Gold miners and their families on the Castlemaine diggings had a choice of entertainments by which to celebrate Christmas, typically offered as enticements by the variety of local taverns on the central Victorian diggings.

S. T. Gill, ‘Christmas on the Diggings, or The Unwelcome Visitor who came uninvited’, c.1850s, Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales

A tale of Christmas on the Victorian goldfields

The Cumberland Hotel in Castlemaine and the Grand Hotel in Forest Creek (Chewton) put on ‘grand wrestling matches’ — diggers being the wrestlers, and £50 in prizes on offer.

The Talbot Hotel in Harcourt held a pigeon shooting match during the day, followed by a ‘select ball and supper’ in the evening. The Eagle Hotel opened the proprietor's ‘well-arranged gardens ... gratis, for public promenading’, as well as pigeon shooting and other sports.

Other establishments offered:

  • musicals and theatre
  • skittles matches
  • horse races
  • ‘English sports' including:
    • sack races
    • climbing greasy poles
    • ‘grinning through a horse’s collar’
    • bobbing for oranges
    • foot races

Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park

There are a number of central Victorian heritage places in the Victorian Heritage Register and the Victorian Heritage Inventory, one of the largest being the Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park (H2047) which is considered significant as an authentic and intact early 1850s goldfield. Gold discovered in the area was the catalyst for the Victorian gold rushes of the 1850s, a profoundly significant event in the shaping of Australia.

Unusual Christmas entertainments

By the mid-1850s there were tens of thousands of people on the diggings: men, women, and their families.

Unlike modern celebrations, however unlike today, there is no indication in the colonial press that Father Christmas made an appearance at any of the local festivities. Instead, the nod to any sentiments of ‘home’ (that is, homeland) was observed with plum pudding, served following a whole roasted bullock or sheep.

It was the proprietor of the Talbot Hotel in Harcourt who arranged for the most unusual Christmas entertainment to attract visitors. Lunch and refreshments were offered for those patrons who went up nearby Mount Alexander to watch the rolling of a large perfectly round two hundred pound boulder from its ‘ancient pedestal’ at the head of a gully, to crash its way down the mountain, crushing any trees in its path, before its ‘mad career’ was stopped by another similarly sized boulder. A band, it was promised, would accompany the party.

Edward Roper, ‘Christmas in the Colonies, A Christmas Dinner at the Diggings’, c.1860s, National Library of Australia

Page last updated: 06/06/23