Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

From a US or UK standpoint, Christmas holidays involve snow and ice skating, woollen hats and mittens, hot chocolate, eggnog or mulled wine and lots of decorations featuring Santa and a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

In New Zealand and Australia, however, the Christmas holidays are part of the summer holiday that begins late December and ends at the beginning of February.

In New Zealand, Christmas has traditionally involved the same focus on family coming together for a big meal and emulating the Northern Hemisphere with a roast and even watching the Queen's speech.

Much of the summer holiday meal-preparation involves inviting friends over for a barbecue, but on Christmas day, New Zealanders sometimes make an effort to cook a roast dinner inside and have Christmas pudding as well.

There are however, several unique differences to a Kiwi Christmas:

The Christmas Tree 

A traditional symbol of Christmas in New Zealand is the ‘pohutukawa’ tree, which grows on the edge of beaches and coastal areas and has distinctive crimson flowers that often appear on Christmas greetings cards. Its name is the Maori for ‘sprinkled by spray’ in reference to the proximity of these trees to the seashore. It was first referred to as a Christmas tree in the late 19th Century when a European explorer noted that the red flowers decorated the churches around Christmas time and others began to associate it with being the ‘antipodean Christmas tree’.  

Travellers to the north island coastal areas will see the pohutukawa tree lining cliffs along the coast in New Zealand’s summer and is a memorable spectacle of any trip. Amateur explorers hoping to take in the sights of both the north and south islands of New Zealand sometimes opt for a New Zealand cruise and dip into the city life of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, contrasted with the rural landscape of Rotorua, which itself offers natural geysers and hot mud pools. The ancestral homeland of the Te Arawa people, Rotorua also offers tours of an authentic pre-European Maori village, where food cooked using the steaming pits of geothermal heating can be sampled.

A Kiwi Christmas Carol

The strange but well-known kiwi bird that has become the symbol of and conversational reference to a New Zealander, also featured in a Christmas song written in the 1960s to celebrate a rebellious side to the southern hemisphere Christmas. The song, ”Sticky Beak the Kiwi” tells the story of how this particular bird would take over Santa’s sleigh and do the job of distributing Christmas presents for New Zealand by himself, instead of Santa and his reindeer. The lyrics read like a determined exchange of power as though Santa and reindeer just aren’t acceptable for New Zealand. Another favourite Christmas song, ‘A pukeko in a ponga tree’ was a New Zealander’s re-write of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and even traditional songs such as ‘Silent Night’ have been translated into Maori (’Marie te po’) to give a new meaning and relevance to New Zealand culture.

Christmas Parades and a ‘Winking Santa’

Historically there were Christmas parades throughout New Zealand run by local department stores but in recent times the well-known parades in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch have been taken over by charitable trusts who sell off advertising rights from the naming of the parade itself to the individual floats and characters involved. As such, many have argued that they have become more commercialised events, on the other hand, this means that the parades advertise local businesses and are more representative of New Zealand culture and communities as a whole. The most famous symbol of the Christmas parade in Auckland is the Santa that was set on the corner of Hobson Street and Wyndham Street, where the Farmers, who orginally funded the parades traded. It reached the epitome of controversy when in 2011 it was voted ‘the world’s creepiest Christmas ornament’ by because of its original ‘winking eye’ and ‘beckoning finger’ designed to entice customers into the store. However, the Auckland Santa had already been re-vamped and these aspects removed, to offer a more acceptable Santa than the one with the reputation of looking like a ‘dodgy old man’. 

Many ex-pats writing about their own comparisons of a UK or US Christmas compared to a New Zealand Christmas report that it is more laid-back, less commercialised and less of a wasteful experience than back home. They note how neighbours don’t bother to exchange Christmas cards out of a sense of it really not being necessary when you can invite neighbours, friends and relatives over for a friendly barbecue sometime over the Christmas festivities instead. Often, the hard work of a roast can be given over to a salad and cooked ham which fits in better with the New Zealand climate and makes more sense during a relaxing, hot summer holiday.