Abroad for Christmas #2

A photo from my own holiday in Lapland in 2013.

The following quote is from Travels in Greece and Russia by the frankly magnificent author Bayard Taylor, published in 1859.  This man certainly knew how to live his life, and spent one Christmas Day in Lapland, travelling 40 miles across the snowy landscape.  The following quote is a bit longer than I would normally include, but Taylor’s writing is so beautifully descriptive that I am sure you will enjoy his wonderful account of how he spent his Christmas Day.

We arose betimes on Christmas morn, but the grim and deliberate landlady detained us an hour in preparing our coffee. I was in the yard about five minutes, wearing only my cloth overcoat and no gloves, and found the air truly sharp and nipping, but not painfully severe. Presently, Braisted came running in with the thermometer, exclaiming, with a yell of triumph, “Thirty, by Jupiter!” (30° Reaumur, equal to 35.5° below zero of Fahrenheit.) We were delighted with this sign of our approach to the Arctic circle.

The horses were at last ready; we muffled up carefully, and set out. The dawn was just streaking the East, the sky was crystal-clear, and not a breath of air stirring. My beard was soon a solid mass of ice, from the moisture of my breath, and my nose required constant friction. The day previous, the ice which had gathered on my fur collar lay against my face so long that the flesh began to freeze over my cheek bones, and thereafter I was obliged to be particularly cautious. As it grew lighter, we were surprised to find that our postilion was a girl. She had a heavy sheepskin over her knees, a muff for her hands, and a shawl around her head, leaving only the eyes visible. Thus accoutred, she drove on merrily, and, except that the red of her cheeks became scarlet and purple, showed no signs of the weather. As we approached Sormjole, the first station, we again had a broad view of the frozen Bothnian Gulf, over which hovered a low cloud of white ice-smoke. Looking down into the snowy valley of Sormjole, we saw the straight pillars of smoke rising from the houses high into the air, not spreading, but gradually breaking off into solid masses which sank again and filled the hollow, almost concealing the houses. Only the white, handsome church, with its tall spire, seated on a mound, rose above this pale blue film and shone softly in the growing flush of day.

We ordered horses at once, after drinking a bowl of hot milk, flavored with cinnamon. This is the favourite winter drink of the people, sometimes with the addition of brandy. But the finkel, or common brandy of Sweden, is a detestable beverage, resembling a mixture of turpentine, train oil, and bad molasses, and we took the milk unmixed, which admirably assisted in keeping up the animal heat. The mercury by this time had fallen to 38 below zero. We were surprised and delighted to find that we stood the cold so easily, and prided ourselves not a little on our powers of endurance. Our feet gradually became benumbed, but, by walking up the hills, we prevented the circulation from coming to a stand-still.

The cold, however, played some grotesque pranks with us. My beard, moustache, cap, and fur collar were soon one undivided lump of ice, Our eye-lashes became snow-white and heavy with frost, and it required constant motion to keep them from freezing together. We saw everything through visors barred with ivory. Our eyebrows and hair were as hoary as those of an octogenarian, and our cheeks a mixture of crimson and orange, so that we were scarcely recognizable by each other. Every one we met had snow-white locks, no matter how youthful the face, and, whatever was the colour of our horses at starting, we always drove milk-white steeds at the close of the post. The irritation of our nostrils occasioned the greatest inconvenience, and as the handkerchiefs froze instantly, it soon became a matter of pain and difficulty to use them. You might as well attempt to blow your nose with a poplar chip. We could not bare our hands a minute, without feeling an iron grasp of cold which seemed to squeeze the flesh like a vice, and turn the very blood to ice. In other respects we were warm and jolly, and I have rarely been in higher spirits. The air was exquisitely sweet and pure, and I could open my mouth (as far as its icy grating permitted) and inhale full draughts into the lungs with a delicious sensation of refreshment and exhilaration. I had not expected to find such freedom of respiration in so low a temperature. Some descriptions of severe cold in Canada and Siberia, which I have read, state that at such times the air occasions a tingling, smarting sensation in the throat and lungs, but I experienced nothing of the kind.

This was arctic travel at last. By Odin, it was glorious.  The smooth, firm road, crisp and pure as alabaster, over which our sleigh-runners talked with the rippling, musical murmur of summer brooks; the sparkling, breathless firmament; the gorgeous rosy flush of morning, slowly deepening until the orange disc of the sun cut the horizon; the golden blaze of the tops of the bronze firs; the glittering of the glassy birches; the long, dreary sweep of the landscape; the icy nectar of the perfect air; the tingling of the roused blood in every vein, all alert to guard the outposts of life against the besieging cold – it was superb! The natives themselves spoke of the cold as being unusually severe, and we congratulated ourselves all the more on our easy endurance of it. Had we judged only by our own sensations we should not have believed the temperature to be nearly so low.

The sun rose a little after ten, and I have never seen anything finer than the spectacle which we then saw for the first time, but which was afterwards almost daily repeated the illumination of the forests and snow-fields in his level orange beams, for even at midday he was not more than eight degrees above the horizon. The tops of the trees, only, were touched: still and solid as iron, and covered with sparkling frost-crystals, their trunks were changed to blazing gold, and their foliage to a fiery orange-brown. The delicate purple sprays of the birch, coated with ice, glittered like wands of topaz and amethyst, and the slopes of virgin snow, stretching towards the sun, shone with the fairest saffron gleams. There is nothing equal to this in the South – nothing so transcendently rich, dazzling, and glorious. Italian dawns and twilights cannot surpass those we saw every day, not, like the former, fading rapidly into the ashen hues of dusk, but lingering for hour after hour with scarce a decrease of splendour. Strange that Nature should repeat these lovely aerial effects in such widely different zones and seasons. I thought to find in the winter landscapes of the far North a sublimity of death and desolation – a wild, dark, dreary, monotony of expression – but I had, in reality, the constant enjoyment of the rarest, the tenderest, the most enchanting beauty…

We made two Swedish miles by noon, and then took a breakfast of fried reindeer meat and pancakes, of which we ate enormously, to keep up a good supply of fuel. Braisted and I consumed about a pound of butter between us. Shriek not, young ladies, at our vulgar appetites you who sip a spoonful of ice-cream, or trifle with a diminutive meringue, in company, but make amends on cold ham and pickles in the pantry, after you go home, I shall tell the truth, though it disgust you. This intense cold begets a necessity for fat, and with the necessity comes the taste a wise provision of Nature! The consciousness now dawned upon me that I might be able to relish train-oil and tallow-candles before we had done with Lapland.

I had tough work at each station to get my head out of my wrappings, which were united with my beard and hair in one solid lump. The cold increased instead of diminishing, and by the time we reached Gumboda, at dusk, it was 40 below zero. Here we found a company of Finns travelling southward, who had engaged five horses, obliging us to wait a couple of hours. We had already made forty miles, and were satisfied with our performance, so we stopped for the night. When the thermometer was brought in, the mercury was frozen, and on unmuffling I found the end of my nose seared as if with a hot iron. The inn was capital; we had a warm carpeted room, beds of clean, lavendered linen, and all civilised appliances. In the evening we sat down to a Christmas dinner of sausages, potatoes, pancakes, raspberry jam, and a bottle of Barclay and Perkin’s best porter, in which we drank the health of all dear relatives and friends in the two hemispheres. And this was in West Bothnia, where we had been told in Stockholm that we should starve! At bedtime, Braisted took out the thermometer again, and soon brought it in with the mercury frozen below all the numbers on the scale.

Robert Ogden Tyler was the commander of the Artillery Reserve of the Army of the Potomac, at the Battle of Gettysburg.  After the Civil War he receive a brevet rank of Major-General (‘brevet’ ranks were honorary promotions that lacked the same pay and authority).  His autobiography, Memoir of Brevet Major-General Robert Ogden Tyler was publised posthumously in 1878, and included a journal of two months’ travel in and around India, just two years before his death.  On Christmas Day, 1872, he was at sea on a steamer.

We turned out to rather a rainy, thick morning. The Apgar steamer, having the start as well as the advantage of us in speed, was so far ahead that we could barely discern her smoke between the showers. About noon, however, it cleared up, and we discovered that our rival and companion had slowed down and was evidently waiting for us. Through our glasses we saw that she was decked with flags in honor of the day. Not to be outdone, the captain of the Statesman set his house and national colors, and in compliment to us sent up the stars and stripes. We got out Marryatt’s Code, and finding two sets of signals which read “Christmas compliments”, they were also hoisted. As we neared the Hindostan, she answered our signals and fired a salute, while some missionaries on board waved the small banner of our country, which we Americans usually carry with us in lieu of a pocket-handkerchief. As the firing was somewhat unexpected, and our carronades had fallen into disuse, we could not reply immediately; but I offered to superintend the artillery, and by means of a kitchen skewer, which I found, made an excellent priming wire; we cleared the vents, and were soon ourselves blazing away. As neither ship could go into Penang before morning, and it was of no use to hurry, we continued in company, exchanged cheers, and drank champagne to each other’s health. Our steward gave us as a rare Christmas treat “mangosteens” for dessert. After some discussion as to whether they should be cut lengthwise or across, we agreed that either way they were a delicious fruit. After dark they lit up the other ship with Chinese lanterns, and, as we could hear the scraping of a fiddle, we surmised that they were getting up a dance with the ladies among their passengers. We lone bachelors amused ourselves by firing our guns, rockets, and blue-lights, and making night hideous by sounding a fog-horn. About eleven o’clock, when everybody had pretty well burned their fingers with the fireworks, we let off a “feu-de-joie” of everything we had left, and relapsed into silence and darkness, after spending an odd, and not unmerry, Christmas.

In Nine Months on a Cruise (published 1912) William E. Richmond spent a very happy Christmas day in Hawaii, where he was able to see the traditional gift-giving from the older residents to the children.  He then enjoyed Christmas dinner and entertainment onboard ship.

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear and, before it was over, we realized that it was our busy day. Sports started after breakfast and lasted all day, only interrupted by the usual corking good dinner. Also in the morning some of us had the pleasure of witnessing the distribution by the “Kamaainas” to the “Malihinis” of presents from the Malihini Christmas tree. (“Malihini” — pronounced mollyheenie, is Hawaiian for stranger or newcomer — used mostly in the latter sense, and “Kamaaina — commaeena, means old resident or oldtimer). This tree, which was placed right out in the open, was an enormous specimen of its kind, and loaded with gifts for the little ones. The hospitality and good will of the Hawaiians (meaning by “Hawaiians” everybody of all races that lives in the islands) is thus displayed toward the children of the Malihinis who have moved in since the preceding Christmas. Around this tree the writer saw children of native, Japanese, Chinese, Ceylonese, Korean, Filipino, Hindu, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, German, English and American, origin — as well as mixtures of any or all — and doubtless there were other nationalities present. And such happy little tots they were as each was handed a bunch of nuts, a toy horn, and some useful little article. Never before have we seen such multi-colored happiness, nor happiness expressed in so many different ways. Some were staid and sober — like little old men and women — in their demeanor, yet happiness shone from their eyes; others ran about in voluble excitement and plainly expressed their delight by word and action; and still others stood timidly, with finger on lips in characteristic childish pose, shyly holding their precious gifts close up to their bodies, It was great — almost as good as being a kid again yourself. Understand, this was not a “charitable” tree, but an expression of goodwill from the oldtimers to the newcomers — one of the little things that justly entitles the oldtimers to call their little burg the “Paradise of the Pacific.”

The trucks and yardarms of the ship were tipped with the customary bit of evergreen, and the messes from the Admiral’s down were decorated with wreaths, palms and evergreens interspersed with bunting and flags. To add to our happiness we were blessed with two mails from home that hit us just right to alleviate any pangs of homesickness, one on the 22nd and the other on Christmas Day. During the afternoon and evening, Captain Harlow (commanding the California) had big doings in the way of a tree, dinner and dance. The quarterdeck of the ship, and even the wharf to which we were made fast, was decorated and brilliantly illuminated with colored incandescents. The good Honolulans who attended will long remember that great time. Santa Claus dropped from his biplane long enough to leave them his whole cargo of horns and whistles (poor chap had to make a special trip for more) and they were faithfully used, as the din created proved.

Our Christmas dinner aboard didn’t amount to much, as may be readily seen by reading the following:

Mulligatawny Soup
Mixed Pickles
Salmon au Gratin, Tartare Sauce
Fricandeau of Veal
Braized Cold Ham
Roast Turkey, Sage Dressing, Giblet Dressing
Stewed Cranberries
Asparagus, Drawn Butter
Sweet Potatoes
Assorted Pies
Combination Salad
Cream Cheese
Soda Wafers
Ice Cream
Wine Cake
Christmas Bags

It was better than nothing, however!

The Christmas carol O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks, a priest from Philadelphia, and his words were set to music by his church organist, Lewis Redner.  His inspiration was a Christmas visit to Bethlehem in 1865, which he related in one of his Letters of Travel, published in the year of his death, 1893.

Last Sunday morning we attended service in the English church, and after an early dinner took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. The great church of the Nativity is its most prominent object; it is shared by the Greeks, Latins, and Armenians, and each church has a convent attached to it. We were hospitably received in the Greek convent, and furnished with a room. Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been, and in the same fields the story of Ruth and Boaz must belong. As we passed, the shepherds were still “keeping watch over their flocks,” or leading them home to fold. We returned to the convent and waited for the service, which began about ten o clock and lasted until three (Christmas). It was the old story of a Romish service, with all its mummery, and tired us out. They wound up with a wax baby, carried in procession, and at last laid in the traditional manger, in a grotto under the church. The most interesting part was the crowd of pilgrims, with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial. We went to bed very tired.

In the same volume, Brooks wrote a letter about another Christmas Day, spent in a very different location: Bombay.

Do you care to know how we spent Christmas? I will tell you. We arose in the cool of the morning at six o clock. After we had a cup of tea, some fruit and bread and butter, the open carriage was at the door, and we put on our pith helmets to keep off the sun, and drove away. First we went to the Jain hospital for animals. The Jains are a curious sect of Hindoos, and one of their ideas is the sacredness of animal life. So they have this great hospital, where they gather all the sick and wounded animals they can find, and cure them if they can, or keep them till they die. The broken-legged cows, sick pigeons, mangy dogs, and melancholy monkeys are very curious. We stayed there a while, and then drove to the Parsee burial-place. The Parsees are Persian sun-worshipers, who have been settled here for centuries, and are among the most intelligent and enterprising citizens. Their pleasant way of disposing of their dead is to leave a body on a high tower, where vultures devoted to that business come, and in about an hour consume all its flesh, leaving the bones, which, after four weeks of drying in the sun, are tumbled into a common pit, where they all crumble together into dust. You see the towers with the vultures waiting on top for the next arrival, but no one is allowed to enter.

Then we came home and had our breakfast, after which we drove into the town, whence I sent a telegram of “Merry Christmas” to you at eleven o clock. We went to the service at the Cathedral, which was very good. Then I drove out to the Government House, where the Governor, Sir James Fergusson, had invited me to lunch. Very pleasant people were there, and the whole thing was interesting. The drive out and in, about four miles each way, was through the strangest population, and in the midst of the queerest sights. After my return (I went there alone) we wandered about the native bazaars and saw their curious trades. At eight o clock, Mr. Kittredge gave us a sumptuous dinner at the Byculla Club, where with turkey, plum pudding, and mince-pies, we made the best which we knew how of that end of Christmas Day. After that, about ten o clock, we wandered out into a native fair, where we saw their odd performances until late into the night, when we drove home along the cool sea shore, and went to bed tired but happy, after the funniest Christmas Day we ever passed.

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

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