December 08, 2016

Horse 2200 - Oddvent: Dec 8 - Unwanted Presents From St Nicholas

‘twas the seventeenth night before Christmas.

December 8th is the eighth day of the made-up characters calendar and being St Broccoli's Day, the day that St Broccoli walked through the streets of Paris and gave everyone twigs and bits of rotten fruit and other gifts they didn't want, we shall now tell another story  of people who didn't want to be given presents.

In the early years of the colony of New South Wales, most of the immigrants who had come and were still coming were convicts. Many of them had come from conditions of poverty in England and after coming to Australia, although they were still in chains and subject to the command of what essentially amounted to guards in the world's biggest prison, they were still more free than they otherwise would have been in a cramped stone prison or hulk ship in England.
There was a considerably larger proportion of the population in Australia who was Catholic as opposed to back home in England because of the Empire's affinity for sending Irish convicts to Australia. As such, the people who came to Australia were more likely to observe saints' days and the mass, than the mostly Protestant population of England; this had a strange side effect.

In 1811, after Governor Bligh was replaced with Governor Macquarie, there was a wave of late Georgian "improvement". Governor Macquarie decided that a good way to improve the general morale and behaviour of the colony and especially the convicts, was to extend to them the dignity of such things as religious observance of Christmas. This was an unexpectedly had idea.

Many convicts had never heard of Christmas before. The idea that they would be given a day off from work was welcomed by them but rumours were going around that a man called St Nicholas would arrive in the colony. This doesn't sound particularly odd to us but if you were a convict and heard that a man would arrive in a red suit and deliver "presents", when the only people that you normally saw in red suits were the soldiers of the New South Wales Guard and armed with muskets, you began to wonder what sort of "presents" they would be giving out.
Unbeknownst to Governor Macquarie, there was a confederation of convicts being organised to repel or possibly capture this St Nicholas who would be coming at Christmas. Based on what little information they could obtain, this St Nicholas would be arriving on Christmas Eve and so a plan was devised.
In the three weeks before Christmas of 1811, all mention of St Nicholas by the redcoats of the New South Wales Guard was met with almost universal calmness across the colony. This was interpreted as a form of reverence for the holiday and as far as the authorities were concerned, their plan of improvement was working.
Christmas Eve in Parramatta was met with a sort of silence. Many convicts working chain gangs went about their normal business as though nothing was different. At one government run farm though, things were most definitely different. The convicts went to their sleeping shed for the night but unbeknownst to the guard, many had managed to squirrel away farming tools and equipment during the prior three weeks.

At 11pm, when approximately 200 convicts were awoken for the midnight church service for Christmas and the arrival of St Nicholas, they rioted. The soldier who played St Nicholas fled in terror and as soon as it was apparent that a disturbance had broken out, the New South Wales Guard swept into action and the whole incident was quelled within an hour and without the loss of a single life.

When convicts were questioned in preparation for impending disciplinary action, it was immediately apparent that their passions had been enflamed by a misunderstanding of what St Nicholas was. The story which was consistently told was of a real fear that some outside agent would be arriving and that the announcement that St Nicholas would be bringing "presents" was taken to mean that there would be summary executions. When news got back to Governor Macquarie of what had happened, he took pity on the convicts and as various infringement notices arrived that required his action, he granted pardons and immunity from prosecution.

It should surprise nobody that St Nicholas did not arrive in the colony of New South Wales in 1812 and would not arrive for many years after. It wasn't until the ascension of Queen Victoria to the throne and her subsequent marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe Coberg that the concept of Christmas shifted from an Irish Catholic kind of idea to a more Germanised one. The further developments of some rather famous Santa Claus poetry and improvements in advertising shifted the concept of Santa Claus even more but it is with strange irony that one singular Christmas song rings with unintended truth.

You'd better watch out; you'd better not cry;
You'd better not pout; I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Interesting story, proof read your work mate. It wasn't a 'had' Christmas i assume it was bad, what enflamed means i don't know but maybe inflame is a better word. The idea that a Catholic wouldn't know what Christmas is doesn't quite gel with me, you are not unambiguous in explaining the ignorance to be an Anglo one. I take your point about when the Queen of the Famine married her first cousin and he brought a pine tree along to remind himself of his links to Hanover.

All in all an interesting read. I look forward to more of your History lessons.