Christmas in Port Phillip 1841

We haven’t visited Judge Willis’ Port Phillip for a while.  Now that Christmas is here, let’s read an article about Christmas that was published in the Port Phillip Patriot of 1841, Judge Willis’ first year in the Port Phillip District.

CHRISTMAS IN AUSTRALIA  (Author not identified)

…Hitherto…no one has attempted to give us a sketch of an “Australian Christmas”. This festive season, in our country, has not yet been described, and in order to make up for a deficiency so glaring, I shall endeavour to convey to the reader unacquainted with our genial clime, an idea of the twenty-fifth of December in this portion of the Southern hemisphere…

…The inhabitants of this colony have adopted a great many of those customs of their ancestors and the Australians look forward to the arrival of Christmas with the same degree of fondness and veneration as a Briton. Variations in the mode of living and a difference of soil and climate may cause this season to be celebrated with less precision and minuteness here than in England. We certainly have not the same associations [?] of antiquity to instigate us, and fill us with any degree of enthusiastic ardour, yet our love of Christmas is by no means of an ordinary description…

The author then indulges in some reminiscences of Christmas back ‘home’ before remembering that it’s Christmas in Australia that he’s writing about.

During the week immediately preceding the twenty-fifth of December, every family in the whole colony appears to be thrown into a state of bustle and activity. The farmer hurries to the metropolis with his eggs, his poultry, and the produce of his lands, and purchases an ample supply of Christmas dainties for the due celebration of the approaching holiday. Raisins, currants, wines, spirits, and a large variety of other niceties, which it would be impossible for me to enumerate, are obtained by the active housewife to adorn and set off the Christmas dinner. Every one is employed in providing for the eventful day, and the ordinary avocations of society seem to be almost forgotten.

I was particularly interested in some of the comments below, most particularly the mention of Aborigines  bearing Christmas Bush.  In his book Aboriginal Victorians, Richard Broome reminds us that early Melbourne (c. 1835- approx 1841) was an Aboriginal town, with the visible presence of Aboriginal people quite a common sight.  (See Section III p. 15 of Broome’s book, available through Google preview here). Although Superintendant La Trobe issued orders in September 1840 that ‘no Aboriginal blacks of the District are to visit the township of Melbourne under any pretext whatever’, this directive was impossible to enforce.   I wonder if there was some sort of exchange going on here, with the aborigines  collecting the Christmas bush and bringing it into town, knowing that it was prized by the settlers for decorating their houses?  Were the aborigines ‘in crowds’ or were they wandering through the crowds of settlers, I wonder?

Christmas-eve at length arrives, and the scene which it presents both in town and country is of a very peculiar and pleasing description. The aborigines themselves seem influenced by the day, and may be seen in crowds strolling through the town, bearing “Christmas bushes” for the purpose of adorning the houses.

I must admit that I’m not familiar with Christmas Bush, and the writer mentions that it is no longer common around Melbourne.  I assume that he’s referring to Ceratopetalum gummiferum, but I note that it now only seems to be found in New South Wales.

[These “Christmas bushes” are plucked from a beautiful tree which is now becoming very scarce in the vicinity of our towns. This tree usually attains the height of about twenty feet, and when in full bloom has a very picturesque appearance. The bark is smooth and frequently mottled, the leaves vary from two to three inches in length, are rather narrow, and terminate in a point, have the edge indented like a saw, and are of a glossy dark-green colour. The flowers are of the cruciform species, similar in shape to a cabbage blossom, and when in full vigour are of a fine red colour. Indeed, I think the whole vegetable kingdom could scarcely furnish a more appropriate shrub than this for the purpose of adorning our houses on Christmas Day.]

Christmasbush

Here in Melbourne the weather on Christmas Day  tends to be highly variable.  I remember hot Christmas Days, but I also remember huge hail storms and some pretty ordinary weather.  Nonetheless, it was the novelty of a hot Christmas that impresses our author.

… In Australia the difference of climate causes the scene to bear a different and less animating aspect. Instead of the cool breezes and snow storms of an English winter, the sultry winds of summer and the scorching rays of an almost vertical sun, effectually put a stop to all sorts of amusement. In the towns, clouds of dust occasionally darken the atmosphere and render the weather peculiarly disagreeable. Under these circumstances every one is constrained to rest quietly within his doors, and wait patiently until the approach of night may in some degree moderate the oppressive blast. Even then there is a warmth in the air- a calm, sultry heat, which renders it totally impossible for any one to arouse himself to exertion. Instead of blazing fires glowing in the hearth, every fire-place is ornamented with evergreens; and instead of sitting opposite the burning ‘yule clog’ the peasant seats himself quietly in the open air on the outside of his humble cottage.

Well, this little ‘peasant’ here in 2014 won’t be sitting quietly in the open air outside my humble cottage.  She will, however, be relaxing on Christmas night after lunch with her family.  Happy Christmas readers – or whatever salutation you prefer.

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5 responses to “Christmas in Port Phillip 1841

  1. The Victorian Christmas bush is Prostanthera lasianthos (which has white flowers).

    • His description seems more like the NSW one, though, don’t you think?

      • And of course, the Port Phillip Partiot may have just lifted the article from a Sydney paper, although they generally acknowledged articles ‘from our Sydney correspondent’ when they did that.

  2. Interesting little piece. It must have been very strange for new immigrants to experience their first hot Christmas. Best wishes to you in return.

  3. Your post sent me to Trove to look for ‘Christmas bush’ in SE Queensland, but without learning much about what species it was. The one I remember growing in a Brisbane garden looked rather like the one in your illustration. According to my mother’s pre-WWII memories, branches in flower were harvested from the wild by school kids and sold to raise funds for the Children’s hospital. Needless to say, as a result it soon became locally extinct – and your quotation suggests the same might have been happening in Melboure with local over-harvesting.

    You’re right, the notion of Aborigines bringing in branches as an article of exchange is intriguing.

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