Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Natal Settler Christmas: 1853

The Feilden home, Feniscowles, Durban.

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.

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