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Christmas on the goldfields

Posted 24/11/2018 in History
Christmas pudding in the bush, 1856. Image source: State Library Victoria

Christmas on the Victorian Goldfields during the 19th century was an interesting affair - many people on the goldfields were accustomed to the typical white Christmas they enjoyed in the Northern Hemisphere, and suddenly found themselves celebrating in the intense heat of Australian summer! 

There are many newspaper references to Christmas on the goldfields in the mid-late 1800's which paint a fascinating picture of the times. Many articles lament the weather and show a yearning for winter snows and warm fireplaces. Others describe the festivities, food and decorations on display. 

Mining companies endeavored to have a large crushing for Christmas, and would cast golden 'Christmas cakes' to display in the windows of the local banks!

Read on to learn more about the Christmas on the Victorian Goldfields during the gold rush.

Christmas Eve in Ballarat
The Star, 1859

Christmas eve in Ballarat filled our thorough fares with crowd upon crowd of people shopping for the morrow's dinner, or for "boxes" to give in memory of the season. The Main road broke out early in the day into a profusion of beauty spots in the shape of boughs, nosegays, and temptingly arranged masses of fruits, home or exotic. The fruiterers, butchers, and poulterers, and some of the hotelkeepers, decorated their fronts with ever greens, till in some places the Main road suggested "feasts of tabernacles" or country dancing parties under "green bushes." Turkeys, ducks, and fowls were seen and heard everywhere, either huddled in cages for selection or in transit, with the spit or the oven in the prospective of the purchaser, if not of the happily unconscious bird. Other crowds mixed with the shopping crowds, and elbowed their way to the theatres or rendezvous for "making up" the sports or pic-nics of the Monday, and thus the eve wore away, and, we are glad to add, without a fire.
The golden Christmas cake. Image source: State Library Victoria

The golden Christmas cake
Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers, 1872

Adventide, despite the absence of the old world associations in the shape of carols, waits, snow, and frost, with the yule log, the mistletoe, the holly with its scarlet berries and the family gatherings, still continues a time of deep rejoicing in this sunny southern land. In the far bush and on the busy gold-fields, in the crowded city and the quiet hamlet, Christmas brings with it associations far different to its surroundings in the old world. They are characteristic of the new country, yet they lose nothing of their intensity in the change of locality and climate. Here the glad celebration of the season takes place, for the most part, under the broad canopy of Heaven; and picnics, athletic sports, and trips over the briny waves suffice as outlets to the feelings. In the wild bush, round the night fire, yarns are spun by the travelling stockmen ; and men live over again the scenes of their youth. Our artist has given a very graphic sketch of this mode of spending Christmas Eve in the far-away wilderness where the presence of the house dwellers has never yet penetrated. 

On the goldfields the mining companies generally endeavor to have a large crushing for Christmas, and turn out their golden Christmas cakes for exhibition in the windows of the local banks to the admiring gaze of hundreds. The frontispiece to this number depicts most accurately a scene where the golden cake has just been dropped from the retort. Our artist has well illustrated the event, and the engraving will supply our readers who have never been upon the goldfields with a truthful sketch of this in interesting operation. 'Tis not the traditional plum pudding of the old Christmas days, but it is one far more valuable, containing locked up within its golden grasp the means which rightly used will help to impart comfort and material prosperity through the length and breadth of the land. A cake which was exhibited the other day in the window of a jeweller's shop in Melbourne, weighed 3764 oz., and was worth £15,026. This cake was the result of the last crushing made by the Great Extended Hustler's Tribute Company, Sandhurst, and is said to be the largest cake of gold ever produced in Victoria.

Christmas in Australia, 1871. Image source: Trove

Friday morning, Dec 26 1851
Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 1851

The Christmas of 1851 will be long remembered by the present denizens of Victoria, not from any peculiarity in the style of its celebration, but from the collateral events with which it is associated, and which constitute it an era in colonial history.

Those events not only affect ourselves, but are at this time forming the topic of interest to a large section of the civilised world.

What changes will be produced in the family circles of Great Britain by the news of our wonderful resources! What a vast field of enterprise and employment is opened up for the cast-down strugglers of the old world! What a lever we have in our hands for the movement of the world, for good or evil, according as we wield it! What a glorious future for the reign of our beloved Queen, when she shall send a worthy representative who shall know how to treat her subjects as men capable of managing their own affairs.

These are, indeed, times, big with events. Who can venture to foretell the progress of Victoria even in the short period which shall elapse between this and next Christmas?

Christmas in the two hemispheres, 1861. Image source: Trove

Christmas Times
Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 1852

As if to vindicate the climate of the sunny South, the cool breezes which ushered in Christmas have given place to a sirocco from Sturt's Desert. What a vast stretch of the imagination is required to realize to the mind's eye an English Christmas, during a hot wind; or being subjected to a scorching summer heat to ruminate on snow balls, skates, chilblains, red noses, muffs, great coats, and comforters, and fancy one's self one of a dozen keeping the pot a'boiling down a long slide with the thermometer at 120. You can't do it, it's no use. What are prize oxen, prize sheep, prize pigs, rabbits, and poultry, misseltoe and holly, plum pudding, and snap dragon, speculation, and blindman's buff? they are only an indistinct dream, the memory of something disconnected with the present. In the north, all is top coat, and comforter, muff, tippet, and boa, piercing winds, and drifting snow, whilst here, if we become aboriginal in our habits, coolness would not follow. Our Christmas requires refrigerating to become enjoyable, instead of coughs, and pulmonary attacks, closed doors, stuffed key holes, and listed windows, we have langour, furious blasts, whirl winds, and doors wide open, courting every current, and in full length recumbency, open mouthed, we wait for a zephyr. Had we power, we would move that Christmas be postponed till this day six months, and that we do now proceed to consider these the Midsummer Holidays.

Christmas in Australia, 1860. Image source: State Library Victoria

Twofold Bay

It was the day after Christmas Day, and the inhabitants of the township had been holiday-ising after the approved custom. The exteriors of the cottages were decorated with green boughs, and in the interior the native misletoe suspended from the ceilings, recalled the recollection of frolics as ancient as the Druids ; more substantial tokens of festivity were not wanting-we had roast goose and plum pudding in the garden of Eden.

Christmas in the Colonies, a Christmas dinner at the Diggings, 1860's. Image source: Trove


In England now the blasts of Winter howl,
The great "Yule log" is blazing on the hearth,
The frost is blocking up the steamer's path,
And housewives close the door on weather foul!

But here, beneath Australia's burning sky,
The winds do blow as from a furnace hot,
Windows and doors of ev'ry house and cot
Are opened wide, and all the creeks are dry,

Though storms and tempests rage in Europe now.
And here bright summer reigns, still I would be,
My friends, and native land, again with thee,
Despite your cold, damp climate, and the snow;

My heart is yours, my thoughts are far away, 
To me this seems not like a Christmas Day

John Hurrey




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