In the 19th century Sydney, Christmas was celebrated through the decoration of streets and buildings, along with preparations for feasting. Christmas street decorations included native flora, ribbons, Christmas trees, tinsel, baubles and illuminations.

Streets shopfronts were decorated with boughs of Australian Christmas bush, which was considered a substitute for holly, although it looked completely different.

The decorations were one way to encourage Sydneysiders to visit the shops in the centre of the city for their Christmas shopping.

The central markets on George Street (where QVB is today) were a focus for Sydneysiders to stock up for Christmas feasts from the mid-19th century – the markets were opened an extra night, to allow people to stock up on fruit, vegetables, folws, pigs and lambs. In 1844, it was recorded that ‘the stalls in the George-street Markets wore tastefully ornamented with evergreens, flowering shrubs, fruits, and flowers’. In 1856, it was reported that shop windows throughout the city were piled high with ‘plums and currents and other dainties’.

From the late 19th century onwards, Sydney’s large department stores prepared elaborate window displays, which were described in detail by the local press.

In 1888, it was recorded that Sydney’s shop windows were ‘ablaze with the heralds of happiness, and bounteous are the preparations for the season of peace’. In 1890, it was said that ‘excellent progress continues to be made in many of the business establishments in the city in the direction of preparing displays of wares most in demand at this season of the year’.

The popular David Jones windows hark back to this tradition.

Carols by candlelight in Hyde Park, 1970 (NAA, A1200, L85587)
Carols by candlelight in Hyde Park, 1970 (NAA, A1200, L85587)

Christmas trees were another focus for festivities. Charity Christmas trees were popular in the early 20th century. But the first Carols by Candlelight, held in Hyde Park in 1946, involved a charity Christmas tree which was sponsored by a local tabloid newspaper. This tree was the precursor to the Christmas tree in Martin Place, a feature since 1971. A real tree was originally used but it wasn’t a success as the trees died and dropped pine needles. An artificial tree has been used since 1976. Then, as now, the tree is ceremonially lit by the Lord Mayor.

Happy Christmas!