20th December, 2018
Prior to 1840, Christmas celebrations in colonial Hobart were a sober affair, similar to the usual religious observances on Sundays.
The festive habits of Hobartians changed in the mid-1840s with the introduction of the fashions of Victorian England. When Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert in 1840, he brought to the household his favourite Germanic cultural Christmas practices. These included giving gifts, bringing evergreen trees inside and decorating them with sweets and candles. The main event of December 25 was the feast. For Victoria and Albert, their standard fare was cold roast beef, brawn, game pies and a stuffed goose. If that wasn’t enough to make the table groan with the weight of the food, Prince Albert’s particular favourite was a roasted boar’s head as the centerpiece. They finished their meal with plum pudding and fruit mince pies.
The Christmas tree was an important part of the Royal family’s festive celebrations. Albert would have a large fir tree brought into the family room at Windsor castle on Christmas Eve, and he and Victoria would decorate it with gingerbread, candles, small gifts and sweets. It was only after the tree was decorated that the children were brought in. In other rooms of the castle, Prince Albert directed the upside-down hanging of giant Christmas trees from the ceiling. The trees were decorated with nuts, cheese and candles.
Prince Albert was not the first to bring a tree indoors. The tradition dates back to an English Catholic monk named Boniface who was a missionary in central Germany in the mid-700’s CE. In the village of Geismar, Boniface saw the locals celebrated mid-winter by gathering around a large oak tree, known as the Thunder Oak, which had been dedicated to the god Thor. As their cultural practice was to sacrifice humans and animals to the oak, Boniface and his monks cut it down. He said instead that the villagers should have a fir tree as their mid-winter icon, as he said the triangle shape represented the trinity of his belief system. So the Geismarians took to revering the fir tree instead. In 754, Boniface was hacked to death by bandits who were disappointed in finding his trunks and chests were filled with books and not gold. Five hundred years later the fir tree was a mid-winter feature in central European households, hanging upside down from the ceiling and decorated with candles and sweets.
The fashion for decorated trees and Christmas feasts arrived in Hobart with Governor Denison and his family. In 1849 Governor and Lady Denison held a Christmas ball at Government House for the children of Hobart’s social elite. This included a feast of cold roast beef, pies and stuffed fowl. The main attraction was a large Christmas tree in the true German style, brightly lit with candles and hung full of presents for the children. Once the children had all enjoyed themselves, they were sent home and their parents enjoyed their own feast with the vice-regal couple.
The commoners of Hobart celebrated in a more modest fashion. Not being able to afford the expense of the whole multi-course feast enjoyed by the Governor and his guests, a Christmas fowl was the focus. Duck was enjoyed, but most had the more affordable roast chicken. As to the convicts of colonial Hobart, their masters were only required to supply them with a daily ration of 1lb each of meat and bread, plus a little tea, sugar, salt and soap. There was nothing in the regulations about supplying convicts with treats at Christmas. There is little information about whether convict servants were included in the family Christmas feast – apart from being the unlucky ones who go to do all the cooking and cleaning up after.