Australia's Post-Christmas Tradition You've Never Heard About
Let's roll the clock back 207 years. It's late morning on 28 December 1814 and a truly Australian festive tradition is about to be launched... and I'm betting few of you have ever heard of it.
(Warning: This post contains names and images of deceased Aboriginal people.)
Governor Lachlan Macquarie was the fifth and last autocratic Governor of NSW. From 1810 to 1821, he forged major social, economic, and architectural reformations. When we look for evidence of colonial Sydney it is his work that we still see today. The hospital he built is today's NSW Parliament House. The Sydney Conservatorium of Music resides in what was part of his Government House. It was he who first used the word 'Australia' in an official despatch, after explorer Matthew Flinders adopted it. Macquarie's Wall still divides the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. And it was he who embraced emancipists* - those convicts who had served their term and who out-numbered free settlers by the time he arrived in NSW.
And while the free settlers were horrified by Macquarie's former-convict appointments, almost the whole colony baulked at his 1814 Christmas edict.
Determined to promote co-operation and assimilation with the country's indigenous inhabitants^, Macquarie decided that he'd establish a 'native school' and invite some to feast with him and his wife to spread Christian cheer while also explaining why the guests should enrol their children.
And so the inaugural ‘Native Conference’ was held in the market square at Parramatta. Sixty Indigenous men, women and children from across the Sydney region sat in a circle along with the Governor and Elizabeth Macquarie munching on roast beef and potatoes, and drinking ale.
The Governor deemed the event a great success, kick-starting a tradition that continued in one form or another in different parts of Australia through until at least the 1920s. The guests liked it too, but not the school that Macquarie was peddling apparently. And I can't blame them, with 'contracts' that stated that no child "after having been admitted into the institution, shall be permitted to leave it, or to be taken away by any person whatever (whether parents or other relatives), until such time as the boys shall have attained the age of sixteen years, and the girls fourteen years".
Nonetheless, the Conference dinner became a huge draw and within four years 200 were in attendance.
Despite a name change in the 1820s to be known as 'the Parramatta Feast Day', the popularity continued. So much so that some guests walked long distances to attend.
Windradyne, an Wiradjuri elder, was one of them. He had led a resistance against the European settlers which resulted in martial law being declared by Governor Thomas Brisbane on 14 August 1824. In that same year Windradyne completed a 400-kilometre return trip to attend the feast and request peace. The Governor granted his wish.
And what did later feasts entail? By 1832 there was entertainment, ale, beef and potatoes, plus Christmas gifts - a jacket and trousers for all the men in attendance and a blanket for every woman. More women than expected attended though and so the Governor ran out of these presents, causing great disappointment.
This was the last of the great colonial Sydney Christnas Conferences. The following year authorities moved it to May, when it is wetter and cold - not weather in which Aboriginal people felt inclined to travel. Nonetheless, the notion had caught on and newly established towns held their own festivities.
Fast forward to the 1890s and cross the continent to WA's Kalgoorlie. It was a transformative decade for the gold town and a resulting watershed in WA's economic history. In just nine years the town expanded four-fold - from 48,000 to 180,000 residents, and the future looked very shiny. It was in this atmosphere that the women of the gold town decided to host the inaugural ‘Blackfellows’ Christmas Feast’ in 1891. As with Macquarie's 'Native Conference' eight decades earlier, this event was a huge success. And that's the way it stayed for the next 30 years.
The Blackfellows’ Christmas Feast of 1921 is the last event of its type that I can find mentioned. On 27 December that year in The Western Argus newspaper E. M. Collick appealed to the folks of Kalgoorlie for food and donations: “We don’t do much for our black neighbours as a whole, so let us at least be generous to them on their Feast Day”.
In a society where men were the miners and wage earners, women in Kalgoorlie spent their days supporting churches, working for charitable trusts and raising money in their community. That included organising dinners and special occasion events. So this 'Blackfellow's Christmas Feast' didn't require anything different from these women - except a willingness to overcome that segregation and social convention that bound most white people's lives.
* Macquarie appointed Francis Greenway as colonial architect, Dr William Redfern as colonial surgeon, and Andrew Thompson as a magistrate, horrifying the free settlers and making himself new enemies.
^ And if you think land rights is a modern concept, think again. It was Macquarie who pioneered the concept of returning land to Aboriginal control, and that occurred in the 1810s also with the Governor dictating that no British person was allowed to enter areas around Broken Bay and Georges Head to give the original Australians sole access to this land.
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