For Dean and Nicole Clark, this time of year brings memories of Christmas past, of babies in matching pyjamas, of bikes and cubby houses, and of six kids waking up before the sun. Now, the kids are teens and twenty-somethings who would rather sleep in on Christmas Day. But as Sharyn McCowen found out, the Christmas magic – and those treasured childhood traditions – are still there…
The thing that I enjoyed most when I think back to when they were kids was, like every family, the sun would barely be rising, it would still be black outside, and someone would yell, ‘I saw the sun!’” Nicole Clark recalls fondly.
“And then they would run to each other and wake each other up. They knew that they couldn’t go into the lounge room until they were all awake.”
Over 26 years of parenthood Nicole and husband Dean have witnessed Christmas Day evolve. Some trends have come and gone, while others – like the family tradition of making a nativity scene each year – have held fast.
“It was always fun,” Nicole says. “It was always a lovely activity that we did together.
“I’d love to keep it going.”
Nicole, an Auslan interpreter for the Ephpheta Centre, the Sydney archdiocesan agency for the deaf, and Dean, a soldier turned industrial arts and VET Construction teacher at Holy Spirit College, Lakemba, together with their six children, are parishioners of St Luke’s, Revesby.
Brooke, 26, is an RE and HSIE teacher, also at Holy Spirit Lakemba. The 21-year-old twins Grace, a private nanny, and Georgia, a dental nurse, were followed by Brydie, 20, a second-year theology student at Australian Catholic University. Belle, 19, just completed her first year at Sydney Film School, while Max, 17, is in Year 12 at St Gregory’s College, Gregory Hills.
When the children were small, the Christmas tree was barricaded in a playpen away from mischievous hands. Years later, Nicole still finds herself shooing them away from the tree, as they attempt to hide the odd Doctor Who or Firefly ornament among the tasteful red and gold baubles.
Some traditions were simply the by-product of life in a big family. Nicole made the family Advent calendar, with each pocket large enough to hold six small gifts. And, rather than hand out presents from under the tree, each child claimed a spot in the lounge room where their presents would be placed.
Others were about balancing the workload during such a busy period.
“The rule has always been that I wrap everything for the kids, and Nicole wraps everything that leaves the house,” Dean says.
And some have stuck around even when the kids were ready to let go.
Max fondly remembers “coming home from midnight Mass, putting our signs out and leaving the glass of milk and the carrot out for Santa and Rudolf – Mum still does it now I don’t know why!”
For many years Christmas Day saw the Clark family attending midnight Mass, opening presents early, then piling into the car and heading for Wollongong, where Dean and Nicole grew up.
“I know that Christmas is a busy time, but to be able to stop and prioritise your family is so important,” Nicole says.
“Some people in our family don’t hold the religious aspect as valuable as we do, but they hold the family aspect very closely.
“What I really hope is that this little empire passes that on.”
For Nicole, some of her sweetest Christmas moments have been found at midnight Mass with her family.
“I love midnight Mass, I love the over tired yet excited children, I love the crowded pews and the carols.”
Nicole hopes she and Dean have demonstrated the importance of parish commitments and charity work, especially at Christmas.
“Christmas is a time to be more deliberate with your generosity.
“I hope that they have come to understand it’s one thing to put some food under the tree or drop your change into someone’s tin on the side of a road but another altogether to give your time or your skills freely and generously, or be respectful and loving when in difficult situations and to choose to do what is right over what it easy – I think these are the things that keep Christ in your Christmas.”
That, she realises now, is the real battle.
“I remember the great struggle to get them all to Mass, dressed, quiet and seated before the entrance procession!
“I thought that was hard, until we raised our children to question the world and how they fit into it.
“Then I realised getting to Mass by 9am was the easy part.
“Ultimately, keeping Christ present in our family calls for creativity and open mindedness, but always rooted in our faith.”
The two hardest Christmases for the Clark family were those that Dean spent overseas with the Army, initially as an engineer then later as a carpenter.
“From the time that Belle was born up until Max was five, Dean spent most of his time overseas,” Nicole says. “He did a lot of work with the United Nations.”
While those two Christmases, when Dean was serving in Cambodia and East Timor respectively, were hard for Nicole, “it was probably 10 times harder for him”, she said.
Dean says the lack of camaraderie in the unit, combined with the difficult conditions, made for a less than festive Christmas in 1991.
“For me, the first time was really difficult. The unit that went over there [to Cambodia] was made up of people from everywhere, they just grabbed them from every unit and sent us over there.
“There was no history with us.”
While the Army did host a Christmas celebration, the unit was away from home, overtired, and “it was all a bit fake”, he recalls.
Eight years later, when he was posted overseas as part of the International Force for East Timor, he was prepared.
“The second time, for Timor, that was with a unit I had been posted to for eight months, it was my unit.”
Dean’s unit played a key role in co-ordinating what would become one of Australia’s enduring memories of East Timor: Tour of Duty – Concert for the Troops held in Dili for Christmas 1999.
“We put all the stage up; we were the roadies for it,” he says. “We had a really good time, we had a great week setting it all up and we got to meet everybody on the show.
“That Christmas Day was a lot better, it was more of a – dare I say – a community event. For me, it wasn’t like being at home, but it wasn’t bad.”
Dean has been told by psychologists that it was his strong protective instincts that drew him to the Army.
“I always wanted to, as a kid. And growing up in Wollongong in the 80s there were wasn’t much going on they were downsizing the steelworks and that was the main employer in Wollongong.
“There was enjoyable parts about it and some not so enjoyable. Now that I’ve had a few years out I can see what it gave to me.
“The training the Army gives you is second to none … it is comprehensive and well thought out, and people are empowered.”
In the lead-up to their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary last year, the Clark kids, led by ringleader Brooke, planned a surprise party in their honour.
“We turned up to a backyard full of all the people we care about, everyone in the world that we’ve had a relationship with.”
Brooke says the 12 months of planning was worth it for the look on her parents’ faces when they walked in the door.
Dean and Nicole say strong parish support was integral in raising six children.
“We had kids young so our parents were still working, so we didn’t have parents who could come and help,” Nicole says.
“But what we did have was a spectacular parish. Fortunately, cute children attract offers of help.
“We would start Mass in the same pew and by the end of Mass my kids were everywhere; people would just take them and pass them around, everyone would help me.”
The couple has always sought out parish family groups, especially those with large families.
“I looked at these families that had children who were primary school age and young teenagers, and I saw that different chaos, not that ‘I’m thirsty, I can’t find my other shoe’ chaos,” Nicole says.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t wait for that, I can’t wait for that chaos’.
“I’m loving the young adult chaos at the moment. It just brings me so much joy, this age, watching them grow into their own people.”
On starting a family young
“We were young, we were very young,” Nicole says. “I hadn’t turned 19 yet.
“One of the biggest things for us is that we were too young to be scared; we were too naive.
“Now, at my age, I would be horrified at the idea of having five pre-schoolers.
“When I think about what I did – Brooke was the only one at school when Max was born, and every day I drove her to school and picked her up. I took those five babies in every day, and I hardly ever forgot her,” Nicole says with a grin.
“Brooke is the age that I was when I had Max. I say to them, ‘I made a family. You can’t make a bed!’
“They have had a very different young adulthood to what we had, and I don’t know which one is better.
“There are a lot of positives that come from being young parents.
“I’m not 45 yet and almost all my children are adults. Now we get to enjoy this part of their life, and we’re still young.”
On the importance of routine
“We did learn very quickly that routine was key,” Nicole says.
“The kids to fend for themselves to a certain extent.
“I think that’s a byproduct of growing up in a big family; the kids learn to survive and learn to look after each other. So it wasn’t unusual to see the four-year-old looking for the two-year-old’s shoes.
“There are lots of crazy stories where things go awry, but most of the time it works, with a bit of organisation.”
Dean says, “I was a big fan of lists”.
“I would just say, ‘Make me a list, and I will work my down it’. I would do this job in between dropping someone off there and picking someone up here.”
On announcing pregnancies
“Our families were horrified as we had more children,” Nicole says.
“The reactions were mostly, ‘Really? Again?’
“It got to the point that, after Brydie, we used to get Brooke to tell people I was pregnant.”
Brooke remembers learning that Nicole was pregnant with Max.
“Dad woke me up and told me, and I said, ‘Don’t you have enough already?’”
On having a boy
“We took Max from the hospital straight to Mass; Dean swung by and picked us up,” Nicole says. “It was Sunday morning so we went to Mass.
“We arrived a bit late, and you can’t subtly sneak in with six children.
“Max was wrapped in a blue blanket, and I remember our priest at the time, Fr Kevin Starkey, watched us walk in and stopped Mass and said, ‘And the Clarks had a boy!’”
On the foundations of marriage
“Dean went to Cambodia when Brooke was three,” Nicole says. “When he left they told us he would be gone for 18 months.
“There were no phones, so Dean and I wrote letters to each other. And Dean was much more dedicated than me.
“I would just keep a notepad at the end of the kitchen bench and write whatever I could think of, ‘Brooke jumped on the trampoline today’.
“I was 22 and was without a husband for a year. I was very unaware of it at the time, but I look back now and it was a huge foundation for our marriage, that letters were the only way we could communicate.”
On the memories of Timor
“His trip to Timor was in the early days [of the INTERFET peacekeeping mission], when there was lots of horrible stuff still happening.
“When they left, the Army said, ‘We may not bring all your husbands home’, and that was the mood.
“I think Australia’s memory of East Timor is very different; it’s very celebratory.”
Telstra set up a mobile phone base and provided many Aussie troops, including Dean, with their first mobile phone.
“I had a brand new baby, so I was full of hormones,” Nicole says.
“And Dean doesn’t like a spectacle – he’s had to learn to live with a spectacle with those five daughters – but I remember him saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t cry, Nic, don’t cry.’
“So we would have the most stilted conversations because I knew that if I said anything meaningful I would burst into tears.”
On the importance of regular family dinners
“Just getting them in the house can be a challenge, and they’re all here, they all live here, but the commitments are crazy,” Nicole says.
“Monday night is family dinner night.
“When we moved here Grace and Georgia left school, so when they finished their HSC that made a big difference to our lifestyles. Only 12 months later Brydie had finished school. When all that happened, it was suddenly three or four weeks since I’d had all eight of us in the same room, so we started family dinner night.”
On whether their kids want large families of their own
“I think we’ve got a mixture,” Nicole says.
Dean says: “Some say yes, some say never!”
On getting to know their friends
“We have a big open house policy,” Nicole says. “All through the year we try to make sure everyone feels welcome. We have a big Sunday night open house every so often, where everyone brings as many friends as they want to, and Dean fires the barbie up.
“They’ve all got their own groups of friends, but I like their friends to know each other.”
“I’ve always been of the idea that all the kids’ friends are welcome, but when they’re here they do it our way, so everyone gets to pray here. And they usually are very accepting of it.”
On Christmas gifts
“Now I think what I enjoy most is now that they’re working they are very generous with each other,” Nicole says. “Every year one of them of them will buy all the others a gift. Watching them give each other presents is probably the thing I love most about Christmas.”
On coming together as one family
“What’s great is that it’s not different sides of the family anymore,” Brooke said. “Mum’s family and Dad’s family all come to the one place at the same time.”
On Christmas and the future
“It’s at the back of my mind that, when we’ve got six partners to deal with, I can’t even think about how that will impact on us as far as managing to get them all here,” Nicole says.
Nicole recently raised this concern with a long-time friend with a large family of adult children.
“She’s been offering me wisdom for as long as I’ve had the children.
“Her wisdom was great. She talked about just needing to nurture and just love the moments that you get, because you don’t get them as often.”