Kirihimete – New Zealand Christmas experience

Visitors enjoying their first Christmas in New Zealand are likely to experience culture shock – when you add summer and holiday fun to the traditional annual festival it takes on a very different look.

For a start, the typical colours of Christmas have a different meaning in New Zealand – red, green and white have nothing to do with snow, robins and holly bushes.

In the Kiwi Christmas version, red is for pohutukawa (New Zealand’s Christmas tree) in bloom, green stands for lush tropical vegetation offering shade from hot summer sun, and white represents vast, pale sandy beaches.

Christmas in New Zealand is celebrated in the summertime when the national Christmas tree, the pohutukawa, is in full bloom.  Credit: Susanna Burton

Christmas in New Zealand is celebrated in the summertime when the national Christmas tree, the pohutukawa, is in full bloom.
Credit: Susanna Burton/Tourism New Zealand

All this provides the basis for a relaxed Kiwi-style Christmas where the emphasis is on the outdoors to eat, play and be merry – because the weather is warm, the country is on holiday and ‘tis the season to celebrate.

Christmas Kiwi-style

While traditions of the northern hemisphere still have an influence on a Kiwi-style Christmas, there are many festive season experiences only to be seen in New Zealand:

  • Hangi – the Kiwi version of a traditional roast dinner is cooked in a pit under the ground by Maori and typical fare for a cultural Christmas with large groups of whanau / family and friends.
  • Kiwi ‘barbie’ – barbecuing is a popular option on Christmas Day when groups gather at home, the park or the beach for a casual cook up and to eat out of doors. Fresh seafood and quality cuts of meat are complemented with exotic salads and seasonal vegetables – an emphasis on simplicity, organic, home-grown and healthy.
  • Pavlova – while plum pudding might still feature on some menus, the standard Kiwi Christmas dessert is a classic pavlova covered in fresh seasonal fruits like strawberries and kiwifruit.
A classic Kiwi pavlova garnished with fresh red berries and raspberry coulis.  Credit: Takahide Nakazawa/Tourism New Zealand

A classic Kiwi pavlova garnished with fresh red berries and raspberry coulis.
Credit: Takahide Nakazawa/Tourism New Zealand

  • Pohutukawa / New Zealand Christmas tree – this coastal species produces dramatic bright red blooms throughout December. For many Kiwis, lazing at the beach on a sunny day, under the shade of these natural New Zealand Christmas trees, is all they want for Christmas.
  • Santa at the beach – spare a thought for the jolly man when he arrives down under and has to endure temperatures of up to 30C. It’s hardly surprising that he often sheds the heavy woollen suit and boots in favour of speedos, jandals and sunglasses and heads to the beach. Santa’s been spotted surfing, jetsking, paragliding and sailing, and even doing deliveries by water in a traditional waka Maori canoe.
Summer in New Zealand - the red flowers of the native pohutukawa tree light up northern coastal regions.  Credit: Merle Bishop/Tourism New Zealand

Summer in New Zealand – the red flowers of the native pohutukawa tree light up northern coastal regions.
Credit: Merle Bishop/Tourism New Zealand

  • Southern Cross – New Zealand’s most recognised constellation is the Kiwi version of the famous star that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem. It also provides the theme for the New Zealand Christmas carol ‘The Southern Cross looks down’. New Zealand is a star-gazing paradise with its own starlight reserve, the Aoraki Mackenzie Dark Sky Reserve above the South Island’s Mackenzie country.
  • NZ’s tallest ‘Christmas tree’ – Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower stands at 328m high and becomes most prominent at Christmas when it is lit up like a giant Christmas tree that changes colour in an orchestrated phase.
Auckland's iconic Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, lights up in Christmas colours every year.  Credit: Tourism New Zealand

Auckland’s iconic Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, lights up in Christmas colours every year.
Credit: Tourism New Zealand

  • Kiwi in a tree – New Zealand’s national bird is of course flightless but at Christmas time, can be spotted on tree tops in various decorative guises and vying for pride of place with the traditional fairy. Other native birds like pukeko, fantail, tui and kea also provide imagery for Kiwi-style Christmas cards and decorations.
  • Christmas carols in Maori – New Zealand has its own Christmas songs – some of which are set to traditional tunes and have a different dimension when sung in Maori like Marie te po or Silent Night. Other original titles include A pukeko in a ponga tree and Sticky beak the Kiwi.
  • Summer fun – Christmas is about giving, sharing and having fun and celebrating the festival in summer means plenty of opportunity to get outside to either try out new Christmas presents or enjoy sports and recreation. Tennis, beach volleyball, swimming, boating, fishing and golf are all popular summer pursuits, and cricket is the national summer sport of New Zealand. It is one of 10 countries that take part in test match cricket and international games are watched by a large proportion of the population.
Fish and chips on the beach, Coromandel New Zealand.  Credit: Tourism New Zealand

Fish and chips on the beach, Coromandel New Zealand.
Credit: Tourism New Zealand

  • Christmas first and last – New Zealand is the best place in the world to get the most out of Christmas Day. After the Chatham Islands, New Zealand is the first place in the world to see the sun and with the country on summer time or daylight saving, there are maximum daylight hours to enjoy Christmas. In parts of the South Island it’s light by 5am and doesn’t get dark until 10pm.

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