Who’s afraid of the dark?

In the back streets of Yallambie this month, many homes are ablaze with Christmas lights within and without, an ode to an event that happened under another sort of light, “shining in the East beyond the far” more than 2000 years ago. Tinsel glitters inside while on the roof tops outside, who’s to say you won’t see a reindeer with a nose glowing bright adding to the illuminaton.

Real candles burning on a “resin rich Christmas tree”.
O Christmas Tree, how lovely are thy branches

Don’t you just love Christmas? A time to put the cares of the world aside for a moment. The tradition of hanging lights in trees started about 500 years ago when the Protestant reformer Martin Luther added a candle onto a Christmas tree to symbolize the birth of Christ, “the Light of the World” and it was subsequently popularized in the English speaking world by Albert, the Teutonic consort of Queen Victoria. Given the highly flammable nature of resin rich Christmas trees it might seem surprising that Christmas tree lights were originally real, live burning candles with holders placed to catch the resulting dripping wax. While electrics are used today for obvious reasons, I bet those original flickering fire lights looked magical.

2020 Tannenbaum

The electromagnetic radiation known as “Visible Light” is a universal constant and the ability to create it has long been evidence of civilization and a proof against the night time shadows that any small child can tell you hides the monster under the bed. From the campfires of prehistory to elaborate candelabra in great castle halls, ingenious devices have been found to make light, but it was the perfection of mineral oil lamps and town gas supplies in the 19th Century that properly propelled society into the modern world. It was this technology that reformed industry and kick started the industrial revolution as broad waist coated, cigar smoking, city based factory owners discovered that by using it, the proletariat could be worked right around the clock. It’s an idea that quickly caught on and we’ve been paying that particular piper ever since. In the following years the mass production of lamps in brass, pewter, tin and glass and the relatively low cost of the mineral oils that fuelled them meant that effective lighting soon became a commonplace.

A mechanically ventilated lamp from the second half of the 19th Century. Winding the key produced a draught allowing the lamp to burn efficiently without a chimney.

Many early lamps consisted of little more than a fuel reservoir or “font” pegged into a candlestick which incorporated a flat, animal-fat fuel laden wick to create the basic principles of a lamp. It must have come as some kind of relief to the whales splashing happily about in their oceans when mineral oils were introduced in the second half of the 19th Century as previously it was their rendered down blubber that was used to create lamp oils. New fuels meant new burner technologies and lamp designs became more elaborate. In some cases, much more elaborate.

“In some cases, much more elaborate.” That one time visitor to Yallambee, Louisa Anne Meredith at home in Twamley, Tasmania, c1860. Note the grand table lamp behind her shoulder. (Source: State Library of Tasmania, from the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, https://stors.tas.gov.au/TASIMAGES$init=AUTAS001126186493W800)
A three wick Shaffer Perfection burner. (Source: A Heritage of Light, Loris Russell)

In the early days of Melbourne it was said that it was easy for the unwary to lose their way at night on the dark, ill-defined streets of Hoddle’s village.  As street lighting was a rarity at that time, people either stayed at home at night or carried a covered lantern with them when daring to venture out. Taverns in those days were required to hang a lamp outside as a requirement of their licence and in many places this might have been the only light available in the street, other than the stars in the sky. Look closely at this early photograph of Kent’s old Plenty Bridge Hotel near Yallambie and you might observe the large lantern hanging above the entrance of the premises, a typical feature of this type of establishment.

Bike riders at Kent’s Plenty Bridge Hotel, c1900. (Source: Pictures Collection, State Library of Victoria, H2013.70/14,

With the coming of the rushes, Victoria’s goldfields presented many problems for the diggers who made the muddy creek banks their home of which lighting was but one. The writer traveller, and social commentator William Howitt who visited Yallambee in 1852, recorded some of the difficulties that he encountered on the Bendigo goldfields and in particular his experiences on the diggings after dark:

Trade advertisement from the Ballarat Times, 1861

“You generally live in the midst of a grand honeycomb of such pits and water-holes. For this reason it is our rule not to go out to dine on the diggings; and we make very rare exceptions, for they are only safe by daylight…” (Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, Letter XXI, “Intelligent Friends”)

Back Creek, Bendigo by S.T. Gill 1860, (Source: State Library of NSW Collection).
William Howitt

In spite of this, in the same breath Howitt then goes on to chronicle a night time dinner he enjoyed under canvas with that erstwhile, previously mentioned relative of this writer, Bendigo Mac, a meal which in the story was interrupted by a cry outside when, seizing the candles from the table, the diners found a child in danger of drowning in a mine hole behind the tent.

“As we were at dinner, and it was quite dark, there was a cry outside of “A boy in a hole! A boy in a hole!” (Howitt, ibid)

Lachlan MacLachlan, AKA “Bendigo Mac”

In Howitt’s story, the child was saved without any lasting harm but, given the circumstances, the goldfields became an excellent testing ground for new lighting technologies. Enterprising American businessmen with an understanding of the needs of the frontier were soon selling oil burning lamps to the diggers by the thousands. By 1865, well over 600,000 gallons of kerosene were imported annually from the USA into the colony of Victoria where it was sold on the gold fields for about £1 per four gallon tin, while the actual lamp itself could be purchased for as little as three shillings and sixpence. The humble “kero” lamp as the paraffin oil lamp became known in Australia, had come to stay and became a fixture in Australian homes and on rural properties across Victoria, remaining in use there long after the “Rush That Never Ended” properly ended and long after such lamps had become obsolete in other parts of the world.

“Most artificial lighting in the house came from kerosene lamps that either hung from moulded, plaster rosettes in the ceilings or were carried about the house by hand. It was the responsibility of the parlourmaid to refill lamps during the day to ensure continuous lighting at night.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, describing lighting at the Homestead, p84)

Christmas puddings and hanging lamp in the kitchen at Yallambie

While the days of a parlourmaid being available to fill lamps at Yallambie in the manner described by Winty Calder might be long gone, modern electric lighting now coexists with period fixtures in an eclectic, electric mix. The converted American gasolier in the old dining room at Yallambie, pictured below, is one fixture mixing old and new and was picked up on a well known internet auction site a couple of years ago for $100 after it was removed from Sydney’s historic Tattersalls Club during renovations.

An 1860s gasolier relocated from Sydney’s historic Tattersalls Club.

With the widespread availability of electrics and the trend of replacing incandescent and halogen bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps and LEDs, it’s sometimes easy to take lighting for granted. When our electric supply from the street was cut by a falling branch last month it left us without power across four long days. The resulting romantic candle lit dinners and oil lamp lit nights were a novelty at first and the blank screens on our electronic devices a sort of relief, but after a while it got me thinking about how we use the symbolism of light.

An early view of St Johns Church of England, Heidelberg from the north

Over at St John’s Church of England, Heidelberg which Thomas Wragge knew so well, the coming Christmas Eve service will hopefully have the usual candles, carols and Communion, though given the restrictions in this pandemic year, the congregation is unlikely to be sitting elbow to elbow.

St John’s features a number of beautiful windows of stained glass. “Christ as the Light of the World”, loosely based on the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt’s famous painting, is one that maybe recalls Luther’s intent with the candle in the tree. The window was created by George Dancey in 1925, the artist who also created the Wragge “Ascension Windows” five years earlier. It was the window my old Dad chose as his particular pew, sitting under its jewel like colours on all those many sunny Sunday mornings of my childhood. Highly allegorical, the image comes from “Revelation”, and shows a typically western European looking Jesus carrying a lantern and knocking at a door without a handle. A version of Hunt’s original toured the world to enormous crowds in the early 20th century when it was claimed that four-fifths of the newly Federated Australian population at that time viewed the painting, which I’m thinking must still be some kind of record.

So why is it said light has “long been evidence of civilization”? The world has been in a dark place before, both in a practical but also a spiritual sense and while this year will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, in the face of what’s been touted as a “truth decaying” epistemological crisis in a post truth, post modern, pandemic ravaged world, it is the Light we always turn back to.

Astronomers have lately been excited by the prospect of a rare, visible conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the evening sky in which the two planets will seem to be fused over consecutive nights at Christmas into a single, bright “star”. It is an event that has lead to speculation that it was a similar conjunction of the planets that Three Wise Men allegedly saw all those years ago and from which they drew their own meaning.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Someone once wrote this in an old, oft quoted book, a book we used to see opened sometimes at Christmas. It’s an idea that transcends all the the sunshine and corresponding darkness we have had cause to create. Call this the duality of the yin and yang if you like but as any wise man can tell you, without a notion of the darkness, there is no light.

And, who’s afraid of that ?

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