On Christmas Day 1789, Governor Arthur Phillip and his guests at the governor’s table in Sydney ate roast turtle, ‘a very fine one’ brought by HMS Supply from Lord Howe Island. The convicts managed on their reduced rations of salt pork, flour and ‘pease’ or dhal, though on Norfolk Island, two pigs were slaughtered and extra flour released from the stores to provide a Christmas feast. There was also a lot of extra rum.
Phillip had served in the Portuguese navy, spending time in Brazil, so Christmas in the heat was no big deal for him. But for the convicts, as for nearly all new arrivals to Australia during the subsequent 200 years, a summer Christmas was very strange, for Australia has been overwhelmingly populated by people from the Northern Hemisphere.
Christmas grew out of the Roman mid-winter festival of Saturnalia. Most religions have some sort of celebration to mark the passing of the shortest day, often associated with fire or lights to give the Sun a nudge to hurry up and get back to work asap. The Summer Solstice has its own celebrations, usually associated with mid-summer and the Feast of St John.
In Australia – as in South America and South Africa and New Zealand – European immigrants found these traditional celebrations topsy-turvy. Religious or not, most settlers in the 19th century commented in their letters home on the strangeness of the Australian summer Christmas.
Louisa Meredith from Birmingham described an 1840s Christmas in Sydney, on an ‘Italian-skied, radiant, sunny, hot midsummer day!’ There was no holly available, but they decorated the room with native foliage and ate roast beef and turkey and mince pies, so that ‘although not the real, proper, genuine original Christmas to me, it was a very bright and pleasant parody upon it.’
Charles Dickens both celebrated and helped to invent the full catastrophe of the Victorian Christmas, with A Christmas Carol (1843), and in the Christmas editions of his magazine, Household Words, which ran from 1850 to 1859. Many aspects of Christmas, such as Christmas cards and a Christmas tree, developed during these years.
They are also, coincidentally, the years when the Australian colonies first became a magnet for free immigrants, in the 1840s, then in the 1850s grew rich from gold. The new arrivals from England and Ireland tried desperately to keep alive traditional Christmas customs linked to ‘Home’.
Christmas in the Australian summer heat was always a mismatch, whether the festival was a strictly family affair, with mothers sweating over wood stoves boiling puddings in the heat; or a commercial package, with Santas sweating behind their false beards and bellies, and nary a chimney in sight for them to climb down.
At some stage, mercifully, sense began to prevail. In Romance of the Swag (1924), Henry Lawson describes a ‘sensible Australian Christmas dinner’ in Sydney. The date is unclear, but this Christmas sounds surprisingly modern:
Everything cold except the vegetables, the hose playing on the verandah and vines outside, the men dressed in sensible pyjama-like suits, and the women and girls fresh and cool and jolly, instead of being hot and cross, and looking like boiled carrots, and feeling like boiled rags, and having headaches after dinner, as would have been the case had they broiled over the fire in a hot kitchen all the blazing forenoon to cook a scalding, indigestible dinner, as many Australian women do, and for no other reason than that it was the fashion in England.
These days, the hot weather at Christmas is still a problem (though not this year, thanks to La Niña), but mainly because – if we are lucky – the fridge is overloaded with prawns and beer. Seafood and booze is a very old Australian tradition.