Kiwi Christmas

Sunday School Children participating in a Nativity Play, Trinty, Nelson c.1970

Young Campbell who is very excited about the forthcoming festivities asked recently why we had so much snow imagery at Christmas when its summer!  I responded that we had to thank our forebears.  It was insightful question from a 7 year old and it got me thinking about our traditions and the attempts of each generation to develop a ‘summer’ Christmas down under. 

We can now buy Kiwi Christmas decorations reflecting kiwi customs and concepts such as, Pohutakawa trees and flowers (NZ Christmas Tree), traditional angels and bells made of paua shell and greenstone, decorated tiki or pavlova angels, silver jandels, a bungy jumping Father Christmas, or a Father Christmas attired for a day at the beach, and there is even the Father Christmas kiwi bird.  Then there are the traditional re-written Christmas songs that have included a Kiwi theme such as Jingle Bells, this is so-o-o-o Kiwi  (not able to find a satisfactory link to this fun song)

                       “Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
                        Christmas in New Zealand on a sunny summer’s day, ah!
                        Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way
                        Oh what fun it is to have a Kiwi holiday!

But what of our early forebears?   

“We have not been accustomed to approach Christmas with a high sun and a hot day.  For us here the yule log never ‘sparkles keen with frost’.  The holly and the mistletoe seem dreadfully out of place… To those of us who knew these things the Christmas is here

… but an empty form,                                                                                                   Through which the Spirit breathes no more.” 

The nostalgic tone of this editorial in the Christian Outlook, by the Rev. Rutherford Waddell epitomizes many comments found in the mid to late 19th Century New Zealand publications.  Settlers found the summer Christmas season difficult to adjust to, it was a contradiction to their past experiences  “ of the blazing hearth, the close-drawn curtains, the generous fare, the song, the dance, the hilarity that seems impossible until darkness and evening have set in, and without the shrewd, keen air, the bracing stroll, the skater’s ecstasy and the curler’s joy.”   

But it was not only the incongruity of the seasons and Christmas customs which disturbed some Presbyterian settlers, unease lay with the acceptance of Christmas as a ‘Holy’ day. Somewhat tentatively the editorial of 1891 in the NZ Presbyterian broached the idea that Christmas should form part of Presbyterian worship. 

Now, is there not something incongruous, or worse than incongruous, in observing as a mere holiday the day in which all other Christians commemorate  such a momentous event as the birth of Christ  – a central fact in the history of the universe?

 ‘Caledon’ in 1894 took offense at Woodlands Parish, Southland, continuing to view Christmas Day as a holiday by holding their annual sports day.  They take no account of the ‘feelings of those Christians who observe Christmas Day as one of rest and devotion’ (s)he wrote.  By way of contrast Trinity Nelson, in the same year, ably incorporated Christmas traditions into their Christmas Day worship.

The Church was covered with decorations on Christmas night.  The words “Unto you is born this day a Saviour Christ the Lord,” were written on the side of the galleries.  The pulpit was nicely ornamented with lycopodium, and paneled with white, while on the side panels were the words “Immanuel God with us.”  The Choir were in a gallery adorned with ferns and flowers and the words “Hosanna in the Highest” were on the wall at the back.  In various parts of the building were also suspended baskets of ferns and flowers. A Service of song was sung on the night of Christmas by about 120 children, the service giving great satisfaction.  

Judging by the number of Presbyterian Christmas Day Service advertisements in the newspaper from the turn of the 20th century onwards, the 1931 Overture to the General Assembly which requested the Assembly to consider the ‘observance of Christmas Day’, appears to be tidying up what had become well practiced. 

If you want to read up on NZ 19th century holidays see Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in 19th Century New Zealand, by Alison Clarke, Auckland University Press, 2007.

The Staff at the Presbyterian Archives Research Centre send best wishes for the Christmas Season.

We will be officially open from Monday 11 January 2010.

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