For British settlers who came to Natal in the 1850s, Christmas was very different from those they were used to ‘back home’. Despite the unusual experience of 25 December occurring in the midst of summer heat, most families tried to retain aspects of their familiar seasonal traditions – turkey, roast beef, plum pudding and as many trimmings as possible. This would be a pattern followed by generations of Natal settler descendants.
Eliza Feilden, emigrating with her husband Leyland on the Jane Morice and acquiring the farm Feniscowles in Durban, wrote letters home during their five year sojourn in the Colony. When the Feildens returned to England, Eliza published her letters together with selections from her journal (the original journal is held at the Local History Museum, Old Court House, Durban). The result is a fascinating, illustrated account of settler life in Natal and more particularly a settler wife’s reactions to her new environment.
Eliza wrote in December 1853:
I am sitting on the door-steps under our deep roof, sheltered from the intense heat of the sun this scorchingly hot day, the thermometer 78 degrees in our cool, shady, and airy room. I walked over the ploughed field at two o’clock, seeking for my husband, and the ground burnt my feet through my shoes …
The farm is looking quite beautiful again … the arrowroot and sugar-canes as well as they can look … I do think the climate – lovely and charming as it is – very wearing and enervating, with all the work that has to be done, but I enjoy it.
We had no plum pudding on Christmas Day. We ate our roast beef and calabash and our papaw tart with relish, and drank all your healths (i.e. the family in England). We rode into church in the morning, and partook of the sacrament. Most people made a holiday. We were invited to a picnic, but rode home quietly, and Leyland … planted arrowroot all the afternoon.
Extract from My African Home, or Bush Life in Natal 1852-7 by Eliza Whigham Feilden, 1887 Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, London. A reprint edition was published fairly recently.
Christmas in Natal 1865
On Christmas Eve 1865, Sidney Turner, a pioneer of the Natal South Coast and Pondoland, wrote from the Lower Umzimkulu Drift:
I should have gone up to the Umzinto till Christmas, but am expecting the Governor and suite to be here every day … They were to cross the Upper Drift and to come back to Durban (120 miles away) by the lower road, it will be an event if they do …
December 25th, Evening, 9 o’clock
I hope you have been enjoying your plum pudding and cattle-plagued beef just at the same time that I was eating a hot fowl, sweet potatoes, French beans and cabbages, with a dessert of peaches, granadillas, pineapples and cucumber. I have some beauties in my garden. It was three o’clock when my dinner began, one o’clock with you. I drank all your healths in a glass of rum and water, in spite of my teetotal pledge, as that isn’t to be expected to be kept when I have to wish a merry Christmas and happy New Year to those 10, 000 miles away.
I have had lots of swimming today, while perhaps you have been skating. I should like to try to swim from Dover to Calais if ever I get Home.
In a letter to his parents at New Year Sidney remarked that he had thought about them all on Christmas Day. ‘ … It was the day before that on which I shot the lion, and I had forty miles to ride to catch the wagon’ - hardly reassuring news for his family over the festive season.
A year later Sidney was able to report that his new house was ready to be occupied: it had
a large sitting-room, two bedrooms, pantry and store, with verandah all round. It will seem really like getting to civilization when I go into it. There is a splendid view ... this is likely to be the first time since coming out that Christmas will seem to be really Christmas; not so much because of plum pudding or beef, but that it is the first time that I have felt really at home and comfortable.
This in spite of soaring temperatures. But though Sidney remains cheerful there is, as in most emigrant journals and correspondence, nostalgia for the old country and people left behind. Christmas morning was ‘awfully hot’ and ‘would, I think, be almost too much for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego …'.
My plum pudding came to a bad job … so I ate beef for dinner, and had the pudding out and baked it in a tin dish till 7 p.m. but it still kept a sort of paste. I have just been eating some of it with milk and sugar, but it sticks to the top of your mouth much worse than the old stickjaw we used to get at school … You are now no doubt getting ready for dancing … Couldn’t I, and wouldn’t I, just have a go were I at Home at the present minute.’
Turner spent forty years in South Africa between 1864 and his death in 1901. He made a happy marriage, his wife Bella surviving him for about thirty years; they had twenty-two grandchildren. Perhaps his most exciting and notable contribution to history, apart from his valuable letters, was his interest in the wreck of the East Indiaman, Grosvenor, of which he salvaged several relics.
Extracts from Portrait of a Pioneer: The Letters of Sidney Turner from South Africa 1864-1901, selected and edited by Daphne Child (MacMillan South Africa, 1980).
The originals, as well as Turner's Grosvenor relics, are held in the Local History Museum, Old Court House, Durban.