Christmas Eve in Main Road was hot and dusty in 1857 according to Ballarat historian Nathan Spielvogel. Festive decorations comprising big gum trees were tied around the verandah posts of the shops that were dotted along the Main Road. In those days there were few pine trees in Ballarat to use for Christmas Trees to remind the new settlers of life back in Britain and the new fashion of putting up a tree which had taken on in the 1840s. The weather was entirely different too, with no snow or snowmen to be seen.
The tradition of the Christmas Tree is believed to have started in Germany. According to legend St Boniface cut down an oak tree used for pagan worship, from the roots of which a young fir tree sprouted. He believed this was a sign of Christian Faith. Decorating the Tree began when Martin Luther put candles on a tree as a reminder of the starry night in Bethlehem when Christ was born. In 1840 German born Prince Albert who married Queen Victoria was responsible for the popularity of the tree in Britain. He set up a tree for their children in Windsor Castle.
In Ballarat the shops and hotels were all still open on Christmas Day, and the churches were also busy. People gathered in their hundreds to remember the birth of Christ at St Paul’s in Humffray Street, the Methodist Church in Barkly Street (then called Church Street), the Congregationalist Church near the corner of Barkly Street, and in Eureka Street where the Reverend Baird preached in Gaelic at the Presbyterian Church.
Some traditions were kept and a semblance of British protocol adhered to. Geese were fattened up for Christmas Dinner which comprised the traditional poultry and plum pudding. In front of Bill Hetheringham’s poultry shop a Goose Club was conducted. Sixteen men put in one shilling each, then a dice box was brought out, and the man that threw the highest number received the goose.
The day after Christmas, Boxing Day, was traditionally a day of recreation and sport. The circus provided entertainment, as did quoit matches, skittle matches, weight lifting, wrestling and the greasy pole. A cricket match between the Melbourne side was played at the Eastern Oval till the cry of ‘Fire!’ was heard. All the players and spectators raced to the Imperial Hotel in Humffray Street and watched as it burnt to the ground, and then returned to their cricket match on the oval.
Boxing Day was also known as the feast of St Stephen, who was the first Christian martyr to be stoned to death in 33 AD. It was named Boxing Day from the tradition started by the Romans of opening the church alms boxes and giving the contents to the poor. Earlier in Britain apprentices and servants were given small boxes that their employers and customers had filled with tips during the year.
Boxing Night in Ballarat in 1857 was hot, dusty and noisy. Wizard Jacobs was performing at the Victoria Theatre and the big placards placed around the Township told the eager theatre goers of the Wizard’s mysterious achievements. Hotels were open and liquor flowed freely till the supply was exhausted. Christmas Day and Boxing Day on the Ballarat Diggings were full of life, noise, heat and excitement.