Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Vintage Christmas, Part 1

Christmas in Australia is different to that in the Northern hemisphere.  They have cold, we have hot; they have snow, we swelter in the hottest time of the year.  Santa visits them in a sleigh with reindeer; he visits us on a surfboard with led by kangaroos.  That has to be true, the Australian Embassy even depicts it.

My thanks to Graham E for sending me the link to photographs and commentary of past Christmases in Oz, a look at some bygone customs and moments in time.


A camera for Christmas

While digital cameras and mobile phones have revolutionised the way we take and store photographs, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when capturing a moment with stand-alone cameras and film was considered novel. George Eastman popularised photography with the first simple camera, the Kodak, in 1888. Over the next half-century, these cameras became more practical. This Australian advertisement, circa 1938, pitches the latest Kodaks as more than Christmas gifts. They are the "happy promise of a thousand delightful snapshots", and the Kodak film they use, essential.

The 100 year old cat who arrived on the First Fleet

There were 11 ships in the First Fleet: two Royal Navy Escorts, six convict transports, and three supply ships. One of these was the Golden Grove, "the Noah's Ark of Australia": it carried cows, horses, sheep, goats, pigs, dogs and seven cats. Incredibly (in the literal sense of the word), one of these cats went on to live for more than 100 years, eventually winding up in the NSW town of Gundagai. According to a Tasmanian newspaper's 1876 yarn, "this wonderful cat has subsisted on pork sausages, and will not touch any other diet." Fifty years later, a Gundagai paper denied any local knowledge of such a cat, sniffily dubbing it "a mare's nest" — that is, an astounding-but-fraudulent discovery. The local disdain for felines is hardly surprising. Gundagai is, after all, a dog town. 

30 hours inside a dead whale to cure rheumatism

"The smell and heat were hardly bearable… great blasts of gas and horrible bubbles would gush out around us and make our hair stand on end," reported a putrid story in the Sydney Bulletin in 1896. The yarn described a bizarre, revolting cure for rheumatism: climbing inside the belly of a slaughtered whale for 20 to 30 hours to expose oneself to the corpse's healing "ammoniacal gases… of an overpowering and atrocious odour". The remedy was supposedly discovered near the New South Wales whaling town of Eden when a rheumatic drunk fell into a dead whale (as you do) and emerged hours later from the "huge mountain of decomposing blubber" feeling better than ever. Not only was the cure unlikely to work, it was also rarely practised — thankfully. 

Christmas party in a WW1 hospital

When it came to Christmas in World War I's military hospital wards, every effort was made to ensure the wounded servicemen enjoyed themselves. Soldiers were joined by their army officers, nurses and doctors to celebrate the occasion. Wards were festively decorated, some with ribbons, others with images of Santa Claus and maps of Australia, and food was plentiful. It's not recorded precisely where or when this photo was taken, but elsewhere, the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Egypt celebrated Christmas Day 1915 with a traditional roast dinner, and even the doctors pitched in – one carved the turkey and ham, while another gave out beverages. 

19th century miners cook up golden Christmas ‘cake’

In the late 19th century, immigrants were still coming to terms with what an Australian Christmas looked like. Absent were carols, snow and mistletoe, and in their place were picnics, sports and soaring temperatures. In the bush, new Australians gathered around night fires while travelling stockmen shared stories, and on the gold fields, mining companies celebrated with large "crushings" of gold. They would then exhibit these "golden Christmas cakes" in the windows of local banks. This illustration, published on January 1, 1872, depicts a cake after its crushing. The previous holiday season saw what was believed to be the largest ever golden cake produced in Victoria, weighing 106.7kg, then valued at £15,026. 

Santa rides an emu to department store’s famous toy fair

Foy and Gibson's, one of Australia's earliest department stores, was famous for its annual toy fairs, which boasted "unprecedentedly low prices", and holiday season attractions. Melbourne's Bourke Street store attracted customers with its rooftop carnival, complete with ponies, train rides and a ferris wheel that teetered so close to the edge of the rooftop that "it felt as if you were falling from the top of the building". Children could also meet Father Christmas, but it's doubtful he was as smartly dressed as this poster from the late 19th century suggests — or that he rode in on an emu. 

Father Christmas rides an eagle on terrifying card

Santa Claus’s design has evolved over hundreds of years. By the early 20th century, the contemporary interpretation of a portly man with a bushy beard and furs had taken hold. What hadn’t, clearly, were his animal sidekicks of choice. While he might now prefer reindeer, Santa has been known to ride a goat named Ukko, a kangaroo, and even an eagle carrying a basket of presents in its talons. This poster for drapery firm Craig Williamson Pty Ltd features Santa riding one such eagle in service of a bad pun: "Our attractive show catches the eagle-eye of Father Xmas". The show caught the eye of Sidney Myer (of Myer department store fame), who bought the company in 1908. 

Santa’s gifts to children of men killed in WW2

Santa Claus swapped his sleigh for a yacht on Saturday, December 15, 1945. Disembarking at Point Walter, Perth, Santa delivered presents to the children of men killed during World War II. Before his arrival, the 109 Australian Convalescent Depot worked tirelessly to ensure that the Christmas party was a memorable one, organising a bevy of cakes and sweets, and a sports program including swimming and tennis. Over 1000 youngsters, wives and guardians were estimated to have attended the event. 

Children celebrate Christmas next to unfinished Harbour Bridge

On the afternoon of Saturday, December 6, 1930, Rear Admiral Evans and the officers of HMAS Australia II welcomed families onto their warship for the annual children’s Christmas party. The ship was moored at Garden Island, Sydney, and transformed into a festive playground, complete with slides and celebrities. While "Mickey the Mouse" thrilled youngsters, the great cannon on deck fired off salvos of multi-coloured balloons. The crane, usually reserved for munitions, carried children in a cage out above the ocean, in full view of the as-yet-incomplete Sydney Harbour Bridge (it opened in 1932). Its passengers included Rosemary Budge, the daughter of the secretary to the Governor of New South Wales, pictured on the left wearing glasses. 

Santa steals a Christmas kiss from a nurse

In a bid to lift the spirits of children struggling with illness over the holiday season, Sydney's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital hosted an annual Christmas picnic in 1944. Children left the ward and bathed in the summer sun. While some years brought special attractions, like camels, Santa was a constant. He dressed more like a wizard with cotton balls stuck to his robe than contemporary incarnations of the gift-giver, and in December 1944, he was certainly not afraid to get more than a little festive with a nurse.

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