[Editor: An article comparing Christmas in Australia to Christmas in England. Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 25 December 1854.]
Christmas-Day, 1854! Is it possible? says Mr. John Newcomb, roused by the cock-crowing at five in the morning, himself rather tepid than otherwise, he looks, forth on the sunlit landscape and remarks, that the sky, the fields, the high-road, — all look dusty and dry! Is it possible! he exclaims, as rubbing his eyes, he struggles with the traditions of an English Christmas; and half dreams that there, is some mistake. His imagination is haunted with trees labouring under snow, and lakes covered with ice, and the earth resounding with the music of frozen ground struck with the horses’ hoofs.
No Christmas carols — no rustic waits, dimly seen in the twilight — no windows decorated with mistleto, holly, and ivy; none of those delightful signs of a successful conflict with the chill and discomfort of an English winter. Mr. John Newcomb gradually comes to the conclusion that Christmas in Australia is extremely eccentric and unintelligible. It is said to the great reproach of the Puritans that they revelled in mince pies on Good Friday, and took to salt fish on Christmas day — a fact which probably rests on the authority of that great historian and virtuous man — the author of Hudibras. But in Australia, Christmas day itself rejects its old symbols, puts on light apparel, and a sunny countenance, and votes the traditional plum pudding, roast beef, and nut-brown ale, too ponderous for its Southern mood. Still Christmas it is, and we must make the best of it.
We cannot skate at Christmas, but then we can cruize. We can get up a mistleto scene, — all but the mistleto. We miss those general gatherings where sire and son, for several generations, meet over an oak table, and welcome a troop of kinsmen of all sorts; but we can see the families growing around us which may reach ultimately to the patriarchal dimensions.
If we have no distribution of coals and blankets, it is because the people can buy them; if we have no goose-club, it is because the humblest classes have money. If there are no great cattle-shows, every family can purchase a joint; if we have not much fashion, we have few in rags.
Whenever Christmas shall be celebrated over the wide world, the great mass will associate its enjoyments, as we must learn to do, with open windows and sunny days. They must be content with ices and fruits, as the symbols of its presence, rather than the fires, the great coats, or even the roast beef of Old England.
It is on a day like this that Mr. John Newcome really languishes for his native home. He feels the isolation which sixteen thousand miles effectually produce, and would give his largest nugget just for a peep into the old corner, and the whole pocket for a kindred kiss all round. One popular London sketch represents a bank clerk lying melancholy on the bank counter — to watch; another, the young man who is “all alone,” bearing up in a snow storm, but with the leisure of one who spends his Christmas in the streets. Our solitary immigrant might be depicted beneath a six-foot fence, listening to the music of the locust!
We believe one good custom is getting pretty general, especially with the Irish. About Christmas something goes home. The Argo will probably carry to many a cottage an Australian tribute of affection. There is less call for local benevolence, but there is perhaps a good old mother — a poor sister, to whom life has proved a toil and a sorrow — or a destitute friend. A gift magnificent — prodigious to them — deducts but little from the ordinary rewards of skilled industry. It is a good thing when a season of public festivity, is selected to do what many purpose but delay, — until the parent or friend has sunk into the grave with the sad sense of ingratitude and desertion on the heart.
In this country there is but little unavoidable poverty; yet there is some. The stranger sickens, and without a stranger’s help he must perish. The father dies, and want enters his desolate abode like an armed man. The orphan is houseless, and, if his heart be not broken, a terrible reaction of recklessness and vice leave a moral ruin. The Messiah was promised to succour such as these, and this he accomplishes by the hands of his friends.
The religious aspect of the day we must leave to others. The event it celebrates is to myriads of the human race the great event of ages. With such minds, the brightest star that ever adorned the firmament is the Star of Bethlehem; and the angels’ song the sweetest melody of heaven, — “Glory to God — on earth peace — and to man good will.” Compared with this, all themes are cold —
The mossy fountain and the sylvan shade,
The strains of Pindus, and the Ionian maid,
Delight no more! —
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), 25 December 1854, p. 4
Argo = a steamship belonging to the General Screw Steam Shipping Company; it was considered very fast for its time, being able to travel between London and Melbourne in little over 60 days (“Argo” was also the name of the ship that Jason and the Argonauts used in their quest for the Golden Fleece; also a constellation in the southern hemisphere located between Canis Major and the Southern Cross, although it is now divided into four constellations, being Carina, Pyxis, Puppis, and Vela)
See: 1) “Summary for England: Per G.S.S.S. Co.’s Steam-ship Argo”, The Empire (Sydney, NSW), 30 December 1854, p. 4
2) “Argo (1853)”, Wikipedia (accessed 9 January 2013)
cruize = (also spelt “cruise”) to take a pleasure voyage on a ship, especially on a yacht or large liner
Hudibras = a long satirical poem written by Samuel Butler (the authorized version was published in three parts, in 1663, 1664, and 1678)
Ionian = the Ionians were one of the main populations of ancient Greece
John Newcomb = may be a reference to a “Johnny come lately”, i.e. a “new comer” to Australia (hence “John Newcomb”)
mistleto = a variant spelling of mistletoe
Pindus = a major mountain range located in northern Greece and southern Albania
sylvan = regarding a wood or forest (although often a reference to something living within a wood, referring to person, spirit, or tree)
wait = a musician in a band employed to perform in a parade or for a public event; a singer in a group of carolers; a piece of music performed by a group of waits