History: Christmas as it used to be

CHRISTMAS means many things to many people. To Christians it is a celebration of Christ's birth; to most children in Australia it is Santa Claus and mysterious gifts; to many it is a time of frustration as the perfect gift can never be found and the unwanted presents always arrive; to most it is a season of goodwill, happiness, family gatherings, and wonderful food.

These days many of our fellow Australians come from non-Christian backgrounds.

They have different religious and traditional celebrations. Even the Scottish (including Christian Scots) celebrate the New Year with Hogmanay and also have Robbie Burns Suppers! Christmas is something different, however, and everyone can join in.

But what about the early settlers in Australia?

They did not have the lavish feast we now have, or the large shops with tempting items for gifts.

They probably did not even have Santa Claus!

Very little has been written locally about these occasions.

However, we are indebted to a few surviving diaries which give us a small insight into these times.

Francois and Rebecca Rishworth came to live at Wollongbar in 1873.

They were young and eager to build a future for themselves and their family on a 40 acre selection.

Neither was used to the hardships which the new life presented to them.

Rebecca had been brought up in an affluent Sydney home.

At Wollongbar she started life in a tent which was eventually replaced by a simple slab hut.

Most days she had to help her husband, but she also had to tend a vegetable garden which was essential to their existence.

There were also hens to feed and eggs to collect, and as the years went by no doubt there were children to look after.

A copy of Rebecca's diary for 1875 is held by the Lismore Historical Society.

She apparently loved her life, although it was hard work.

She does not complain but lists all the little household activities which kept her busy.

She was particularly interested in her hens and there is a running tally of their egg production.

On Christmas Day 1875 she tells us that the weather was fine but very hot.

She killed a fowl and cooked it for dinner.

Also on the menu was pumpkin and plum pudding.

She collected only one egg, but apparently thought so much of her hens that she gave the fowl-house a Spring cleaning, even though it was Christmas Day!

There were still pioneers in 1909. At Irvington the Richmond River dredge pulled into the bank at a property owned by Mr and Mrs Grainger.

Herbert Peak, the Master of the dredge, was invited to Christmas dinner.

His report of the event is also at the Historical Society.

It was a fine midsummer day and he was treated to poultry, potatoes and pumpkin followed by a boiled pudding.

He stated that the dinner was wonderful and he could not ask for better.

Mrs Grainger was a true pioneer, as well as being hospitable.

All the cooking was done outside on an open fire.

The dinner was cooked in a camp oven using corn husks for fuel and the pudding was boiled in a pot standing on two iron bars over the same fire! Perhaps this outdoor life is the real origin of the traditional Aussie barbecue!

Prepared by Geoff & Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, Lismore.

Telephone: 02 6621 9993. Email: info@richhistory.org.au

Hours: Museum - Monday-Friday 10am-4pm; Research Room - Monday & Wednesday 10am-4pm.

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