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A Christian religious festival celebrated on 25 December, Christmas falls in early summer rather than at the winter solstice as in Europe. Secular celebration of the Christmas period in Melbourne marks the annual climax of workplace, school and community calendars, and the commencement for many of an annual summer holiday season. Christmas Day itself has generally been quietly observed, with a variety of denominational religious observances, Midnight Mass at the cathedrals, and choral services. The weeks preceding Christmas see carol singing in local parks and community venues, Carols by Candlelight, city buskers performing a seasonal repertoire, and performances of the Messiah and Christmas Oratorio. Newspapers traditionally have sponsored annual Christmas appeals, while missions and charities have organised treats for their clientele.

By contrast, the secular celebration of Christmas Eve has, since the first days of the settlement, been marked by general public revelry and public drunkenness. In the 1840s young bloods came to town at Christmas from outlying stations, indulging in all manner of pranks including mobbing police, making off with signboards, and removing church gates and bells.

Boxing Day in Melbourne has since the middle of the 19th century been turned over to general enjoyment, Melbourne's climate allowing for an impromptu and outdoor character to the celebrations. By the 1860s railways enabled Melburnians to take excursions to the Dandenong Ranges or the beaches, while bay steamers the Resolute, Williams or Golden Crown took excursionists to Queens-cliff, Dromana, or Sorrento. Boating trips were popular on the Yarra River, and favourite picnic spots included Studley Park and the Survey Paddock, with Brighton and St Kilda beaches being favourite destinations. Sporting and charity events, temperance demonstrations, yachting and rowing regattas, cricket matches and horseraces were all well patronised, while balls and pantomimes were held at the theatres. The range of secular enjoyments was popularised in the 1860s and 1870s in the pages of illustrated newspapers such as the Illustrated Melbourne Post and the Australasian Sketcher.

In the 1880s the Christmas season and its attractions, including the Boxing Day cricket match (which remains a Boxing Day institution), attracted countless country visitors to Melbourne. But by the 1920s, the general exodus to country and seaside 'sounds a knell in the hearts of those who cannot join in'. Resorts and caravan parks in the mountains and on the Mornington Peninsula were booked up, and overseas Christmas mail required posting by mid-November. Those who remained could still indulge in boating at Studley Park, picnics at Wattle Park, the Fitzroy Gardens or the Botanic Gardens, taking in the panoramic views at Beckett Park, a trip to the Zoo, river excursions on the Yarra or Maribyrnong River, a train trip to picnics or bushwalks at Hurstbridge, Healesville or Gembrook, or beach carnivals at Sandringham, Black Rock, Hampton and Mordialloc.

Melbourne's Christmas Day average temperature is around 25 degrees C (1907 highest maximum 40.7 degrees, 1935 lowest maximum 15.9 degrees), while overall there is a 23.63% chance of rain. Despite the possibility of heatwave conditions, the traditional fare of formal English Christmas midday dinner - turkey and plum pudding - remains popular. In December 1835 John Pascoe Fawkner and party caught swans, ducks and a teal for Christmas dinner. Almost 100 years later, Melburnians rushed the poultry stands at Queen Victoria Market where, if they had not placed an order, a decent bird could not be bought: the rich and well dressed took away their turkeys and hams in sedans and limousines, rubbing shoulders with poor shoppers from Carlton and North Melbourne who carried away their purchases in broken-down perambulators.

City streets and shop windows have long been decked out for the festive season. Coloured lights enchanted visitors in the 1870s, but from the 1950s the involvement of the City Development Association and Bourke Street traders began an era of more aggressive retail marketing of Christmas. The first Myer Christmas window was unveiled in 1956, and Father Christmas paraded Bourke Street throughout December. In East Ivanhoe, the tradition of householders on the Boulevard decorating their premises with festive lighting dates from the mid-1950s and is attributed to A.E. McLaughlin, who set up decorations to amuse his granddaughter Margaret. In 1961 the Herald noted sighting the first Father Christmas of the season in a Bourke Street store in late October, and the over-commercialisation of Christmas, mocked in Bruce's Dawe's poem 'The day that they shot Santa Claus' (1970), has become a recurrent annual debate.

The Christmas shopping rush, once purely for consumables, has become a multimillion-dollar windfall for city retailers, whose annual fortunes rely on the success of post-Christmas 'doorbuster' sales: the Christmas turnover of the leading department stores is over $100 million.

Andrew May