“The streets were thronged with a happy crowd of pleasure-seekers sauntering past the long lines of brilliantly-dressed windows, whiling away the time with mirth and banter,” the report continued.
Those early Brisbane city years were full of late hours, with shops staying open well into the night for crowds of people buying their presents and their Christmas feasts – one report noting the “sleepy poultry and wakeful ducks” awaiting their fate on Valley footpaths.
Country people came in on Christmas Eve, filling buses, trams and the city centre with foot traffic, enjoying the window displays of decorations and children’s toys, jostling in crowds to enjoy the Christmas festivities and performances, newspapers reported.
In 1899, the Brisbane Courier wrote that on a trip from the Fiveways in Woolloongabba to the Valley on Christmas Eve “it certainly appeared as though every inhabitant of the city were out of doors”.
And while Queen Street Mall in 2020 had seen a dip in trade because of the coronavirus pandemic and the rise of online shopping, that wasn’t the case in 1899.
“The centre of attraction on Christmas Eve was, of course, Queen-street, which from one end to the other had been embowered in green shade, and decorated with flags and bunting,” the Brisbane Courier reported.
“… Looking along the street from the Post Office between 9 and 10 o’clock the effect was wonderfully fine.”
Only a fire in the Morrow and Rankin building – later the Arnott’s biscuit factory – “scattered the crowd to the right and left” as fire crews rushed to contain the blaze.
War and money worries
That same year it wasn’t all good and festive cheer, a Telegraph report noted.
“Yet underlying all this Christmas joy there was a note of anxiety concerning the war. Now and again would be heard the inquiry ‘Any news of the war?’ ‘No news’ was regarded as good news, and so the joy bells found echoes in all hearts.”
The Second Boer War began in October 1899, lasting until May 1902, with many Australian troops despatched to join Britain against the Boers.
In 1916, The Daily Observer’s Queensland correspondent complained that the “old custom of Christmas decorations has apparently gone forever”, with festive shop displays diminished and only suburban homes decorated.
And, it appeared, the frustrations of shop workers and their unions were as familiar then as they are now, with the same report noting shop workers were “indignant at the decision of the merchants and traders to keep open on Christmas Saturday afternoon and night”.
“… The employees hoped that the public, including all good unionists, would see that their shopping was completed prior to the Saturday afternoon and night, so as to prove to the employers in the most practical way that they had made a mistake; but the hopes of the employees were sadly shattered, good, steady business being the rule.”
Decades later, an agreement between the shop assistants’ union and the retail traders’ association in 1932 determined there would be no late shopping on Christmas Eve, the Brisbane Courier reported.
Droughts, thirsty drinkers, and heatwaves
A drought in 1932 put a dampener on country orders to Brisbane shops for Christmas delicacies, The Cairns Nothern Herald reported, but it didn’t put a dampener on weddings, with “no less than 10 in one church” one Saturday before Christmas.
A drought of another kind occurred in 1943, the Sunday Mail reporting that “Christmas was the driest that Brisbane’s civilian beer drinkers have experienced since supplies have been rationed”.
“One disappointed drinker who missed out in the 5 o’clock rush on Christmas Eve said that Princess Margaret Rose must have ‘known something’ when she sent a Christmas greeting last week to ‘Australia’s arid bush’,” the Mail reported.
A hotel in Brisbane was out of beer within 15 minutes of opening its doors on Christmas Eve, the Mail continued, with even soft drinks difficult to find and “many suburban shops [displaying] rows of empty bottles”.
And with Brisbane’s 2020 Christmas predicted to reach 28 degrees, spare a thought for those who sweltered through 1972’s record-breaking Christmas, and bushfire warnings.
“Brisbane’s Christmas Day temperature reached 39.2C – the hottest Christmas since the Weather Bureau began taking temperature records in 1882,” The Canberra Times reported.
Birdsville had an even more unpleasant time, reaching 47C on Christmas Day.
Escape to the seaside
For those Brisbane residents who have experienced the Bruce and M1 highway gridlocks at the start of holidays, the 1931 exodus to the seaside after a difficult year may seem all too familiar.
An election and change of government, with Joseph Lyons and his United Australia Party elected, brought about a positive change to the state’s mood, the Central Queensland Herald reported.
After a “year of such depression as Queensland had not previously known”, buoyed by the election result, residents turned out their pockets and went shopping, holidaying and camping.
“On Christmas Eve there came a general exodus to the seaside and every resort within reach of the city crowds was thronged,” it wrote.
“By train and car thousands departed for the South Coast resorts … the new toll bridge over the Logan Bridge reaped a golden harvest, and two traffic policemen were constantly on duty to supervise the unending rush of cars – and incidentally to guard against possibility of a raid by bandits intent on laying violent hands on the toll fees, estimated at well over 1000 pounds for the three days,” the Herald continued.
And, much like this year, many people turned to camping along the beach, with “canvas houses, replete with every comfort, even to electric light, separate sleeping compartments, and spring mattresses”.
Lucy is the urban affairs reporter for the Brisbane Times, with a special interest in Brisbane City Council.