Christmas Down Under – Topsy-Turvy in the Antipodes

Christmas Down Under - Topsy-Turvy in the Antipodes

My Great-Great-Grand-Father Edward Hunter arrived in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, Victoria, on the 3rd of January 1853 aboard a three-masted barque called The Emigrant.  Edward, his wife Jane and their sons Robert aged 6 and Edward Jnr aged 2 spent their first Christmas in the Antipodes on a sailing ship rounding the treacherous southern coast of Australia (today nicknamed The Ship Wreck Coast after all those ships that didn’t make it to port).  After four months at sea, leaving behind the coal mines of Northumberland England, they caught their first glimpses of their new home.

What a Christmas that must have been, far from family, heading to a new world with landfall only ten days away I can’t image how they must have felt.  Instead of snow and an open coal fire the Hunter’s first Christmas was amidst the roaring waves of the Southern Ocean, Seagulls wheeling overhead in a blazing summer sky, the creaking of timber, sails and rope, the smell of salt and eucalyptus in the breeze and no doubt that feeling of sick expectation a mix of excitement and trepidation played on Edward’s mind and in the pit of his stomach.

E. Hunter - Well the beard is kind of festive?

Unfortunately, there aren’t any records of how the Hunter family celebrated Christmas.  I know that by their next Christmas Edward was the manager of Hartland’s Plant Nursery on the banks of the Yarra River in Ivanhoe Melbourne and that Jane had given birth to another son William.  Edward somehow made the leap from Coalminer / Bricklayer to Horticulturalist in a year, resisting the allure of the goldfields and re-inventing his life in a way that would never have been possible in Victorian England.

I’ve been trying to find out more about colonial Christmas in Australia, trying to imagine my way into Edward and Jane’s life and not having much luck until I found this really amusing scholarly article, “Revisiting a ‘well-worn theme’: the Duality of the Australian Christmas Pudding 1850-1950 by Rhiannon Donaldson. Rhiannon writes about the single-minded determination with which the new settlers set about recreating the traditional English Christmas.  Where Ox Tail was not available to make soup Kangaroo Tail was substituted (either sounds kind of yuck to me). Anyway I think it is extremely funny to trace our social history using pudding – I really am going to study in the social sciences next time round.

The thing to remember about transplanting the traditional Dickensian Christmas to Australia is that it is frequently over 100 degrees Fahrenheit here in mid-summer.  I love this quote from Rhiannon’s paper, which sums up the mid-summer Christmas dilemma “Writing in 1855, William Howitt described this process of pretence undertaken by settlers, as they attempted to recreate a traditional Christmas “with the good old orthodox roast-beef and plum pudding. We…drank a Merry Christmas to all our friends in Old England, in a tumbler of brandy-and-water. We tried to believe it Christmas, spite of the thermometer at 120°, of diggers’ tents in the distance, and the Bush around us”.

I imagine that Edward and Jane finding themselves newly middle-class and missing home would have re-created a traditional Christmas feast of roast and pudding. I hope for Jane’s sake that she had a kitchen with a nice high ceiling or that a least she was able to leave the doors and windows open to get a nice breeze without a million blow-flies (the other gift of Australia to the new settlers) descending on her kitchen. Now we may look back at Jane’s folly at creating this dinner in the blistering heat, shaking our head’s and smiling sagely, but we in Australia have persisted with the dream of Christmas for the 175 years since Melbourne was first settled, it made the journey with us in our cultural DNA.

Oh Christmas Tree, oh Christmas Tree!

As well as substituting Kangaroo for Ox tail the settlers needed to find a substitute for the traditional pine, spruce or cypress Christmas Tree as a consequence there are many different native plants which ended up with the common name: Christmas Tree or Christmas Bush.

My Mother’s Father, Edward and Jane’s Grandson, cut Cherry Ballart Trees for Christmas.  This native cherry looks like a Cypress tree and is covered by red fruit in mid-summer (these fruit are a strange flavour like sweet pine but very yummy). Another favourite in Melbourne was Bursaria spinosa or Christmas Bush a beautiful shrub covered in pure white star like flowers. The one I like the best is too big to bring inside as a Christmas Tree but is a wonderful feature of my neighbourhood around Christmas the beautiful paperbark tree called  “Snow in Summer’ by European settlers.

Snow in Summer

Good-bye from the Garden Shed

It is now Boxing Day in Australia and ironically it is so cold that we have the heater on. The drought has broken and it has rained so much that everything has really slowed down in the garden apart from the weeds!

I’ve really enjoyed writing for TQS and would like to thank SJ for the opportunity.  I’ve learnt so much about my family, the history of Australia and gardening over the last year. As I mentioned in a previous post I am going to continue to experiment by trying to grow vegetables using the advice of the Colonial Gardener published in 1854, so I will be moving this research to this blog.

By Christmas 1873 Edward had become a land owner and an Orchardist in Lilydale Victoria, both Head Gardener and Master and by Christmas 1890 he had was elected the founding president of the Wandin and District Horticultural Society – if only he was still around to help me learn how to garden!

The most important thing that I have learnt through this project is that like the Victorians we are trying to learn how to live on this continent – still.

Final Floral Flourishes

Old World - New World Buttonhole

Here is the buttonhole the Undergardener made for the Mistress to wear on Christmas Day.  It is a mix of English Rose, Teatree blossom and banksia leaves.  A mix of the old world and the new, the modern and the Victorian.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

11 Responses to “Christmas Down Under – Topsy-Turvy in the Antipodes”

  • I have just loved reading The Under Gardner. I will miss it so much. It has been very interesting and informative. Thank you.

  • The Under Gardener

    Your welcome NJW.

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