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Christmas without Jesus.

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In the Kimberley community of Warmun, this black bird delivers the Christmas presents
ABC Kimberley / By Erin Parke and Vanessa Mills
Posted 3h ago3 hours ago
Three people in black, beaked bird costumes walk across a school oval
Wangkarnal crows steal the show at Warmun's Christmas party, scaring children and delivering gifts.(Supplied: Ngalangangpum School)
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The guest of honour at most Australian school Christmas parties is a jolly, big-bellied man called Santa Claus.

But in the remote Kimberley community of Warmun, a much older and more terrifying tradition plays out — the arrival of the Wangkarnal crow.

"Wangkarnal is like a different way of us celebrating Christmas, with a crow instead of Santa Claus," explains 13-year-old Zarafina Juli.

"It's good fun when he comes because when they call out the little kids' names for presents, they act all frightened."

A black-clad figure with
The Wangkarnal crows make a dramatic entrance at Christmas time, jumping out of a troopie, or occasionly being delivered by helicopter.(Supplied: Ngalangangpum School)
The Dreamtime story of Wangkarnal the crow has evolved into a unique Christmas ritual, that blends a creation story of the Gija people with the rituals of Christian Christmas celebrations.

A frightening gift-giver
Every year at the Catholic Ngalangangpum School Christmas party, families gather for a barbecue, live music and junba, or traditional dancing.

But the star attraction is the arrival of the sinister, black-clad Wangkarnal crows.

A small child looks at a man dressed in a black bird costume
The Wangkarnal crow sometimes pays a special visit to classrooms at the Ngalangumpun School.(Supplied: Ngalangumpun School)
The costumed trio arrives in dramatic fashion — delivered by a four-wheel drive festooned with eucalypts, or by a Robinson 44 helicopter.

Twelve-year-old Vincent Ramsay says everyone gasps and screams when the big black crows are unveiled and take to the stage.

"Wangkarnal likes to frighten the children, but he also brings presents," Vincent explains.

"When I was younger I was a bit nervous and shy when I saw Wangkarnal, but now he just makes me laugh."

After each student has received a gift from Wangkarnal, the Christmas crow disappears for another year and the traditional Gija dancing gets underway.

The story of a big, lazy bird
The Wangkarnal story dates back to long before the Christian missionaries introduced the concept of Christmas to Gija people in the 19th century.

The community of Warmun in remote WA
The community of Warmun is home to about 300 people in the remote East Kimberley region.(ABC News: Alex McDonald)
Gija woman Vanessa Thomas says the story comes from the Ngarranggarni, or creation time, when a crow and an eagle got into a big fight.

"The crow and the eagle were living on the hillside opposite where the school is now," she explains.

"The eagle used to go out and hunt for food all the time, but the crow wouldn't come — he was too lazy, just laying around.

"And so one day the eagle went out hunting alone again, and come back with a big kangaroo and made a fire and cooked it.

"The crow came along and ripped the kangaroo leg off and started eating a big bit of meat from it.

"And the eagle got angry and growled at him for not helping him hunt for food, and he grabbed a coal from the fire and threw it at the crow, and that's how the crow got white eyes."

A girl laughs as she takes a wrapped present from two large, black-clad people in bird costume
The Wangkarnal crows hand out Christmas presents after giving local kids a fright.(Supplied: Ngalangangpum School)
A blend of culture and Christmas
It is unclear when the legend of the white-eyed crow became linked to Christmas.

The Gija people have a tumultuous and traumatic recent history, shaped by pastoralism, Christian missionaries, and veering government policy.

A group of smiling children line up painted in traditional Aboriginal style
Children painted for the junba (dancing) that's held after Wangkarnal's Christmas visit.(Supplied: Leanne Hodge)
In the 1960s, the Equal Wages Award meant most people were moved off the surrounding cattle stations and into makeshift camps set up at the Turkey Creek site, which later became Warmun.

When the Ngalangangpum School was established in the late 1970s, Elders were keen for it to integrate the teaching of cultural knowledge and the Catholic doctrine they had been largely raised with in missions and the Bungaran leprosarium.

Aboriginal dancers hold a totem up high in the night sky during a performance
The Warmun community Christmas party also features junba, or traditional dancing.(Supplied: Ngalangangpum School)
The result, says Vanessa Thomas, is artwork, songs and traditions that draw on both belief systems.

"I'm not sure exactly how Wangkarnal as our Santa came about, but it's linked up back when our old people were running the school," she says.

"I just feel very happy that culture is still strong, and being passed on to our children."

Link to see Pictures. ... /100715128

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