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December, 2012

19 Dec 2012, by

A Kiwi Holiday

Kiwi Christmas tradition = picnic at the beach

Kiwi Christmas tradition = picnic at the beach

Kiwi Christmas trees = floppy pine trees!

Kiwi Christmas trees = floppy pine trees

Just as the 24 hour holiday music stations reach a crescendo in the United States, we are breathing a relaxed sigh here in New Zealand. It’s summer! Finally, we can wiggle our toes in open-toed shoes, shed a few outer layers, and soak in the warm sunshine, so strong it makes 63 degree days feel like 83…until the breeze picks up or an unwelcome cloud cools things down. Summer in December means we’re picking out stocking stuffers while wearing shorts. For those of you who live in warm climes and think this isn’t so unusual, trust me…this is different.

It’s nearly impossible to focus on holiday preparations, when that “school’s out for summer” feeling hits. Jarring as it is to see “Jandals & Togs” (aka flip flops and swimsuits) featured in colorful storefront window displays advertising pre-Christmas sales, it is more fundamentally incongruous to slip into that “lazy, hazy days of summer” stupor just as Christmas tree lots begin to pop up on busy street corners.

Far from getting stressed about the holidays, here they call it the silly season. And they do get silly. There are plenty of after-work “dos”, or parties that fill up social calendars. Many appear to involve dressing up in costume and even holding scavenger hunts around the city. When we first moved to Wellington one year ago, we saw so many adults scurrying around in “fancy dress” as they call it, we thought we’d slipped down a rabbit hole to the world of Alice in Wonderland!

There are, of course, more traditional celebrations. I’ve seen carolers and brass bands perform all around town, and annual Christmas performances are being advertised. However, I just can’t work up the enthusiasm to dress up to hear the Hallelujah Chorus when all I really want to do is picnic at the beach (which by the way, is the traditional way Kiwis like to celebrate the season.) There are also twists to the usual traditions: I’ve learned that Kiwi kids often leave Santa a thirst-quenching beer instead of the usual milk and cookies, to repay him for his hard work delivering presents in the southern hemisphere.

Halloween here turned out to be pretty low key, too. Not traditionally celebrated, the focus used to be solely on Guy Fawkes Day instead. The bizarre holiday on November 5th originates in England, where they once burned effigies of Fawkes, a would-be terrorist who was part of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (to blow up Parliament and assassinate King James I). The crown ordered celebratory bonfires after Mr. Fawkes was caught – before anything happened. Here in windy Wellington, bonfires aren’t so popular but fireworks attract tens of thousands.

However, with America exporting so much pop culture, the lure of Halloween as portrayed in movies and on tv shows, has proven hard to resist. So, the holiday is catching on. A bit. When I brought candy to my choir practice the night before Halloween, I have to admit, most of the adults asked me “when is Halloween?”.

My neighbors also exclaimed when I hung a sole skeleton on our front gate, a few days before kids were expected to come trick-or-treating. What enthusiasm I showed! Back in the states, our house was decorated by October 1 (indulge me – Halloween is my birthday). We were lucky to land In a neighborhood that is one of a very few in the capital city where this holiday is celebrated by most of the homeowners. But they seem to get in the spirit only on the day, not beforehand.

On the day, kids activities don’t stop. My youngest had a touch rugby game that threatened to curtail his candy collecting. We rushed back home in time, only to learn that kids here are expected not only to be in full costume, but also to perform a trick to earn their one piece of candy, no more. It was bewildering. Clearly unprepared, parents had him sing songs or try to tell a joke instead.

This, as you might imagine, takes time. So, too, does climbing the long stairs that most homes here in Wellington have, to access front doors that may or may not be answered. So, at the end of an hour, we parents dragged home some very tired kids with very little candy to show for their efforts. Though all the extra calories were burned, and no arguments ensued over how much of their stash they could keep!

All that said about underplayed holidays, we have been barraged by mailers advertising Christmas sales, and I saw my first ad for a “midnight madness” event at a local store. This, in a place where most remember the days when stores didn’t even stay open on Sundays. I even received an email from my pet store with times when I can bring my pooch to have his picture taken with Santa!

Also surprising: how popular fake Christmas trees are here. Then I found out why. I was excited to buy a real tree to celebrate the first Christmas in our new home. Turns out the pines they sell here are a far cry from the classic American Douglas fir. Limbs a bit haphazard in length, with lots of gaps between the branches, they are far from picture-perfect. It turns out they can’t hold heavy ornaments either. The branches first drooped then dropped ours.

If we were tempted, we could pick up a fake tree on a trip to the grocery store, where they stock plenty -some complete with LED lights on the ends of the faux pine needles that even change colors. No, don’t worry, I draw the line there. However, while grocery shopping I’m often tempted to revisit English Christmas traditions that I enjoyed when I lived there, and are alive and well in this former English colony: mince pies, Christmas cakes in tins, and Christmas “crackers” that pop when you open them, spilling colorful paper crowns and plastic trinkets.

Depending on your mood, you can choose to take the holidays in New Zealand as far as you’d like. Or not. I prefer the pared-down feeling of a simpler celebration. We are looking forward to our second Christmas fish and chips feast on the beach. The next step would be to book a caravan vacation (a road trip in a camper-van). We learned why that’s a good idea last year, when after Christmas the city practically shut down until nearly the end of January. It felt a little like August in France, and never in the United States. I don’t need to be sold on this holiday tradition. If you don’t hear from me until February, you’ll know why….

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