There is a rather rueful adherence to English Christmas customs in Australia even today. We have Christmas trees, holly, Santa and carols about dashing through the snow. Tomorrow my family will sit down to turkey, ham and plum pudding for Christmas dinner wearing our little paper hats unfurled from Christmas bon-bons; even as I am writing this I am eating a fruit mince pie. Although there is a shift to seafood and ice-cream plum pudding or berries, all the iconography of Christmas decorations evokes a winter Christmas that we just don’t have- unless you have “Christmas in July” which we have done occasionally just for fun.
But what about in Port Phillip in the early 1840s? I had assumed that these early immigrants would have brought over all these English customs intact. However, my suspicions were alerted when I found a letter dated 25 December 1841 that was part of a series of letters between J. B. Were and Farquahar McCrae over a dispute with Judge Willis. “Good grief”, I thought, “do these men have nothing to do on Christmas morning but exchange letters about Judge Willis?” But, the more I think about, maybe they didn’t have anything else to do because Christmas didn’t have all the trappings that it does today. This was confirmed looking through the newspapers at the time, which made very little mention of Christmas.
A warning here about methodology. The three newspapers of Port Phillip were published on regular days throughout the week, and a fourth paper The Melbourne Times was published on a weekly basis during 1842-3. I have only consulted the Port Phillip Herald (published on Tuesdays and Fridays) and The Melbourne Times, which depending on the day that Christmas fell, varied in their proximity to December 25. Therefore, in 1840 the Port Phillip Herald was actually published on Christmas day itself; in 1841 the closest issue was 21/12/41; in 1842 it was 23/12/42 and in 1843 22/12/43. I consulted two issues before Christmas and the one immediately after. The only pre-Christmas Melbourne Times available was dated 24/12/42.
Nonetheless, there does seem to be a dearth of Christmas good cheer. I wasn’t looking for headlines as such, but I did expect some mention of church services, festivities, excessive drunkenness in the police court on the days following, advertisements for goods and effusive Christmas wishes from the editors.
The Port Phillip Herald was published on Christmas Day itself. No mention of Christmas at all, but there is a land sale scheduled for 1 January which is styled as a “New Year Gift”, and the Independent Chapel will be opened for services on New Years Day.
1841 (Judge Willis was in Melbourne by this time)
Captain Cole had a picnic and fishing party to which he invited 150 of his friends on 21 December, commencing at 11.00. Lieutenant La Trobe and his wife were invited, but I’m not sure if they attended- or even if the picnic had anything at all to do with Christmas.
1842 (Judge Willis still in Melbourne)
Port Phillip Herald 23/12/42
A little more here. There are advertisements for “Christmas Novelties” to be conducted at the Royal Victoria Theatre on 26th December- a Monday evening, which was a popular night to attend the theatre. “The Vampire or Bride of the Isles” was the theatrical fare for the night.
“The Vampire, the name of the first piece for Monday night’s representation has taken nearly a month to prepare, and will be brought out with a degree of splendour only to be witnessed in the mother country at Christmas time.”
For something a little less secular, the Independent church may have had something for you.
“Clifton Independent Chapel, Richmond. On Saturday next (Christmas Day) two sermons will be preached on the occasion of the opening of the above place of worship. 3.00 p.m. Rev Waterfield. 6.30 p.m. Independent Chapel Melbourne Rev. John Ham. “
Meanwhile on 24th December, at the Town Council Proceedings, there was discussion about the timing of the next meeting.
The Mayor wished to gain the opinion of the Council as to whether it would be expedient to hold a meeting of Council next week, it being Christmas time. He knew several members who had made engagements to go to the country and could therefore not be present.
The next meeting was scheduled for 2nd January 1843 as a result.
Melbourne Times 24/12/42
An advertisement advised that owing to Christmas falling on a Sunday, the following day Monday would be observed as a holiday at all the banks.
The TeeTotallers were to hold a meeting on 26 December
“…for the purpose of celebrating the festivities of the season over a bag of hyson skin…Who, fifty years since, would have contemplated the arrival of that day when the good old Christmas cheer of roast beef and plumb pudding, accompanied by the various spiritous and vinous drinkables, would be exchanged for the meagre fare of tea and toast?”
Even though the tee-totallers were missing out, this does suggest that others, at least, were enjoying good old Christmas cheer of some sort.
In Georgiana McCrae’s diary, she doesn’t mention Christmas Day 1842 at all, but does have an entry for 26th December that Captain Murchison, Dr Thomas and his wife, Ward Cole, Donald Mackinnon, Mr Simpson and Jones Agnew Smith all came for dinner.
1843 (Judge Willis was arriving back in England by this stage)
There’s quite a bit more mention of Christmas here.
From 15 December forward, there is a large advertisement for Annard, Smith and Co. for Fruits for Christmas- sultanas, muscatels, and pudding raisins; nuts, walnuts, figs, bottled fruit. This advertisement appears each issue including 26/12/43. There’s also an advertisement for currants and raisins by a competing merchant, but this is a small advertisement that only appears on the 15th.
The market report of the Melbourne Market printed on 26th December noted a good deal of animation on 24th December,
but there was not that bustling activity in all the various departments of buying and selling that might have been expected in a town boasting upwards of 10,000 inhabitants on the day previous to Christmas, when it might be supposed that many would be anxious to testify their joy on the advent of an occasion generally dedicated by almost immemorial custom to feasting and festive enjoyment.
On 26th December, the Herald has a bit of a dig at its nemesis, the Port Phillip Patriot which had been published on Christmas Day.
“The Patriot of yesterday, by way of a Christmas Box we presume, has obliginingly furnished its readers with a six column report of the proceedings of the Insolvent Court…”
The court case reported actually took place in August, which the Port Phillip Herald thought rather strange.
The Herald reported that Mr Geoghegan, the Roman Catholic priest, administered the holy sacraments to no less than 250 members of his congregation on Sunday and yesterday (Christmas Day).
The theatrical spectacular of 1842 must have been a success because the Victoria Theatre advertised that “this being Christmas week” the theatre would be open this evening (ie. 26th), Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. On 26th ‘The Two Queens or Policy and Strategem’; on Wednesday ‘Michael Erle or the Fair Lass of Lichfield’ and an appearance by The Somnabulist, on Thursday ‘The Bandit Host or The Lone House of the Swamp’, then again on Saturday ‘The Two Queens’.
This doesn’t come from the Port Phillip papers, but it is a report of Christmas in Sydney by Mrs Charles Meredith (Louisa Meredith) written in 1844 as part of her “Notes and sketches of New South Wales during a residence of that colony from 1839 to 1844.”
We now made a few weeks’ sojourn in Sydney, which, could we have laid the dust, moderated the heat, and dismissed the mosquitoes and their assistants, would have been very pleasant; but as it was, my colonial enjoyments were limited to our usual drives, and when able to walk at all, an idle languid stroll in the beautiful Government gardens. For some days before Christmas, in our drives near the town, we used to meet numbers of persons carrying bundles of a beautiful native shrub, to decorate the houses, in the same manner that we use holly and evergreens at home. Men, women and children, white, brown and black, were in the trade; and sometimes a horse approached, so covered with the bowery load he bore, that only his legs were visible, and led by a man nearly as much hidden; carts heaped up with the green and blossomed boughs came noddingly along, with children running beside them, decked out with sprays and garlands, laughing and shouting in proper Christmas jollity. I liked to see this attempt at the perpetuation of some of our ancient homely poetry of life in this new and rather too prosaic Colony, where the cabalist letters L.[pound] S.[shilling]D [pence] and RUM appear too frequently the alphabet of existence. It seemed like a good healthy memory of home, and I doubt not the decked out windows and bouquet-filled chimney in many a tradesman’s house gave a more home-like flavour to his beef or turkey, and aided in the remembrance of old days and old friends alike numbered with the past.
The shrub chosen as the Sydney ‘Christmas’ is well worthy of the honour (the rough usage it receives rendering the quality of the post it occupies rather problematical, by the way). It is a handsome verdant shrub, growing from two to twelve or fifteen feet high, with leaves in shape like those of the horse-chestnut, but only two or three inches broad, with a dark green, polished, upper surface, the under one being pale. The flowers, which are irregularly star-shaped, come out in light terminal sprays, their chief peculiarity being, that they completely open whilst quite small, and of a greenish white colour; they then continue increasing in size, and gradually ripening in tint, becoming first a pearl white, then palest blush, then pink, rose-colour, and crimson: the consant change taking place in the, and the presence of all these hues at one time on a spray of half a dozen flowers, has a singularly pretty appearance. Their scent when freshly gathered is like that of new-mown hay. Great quantities of the shrubs grow in the neighbourhood of Sydney, or I should fear that such wholesale demolition as I witnessed would soon render them rare.
The ‘Christmas dinner’ truly seemed to me a most odd and anomalous affair. Instead of having won a seasonable appetite by a brisk walk over the crisped snow, well muffled in warm winter garments, I had passed the miserable morning, half-dead with heat, on the sofa, attired in the coolest muslin dress I possessed, sipping lemonade or soda-water, and endeavouring to remember all the enviable times when I had touched a lump of ice or grasped a snowball, and vainly watching the still, unruffled curtains of the open window for the first symptom of the afternoon sea-breeze.
So, what then can I say about Christmas in Port Phillip? It seems that the prominence of Christmas seems to be increasing as we get further into the 1840s. I wonder if the Meredith extract reflects the influence of 1844 more than her experience five years earlier. It’s important to remember that the trapping of Christmas as we know them- the trees, the carols etc- were themselves being constructed in Victorian Britain at the time. The term “Christmas Tree” was first used in English in 1835; Prince Albert decorated the tree at Windsor Castle in 1841 thus bringing a German tradition to England; Christmas cards first appeared in 1843, and many of the hymns we know we written in the 1840s and 50s onwards- O Come All Ye Faithful in 1848, or Once in Royal David’s City in 1851 for example. And then, of course, we have Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843 which seems to exemplify everything we think of in a ‘traditional’ English Christmas.
And as for Louisa Meredith’s fear that the Christmas Bush would become extinct- well, I must say that I’m not at all familiar with the Christmas Bush and especially its use as a substitute for holly and evergreens today, but it still seems to grow in the Sydney area at least. There are certainly other descriptions of Australian Christmases- Henry Lawson, Edward Sorensen, and many engravings of Christmas activities but many of these seem to date from the 1880s onwards, and probably reflect the spread of the ideal of the Victorian English Christmas across the empire. But 1840s Port Phillip was part of an early 1840s world with a lower profile of Christmas than in the years following, right up today.
Geoffrey Rowell ‘Dickens and the Construction of Christmas’ History Today, 43, Dec 1993
‘Christmas in the Colonies’ Australian Heritage Summer 2007
The Australian Christmas In Days Gone By
I did find this reference to Christmas in South Australia in 1836 from The Diary and Letters of Mary Thomas. Mary Thomas wrote up the diary she had kept from early settlement days (Dec 1836) in 1867, expanding her entries with reminiscences- always a bit dangerous because later memories can overlay earlier ones, particularly of an event that occurs on an annual basis:
We kept up the old custom as far as having a plum pudding for dinner, likewise a ham and a parrot pie
Source: Michael Symons One Continuous Picnic: A history of eating in Australia.
(He also notes that Ken Inglis has a chapter about Christmas in Australian Colonists)