s a dip in the backyard pool that quickly turns into a wicked water fight. For Joe, it’s his famous (and somewhat controversial) gravy recipe:

“Just add flour, salt, a little red wine, and don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang”.

This lyric is unforgettable in its realism. Kelly actually learnt this recipe from his father-in-law, embellishing the fictional tale with a vivid personality.

Love & Fear

Renowned psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross coined the notion that there are only two emotions: love and fear. On How To Make Gravy, they stand together, naked and heavy.

“Won’t you kiss my kids on Christmas day? Please don’t let ’em cry”, Joe yearns from the cell. Next to this undying love for his family, is the fear that his absence will make it crumble. Our imprisoned battler also sprays a warning to his brother, asking him not to hold his wife Rita too close – “Oh brother, please don’t stab me in the back”. We’ve all experienced that fear of a relationship dissolving through distance, and it doesn’t get much more distant than prison. It’s understandable that Joe’s emotions are amplified to the ninth.

Paul Kelly Cares About Christmas

“Christmas music gets a bad wrap because people hear the same carols and pop songs in supermarkets and shopping malls”, Kelly told The Guardian this year. This gives an insight into why Kelly released a 22-track record, Christmas Train this November. The album served up modern takes on Christmas classics like Silent Night, but also offered new songs that bustled along with signature rock cheer. The album was largely collaborative, embodying a spirit of togetherness intrinsically tied to the silly season.

It’s clear that Kelly has a passion for Christmas, embedded in family tradition and Australian culture. Naturally, Kelly rerecorded How To Make Gravy for the album, and of course, its staying power and timely resonance are unquestionable. Its tangible qualities ring out far louder than the decadence of competing carols.  If there was ever an Australian Christmas Carol, ask yourself, what other track even comes close?

Stay safe this Christmas, and have a happy Gravy Day.

Written By Brendan Neville – updated yearly by Happy Mag.