These Christmas pages were put together in response to numerous e-mails, largely from Girl Scouts, all asking the same basic questions about Christmas in New Zealand. As parts of the page draw on information and ideas from members of an online Australasian Guiding community, ANZAGL, and as Christmas traditions are very similar in both countries it has been expanded to cover New Zealand and Australia, hence Christmas Down Under
The biggest difference between Christmas in New Zealand and Australia to the celebrations in many parts of the world is that it arrives in the middle of our summertime so it's usually hot weather. Christmas is also near the beginning of our long summer school holidays.
As in much of the western world it is a time for families to get together from near and far. Christmas is generally still celebrated along the traditional English lines with a big lunch or dinner, a Christmas tree and an exchange of presents. Church is more heavily attended on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day than at any other time of the year.
Shops are decorated with the snow scenes, holly and images of a jolly, red-suited Father Christmas, (the English name for Santa Claus), familiar to Northern Hemisphere countries. These images, brought to New Zealand and Australia by settlers have remained part of our culture and a reminder of home to more recent immigrants. In NZ images of pohutukawa blossoms are becoming more common on shop windows and packaging, and in Australia, images of Christmas bush, a native plant which has little red flowers. In the weeks leading up to Christmas most cities and towns have a Christmas parade with floats contributed by local businesses and organisations. The last float is usually one with Santa on board.
Open air public celebrations also include Carols by Candlelight concerts. These have been held in Australia since about 1938, most famously in Melbourne's Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Sydney's Domain Gardens. In more recent years it carols by candlelight has also been held at venues throughout New Zealand, notably Auckland Domain, Frank Kitts Park in Wellington and the Octagon in Dunedin. Many thousands of people, along with celebrities, gather to sing favourite Christmas songs. As it gets darker the evening is lit by the gentle glow of candles, lending a peaceful light to the overall atmosphere.
Traditional meals of turkey, ham, plum pudding, fruit mince pies, and rich Christmas cakes are still probably the most common food for Christmas, and the most common venue is still a family home, but because of the hot weather Christmas dinner might be at an alternative venue, ie. a picnic in the bush or at the beach, or a BBQ in the back garden. Often meats are cooked early and served cold and there are always lots of salads and other summer foods. Strawberries are a very common treat around Christmas time and pavlova is a favourite dessert.
Christmas carols are sung and carol services at churches and schools are always popular. There are some carols that have developed in New Zealand and Australia, with images drawn from the local flora and fauna. These are often parodies of traditional carols such as The Twelve Days of Christmas. Carols about snow and other Northern Hemisphere Christmas traditions are still popular down under, again because so many people here trace their roots back to Europe.
Popular activities on Christmas day include swimming, playing cricket, lazing in the sun and other outdoor activities.
Listening to the Queen's Christmas speech was a feature many families had in common. This is a 5 minute broadcast, originally on the radio but now also on the television, where the Queen talks about the year that is just ending and passes on her family's best wishes for Christmas and the year to come. Families used to gather around the radio or television and all else halted for those five minutes. In New Zealand the broadcast is now relegated to being part of the news, rather than a separate programme, but many people do still listen to it with interest.
Although all the above is common, both New Zealand and Australia are made up of a mix of cultures. Not everyone celebrates Christmas in the English tradition, or indeed celebrates it at all.
Meri Kirihimete is NZ Maori for Merry Christmas
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