Abroad for Christmas

Snow at Argenteuil (Monet, 1875). Nothing to do with the article, but I like the painting!

American Quaker William Savery (1750-1804) was a notable abolitionist who travelled through Europe between 1796 and 1799.  His journal of travels was published posthumously, as A Journal of the Life, Travels, and Religious Labors of William Savery.  He spent one Christmas in Cork, Ireland, where he observed how the poor locals prepared for Christmas, and then visited an orphanage on Christmas Day:

It being near the time called Christmas, the people everywhere seemed preparing for it; most of the poor get some meat or poultry, and were bringing home on their backs plenty of broom, furze, turf, &c., to keep better fires than usual: most of the women and children were without stockings or shoes, and also many of the men at this cold season of the year, the air, being very chilling and wet. The verdure of the fields and meadows, and their prolific appearance is such as I have never seen in any country…

On the 25th, after dinner, observing a large gate near the house with an inscription, informing that the walls enclosed a foundling hospital, I felt an inclination to go over and see the children. The masters and mistresses soon collected the children, about two hundred and twenty boys and girls, from five to fourteen years old, tolerably clothed, though mostly without shoes or stockings. After a little time in silence, David Sands, Mary Dudley and myself, had something to offer to the company: many of the children were attentive and some in tears: the masters and superintendents expressed their satisfaction. The institution is principally supported by a tax on coals, and the children, when about the age of fourteen, are bound out apprentices to such business as they incline to. The city of Cork is large, and many streets wide, handsome and well built; yet a more dirty, disagreeable city to walk in, I have scarcely seen; it is built on both sides of the river Lee, and may contain one hundred thousand inhabitants.


Fitch Waterman Taylor was an American minister who was appointed chaplain of the US Navy.  In that role he travelled around the world, and his travel journal was published as A Voyage Around the World in 1847.  In the first volume, he related his feelings about spending Christmas on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia.  His thoughts inevitably turned to Christmas back home…

There are periods in time, that come upon us on their annual occurrence, with an irresistible power of association. And they are happy or grievous, as our experience may have been, as those periods have rolled round, on their yearly returns. To-day is Christmas. And how immediately is the inquiry raised, “Where was I last Christmas? And whom was I with?” And how much there is in the answers, as the mind runs over the objects and their associations, which are recalled in connection with that day! To me, as I go back to the Christmas day, one year from this, all things come back with a freshness, as if I were again standing amid those scenes, so far over the sea, and among friends rendered yet more dear, by the distance which intervenes and the time we have measured since we parted. I remember the clear day that sent forth its beams from a clear sun, but with little warmth in his rays. I remember the church wreathed and festooned, and inly embowered with evergreens; and the pulpit where I stood, and the fixed eyes of the people as they listened to the word of God, and the altar around which they gathered. And I remember the young and endeared sister, so lately attired in her dress of deep mourning, and like a dove whose companion had been smitten from her side by an arrow, seemed an object of lonely loveliness, amid a congregation of lighter robes and lighter hearts. And beside her sat a man of years, who had but a few days before put his lip upon the cold and marble brow of the child he cherished and loved as but few fathers love, ere that child was borne to her cold grave, to come no more, at the Christmas gathering, around the family table, and to mingle in the family’s domestic circle. And I remember the letter, which, on that day and at that place, was handed me, which invited me to visit scenes in other nations, and which determined me to start on the course that has brought me to spend this Christmas day nearly half way around the world from the spot where I then was standing, and from the friends with whom I then communed.

And to-day, instead of that neat temple, so tastefully festooned and decorated in evergreens, on the joyous birthday of the Redeemer of the world, and in a clime where the December gale bears on its wing a freezing and bracing air, and the snow-storm spreads the wide folds of its gorgeous ermine mantle over mountain and meadow, forest and fern, and the ice bridges span the rivers in their flow, I now look abroad from an ocean-temple, floating in the warm seas of a torrid clime. And before me lies one of nature’s sublimest, loveliest evergreen mountains, curving its beautiful outline of embowering trees on an horizon that smiles blandly and serene, as the warmer than the summer gale sweeps along the thick foliage of the green mountain-side of the pepper Isle. And to-day, our still ship slumbers on the smooth bosom of the lovely bay, over which our guns yesterday were throwing their intonations of displeasure and rebuke, into the ears of the abettors and protectors of the robber and the murderer. But, while the thunders of those guns have ceased, the eternal roar of the surf sleeps not, as the undulating wave breaks, in its perpetual rim of cascading foam, along the extended beach of gold. I have always loved this roar of ocean-wave this loud murmur of the sea-surge, breaking on the golden beach. It ever reminds me of the voice of Niagara, in her perpetual worship of the Eternal. And though the voice of man were lost, were he to join in the loud chant, yet the one emotion that swells the bosom of the worshipper, as he stands upon the sea-shore, is sublimer far than the loudest roar of mighty waters. But, ye friends, who to-day are more than ten thousand miles away, in the happy land of the west, “a merry, happy Christmas to ye all.” And O, that I could hear your response, and greet you for one hour on this hallowed day, at your festive and happy board. I know that your thoughts this day are often with me, and that for me your prayers, in kindness, as certainly ascend. And I — but may God bless ye all.


The following quote is from Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa by Heinrich Barth, a German explorer who spent several years travelling around the continent.  This journal was published in 1857.

To-day was Christmas-day; and my companion and I, in conformity with a custom of our native town, tried in vain to procure some fish for a more luxurious entertainment in the evening. The meat of giraffes, which formed the greatest of our African luxuries, was not to be obtained; and as for elephant’s flesh, which we were able to get, although we both liked it, we had too sadly experienced its bad effect upon the weak state of our bowels to try it again. Hence, in order to celebrate the evening, we were reduced to coffee and milk, with which we regaled ourselves.


The next quote is from the pages of From New York to Delhi by Robert Bowne Minturn Jr, published the following year (1858).  The son of a noted ship owner and merchant, Minturn Jr had the small town of Minturn, Colorado named after him, due to his position as vice president of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.

On Christmas day I went with several officers to a large dinner at the house of Mr. Beresford, the manager of the Delhi bank. His house was a large and handsome mansion in the city, near the Chandee chok. It was built and at one time occupied by the Begoom Sombre or Sumroo of Sirdhana. Mr. Beresford came out to India as a common soldier in the Company’s European army, and had raised himself by his talents to the opulent position which he then enjoyed. The Misses Beresford, two very charming young ladies, who had just returned from England, where they had been educated, and other ladies of the station were present.

After dinner we had music, and dancing; and the evening concluded with the old fashioned games of snap-dragon, blind-man’s buff, and hunt-the-ring. At the latter, Colonel Riddle, who was on his way to Agra, to take charge of the newly-raised Third European regiment, distinguished himself greatly. Among the decorations of the room were several misletoe boughs, which had been brought with much trouble from the Himalayas, but there were so few young ladies that kissing would have been personal, so the old custom went unhonoured.


Novelist Henry Fuller wrote about his travels in A Californian Circling the Globe, published in 1904.  In December he found himself on the Arabian Sea, travelling from Egypt to India.  A few days before Christmas, he enjoyed the spiritual sight of the South Cross stars, also known as “Crux”, from the Latin for cross.  He also described the events on board on Christmas day – that traditional festive combination of plum pudding and high-stakes gambling.

I never will forget the sunset that Sabbath evening, as it dropped out of sight over behind the Abyssinian mountains and seemingly in the midst of an aureole of light, fleecy clouds, tinting them in colors of pink and amber. Even royalty paused in their walks back and forth, to look at this afterglow of sunset, nowhere more marked and beautiful than when seen as it reflects from Africa’s shore. The mountains are abrupt and jutting almost on the shore at Aden, which is an island. There are more British troops stationed here than in Gibraltar. Many Nubians and Abyssinians came in small boats from the African shore and gathered around the steamer to barter and trade. In the evening the ship sailed away, Aden being half way from Port Said to Bombay.

I arose at 3 o’clock Monday morning and ran out on deck to see that famous constellation of stars known as the Southern Cross. It was there, four bright stars, lying in the form of a cross on an angle to the east. With delight I viewed the sight, and caught another throb of nature’s love, from those southern skies above, lifting me up with a quickening pulse to a plane where harmony reigns. Wonderful stars, as with noiseless tread they have paced the heavens since the world began, an emblem of love to all mankind, as it is our Saviour’s cross hanging in the sky. I paced the deck, my soul all aglow — a season of rapture I enjoyed here below.

No land nor ships did we see all through this day of Monday. Tuesday came and the same result, with not a ship or land to see, as we went rushing along over this Arabian sea. Wednesday came and still not a ship nor land in sight. A few flying fish were flying about like the flutter of royalty on the promenade deck. Thursday came being Christmas Day, and we had plum pudding served on a tray.

I heard a great noise and clamoring shouts, and I walked aloft to see what it was about. Each day a coterie of the common people had been betting on the running of the ship, men and women getting much excited, as the stakes ran up to about twenty pounds ($100) each day. Their mode of procedure was to auction off the choices to the highest bidder. This being Christmas Day, some of the Dukes, Earls and Lords took part in this gambling scheme — hence the uproar, and the pool ran up to 100 pounds ($500). One lord won most of it and one of the common people said to me, “The big guns were too much for us.”

Mark Twain had a different assessment of the Southern Cross: “It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as a cross would look if it looked like something else.” (Following the Equator).  Representations of the Southern Cross can be found on the flags of Australia and New Zealand.


The above content originally appeared on our sister site, Windows into History.  Content from that site is being moved and collated here.  In the meantime, there are many more interesting history articles to be found there.   RP

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
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