A colonial Christmas

A coloured wood engraving from 1865 showing groups of people picnicking.

Christmas in Australia (detail), Frederick Grosse, 1865. State Library of Victoria

The festive season is upon us, and we’ll be busy celebrating with all sorts of activities, including Carols by candlelight at Elizabeth Farm on December 8,  Christmas by the Bay at Elizabeth Bay House on December 14 and Carols under the jacaranda at Meroogal on December 15.

Meanwhile, true to Mrs Beeton’s advice, we will be making a traditional and surprisingly easy Christmas pudding and will also be decking the halls, giving tips on colonial Christmas decorations you can try at home.

The Australian colonial Christmas

If you believed the style columns in the media, you’d think that an alfresco Christmas lunch, with cold meats and seafood, is a new phenomenon, taken up as a reaction to an impractical hot meal eaten indoors on a stifling summer day.

The reality is that eating outdoors at a Christmas picnic had become a common event long ago: enjoyed by the harbour, in the summerhouse (or that particularly Australian innovation, the shady bush-house), or on a bush outing.

A coloured wood engraving from 1865 showing groups of people picnicking.

Christmas in Australia, Frederick Grosse, 1865. State Library of Victoria

Frederick Grosse’s marvellous painting, Christmas in Australia (above), shows Christmas picnickers in 1865, who’ve arrived in carriages or by horseback in a cool fern gully outside Melbourne. The woman on the left with the basket is collecting fern bracts, possibly for craftwork or pressing, but just as likely to take home and use as Christmas decorations across picture frames or chimney-pieces.   The man on the right reading his book is relaxing on a hide rug – probably of stitched wallaby hides – while the picnic behind is spread out on an impressively clean white cloth; presumably the ground isn’t too damp.  Note the festive treat laid out on the centre spread: our old friend, the pineapple. By the mid century Sydney retailers were advertising baskets and ready-to-go picnic fare, especially boxes of drinks, which the men would provide, while the women were charged with the foodstuffs.

The 1885 Sydney Mail described a Christmas scene in the colony:

… there is an air of Australian summer… no sense of snow or ice whatever… Fern fronds [and greenery] seem still to hold the sunshine and… the full glow of the morning and the full flood of light… streaming through the window and giving a full illumination to the room. Many thousand such Christmas scenes as this will NSW see this week, and many mothers and children will experience pleasure in finding their familiar Christmas preparations [shared throughout the colony].