Christmas Celebrations in the 1850s
Christmas in Ballarat during the gold rush was very different than it is today. They didn’t have all the glitzy decorations that adorn our modern streets and houses. Despite this, they worked hard to create a joyous atmosphere that could remind them of Christmas back home. Although, as this newspaper article highlights, they don’t seem to be missing the cold winter days…
Christmas Eve in Ballarat filled our thoroughfares 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 evergreens, till in some places the Main road suggested “feasts of tabernacles” or country dancing paradise under “green bushes”. Turkeys, ducks, and fowls were seen and heard everywhere, either huddled in cages for selection or in transitu, 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.
– Ballarat Star, 1859
Generally Christmas Day was a quieter affair than it is today, with most people marking the day with a church service and quiet family gatherings. The excitement and frivolity were saved for the following day, the Boxing Day public holiday.
In 1856, Boxing Day ‘junketting’ was the order of the day. Main Road was crowded with holidaymakers from an early hour, most of whom were apparently wending their way to the Charlie Napier, where that ‘truly old English sport’ of wrestling was to be seen.
Shooting matches, running and horse races, quoits, hurdles and sack races – even climbing the greasy pole: every kind of activity was scheduled to entertain the folk of the goldfields on the Boxing Day holiday.
Victorian Traditions Alive Today
Many Christmas traditions that we still adopt today came from the Victorian era, and many were popularised by Queen Victoria herself.
The Christmas tree, for example, become a common feature of a British (and therefore Australian) Christmas after Queen Victoria was pictured around her first tree with her family in the London Illustrated Mail. The tree was used at the request of her husband Albert. You can read more about the tree and other traditions in this BBC article.