Novelist Henry Fuller wrote about his travels in A Californian Circling the Globe, published in 1904. In December he found himself on the Arabian Sea, travelling from Egypt to India. A few days before Christmas, he enjoyed the spiritual sight of the South Cross stars, also known as “Crux”, from the Latin for cross. He also described the events on board on Christmas day – that traditional festive combination of plum pudding and high-stakes gambling.
I never will forget the sunset that Sabbath evening, as it dropped out of sight over behind the Abyssinian mountains and seemingly in the midst of an aureole of light, fleecy clouds, tinting them in colors of pink and amber. Even royalty paused in their walks back and forth, to look at this afterglow of sunset, nowhere more marked and beautiful than when seen as it reflects from Africa’s shore. The mountains are abrupt and jutting almost on the shore at Aden, which is an island. There are more British troops stationed here than in Gibraltar. Many Nubians and Abyssinians came in small boats from the African shore and gathered around the steamer to barter and trade. In the evening the ship sailed away, Aden being half way from Port Said to Bombay.
I arose at 3 o’clock Monday morning and ran out on deck to see that famous constellation of stars known as the Southern Cross. It was there, four bright stars, lying in the form of a cross on an angle to the east. With delight I viewed the sight, and caught another throb of nature’s love, from those southern skies above, lifting me up with a quickening pulse to a plane where harmony reigns. Wonderful stars, as with noiseless tread they have paced the heavens since the world began, an emblem of love to all mankind, as it is our Saviour’s cross hanging in the sky. I paced the deck, my soul all aglow — a season of rapture I enjoyed here below.
No land nor ships did we see all through this day of Monday. Tuesday came and the same result, with not a ship or land to see, as we went rushing along over this Arabian sea. Wednesday came and still not a ship nor land in sight. A few flying fish were flying about like the flutter of royalty on the promenade deck. Thursday came being Christmas Day, and we had plum pudding served on a tray.
I heard a great noise and clamoring shouts, and I walked aloft to see what it was about. Each day a coterie of the common people had been betting on the running of the ship, men and women getting much excited, as the stakes ran up to about twenty pounds ($100) each day. Their mode of procedure was to auction off the choices to the highest bidder. This being Christmas Day, some of the Dukes, Earls and Lords took part in this gambling scheme — hence the uproar, and the pool ran up to 100 pounds ($500). One lord won most of it and one of the common people said to me, “The big guns were too much for us.”
Mark Twain had a different assessment of the Southern Cross: “It is ingeniously named, for it looks just as a cross would look if it looked like something else.” (Following the Equator). Representations of the Southern Cross can be found on the flags of Australia and New Zealand.
From 1st to 24th December there will be a “Christmas History” article on Windows into History every day, exploring how people spent Christmas in the past through first-hand accounts in forgotten books. Please come back tomorrow for the next article!
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