Meri Kirihimete! That’s ‘Merry Christmas’ in the Māori language and just one of the many differences you’ll notice celebrating Christmas in New Zealand.
A Kiwi-style Christmas can be a culture shock for first time visitors especially from the northern hemisphere. In New Zealand it’s all about summer, outdoor fun and relaxation as 25 December kicks off the annual holiday season.
It doesn’t mean age-old traditions are ignored, they just get a different treatment. Here’s how some festive celebrations will play out in various corners of New Zealandin 2018 ...
A Christmas tree – naturally
In New Zealand Christmas trees come in many forms. Some are created naturally and need no further decoration like the pohutakawa, New Zealand’s native Christmas tree. You’ll spot them lining coastal areas of the North Island, blooming with bright crimson flowers over summer and providing the perfect natural shade for beach goers.
The Auckland Sky Tower becomes New Zealand’s tallest Christmas tree when festive-themed lighting illuminates the tower and dominates the Auckland skyline throughout December. At 328 metres (1,076 ft), the Sky Tower is the tallest man-made structure in New Zealand – it weighs 21 million kilos (20,000 tonnes), equivalent to 6000 elephants, or 40 million average-sized Christmas puddings. The Sky Tower will display Christmas lighting until 27 December with a short break before the New Year’s Eve lighting, laser show and fireworks.
And, then there's the longest ... for the first time this year, Auckland Harbour Bridge lights up each night from 13 to 24 December with a dazzling sound and light show based on the Kiwi Christmas story 'A Pukeko in a Ponga Tree' (by Kingi Ihaka) that repeats every 15 minutes between 9pm and midnight.
A leafy suburban street in Auckland’s inner city becomes a Christmas wonderland each year when residents adorn their houses and gardens with a dazzling array of Christmas lights. A trip down Franklin Road in Ponsonby has become a festive season tradition for families and the elaborate lighting show has delighted locals and visitors for the past 25 years. With carol singing and plenty of Christmas cheer, a wander down Franklin Road is sure to engender Christmas spirit.
Giapo’s Christmas treat
The artistic team at Auckland-based Giapo ice-cream parlour has entered the Christmas spirit in typical innovative style creating a limited-edition ‘Christmas Hand Bell’ and ‘Christmas Mince Pie Ice Cream’ to treat customers this season. The bell is an upside down white chocolate cup with a waffle cone handle and can be filled with an ice cream of choice then sealed and decorated. For those who feel it isn’t Christmas without a classic mince pie, Giapo has designed the Xmas Mince Pie Cone – a sensational ice cream mince pie hybrid – yet another gourmet gem from Giapo’s Haute Ice Cream workshop.
Sounds of Christmas
Hallelujah! for the tradition of singing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas. There will be several performances throughout New Zealand this year but none more special than the Auckland Choral 2018 event which is the choir’s 100th consecutive Messiah. Since it was founded in 1855 there have only been two exceptions – the outbreak of the first world war and the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Christmas carols are also ringing out throughout New Zealand for Christmas sung in a variety of venues, some traditional and others less conventional. Waitomo Caves in the Waikato region is a magical setting for the annual Carols in the Cave concert - the excellent acoustics and natural amphitheatre with twinkling glowworms for ambient lighting make this a sell-out event.
And, down on the farm in a woolshed at Kaihoka near Collingwood in the Nelson region of the South Island, sheep shearing, drafting and drenching gave way to a different hum as locals gathered on wool bales to sing Christmas carols. Pet lambs and a goat joined in with background bleats and the sights, sounds and animal smells were as authentic as a stable in Bethlehem.
Hamilton’s jolly giant tree
A giant Christmas tree in the heart of Hamilton city becomes the community gathering place over the festive season. The 27-metre tree reaches higher than a six-storey building and takes 15 people to erect and decorate. Claiming to be New Zealand's biggest, the Hamilton Christmas tree dominates Garden Place in the city centre and becomes the focal point for community celebrations.
Hamilton also boasts New Zealand’s first Miracle Christmas Cocktail pop-up bar which was launched in November and will be serving themed drinks and snacks throughout the holiday season. ‘Miracle’ began in New York in an unfinished cocktail bar building and has become a popular pop-up concept worldwide.
Happy arrivals in the South Island
Christchurch airport, gateway to the South Island, welcomes visitors to New Zealand in style over the festive season with no less than nine Christmas trees. As well as extensive Christmas decorations, the airport runs a full schedule of festive activities with performing elves, dancing puddings, carol singers, bands, market stalls and food trucks to get visitors in the mood.
And across the city, anyone booking Christmas dinner at Christchurch Adventure Park is given a free ticket to explore the park. The Adventure Park’s 1.8km long chairlift is the longest in New Zealand and the first in the country purpose built for riders and their mountain bikes. The chairlift accesses the start of a zipline which is also the longest in New Zealand.
Santa’s sneak peak
Further south in the alpine region of Queenstown rumour has it that Santa made a special early appearance at Cardrona skifield before the snow melted. Eager locals headed up McDougall’s Chondola to enjoy the remnants of a record breaking ski season and have their photos taken with the big man. Over summer Cardrona will be open for mountain biking, carting and sightseeing during the day with dinner and stargazing to attract visitors at night.
Gifts that keep on giving
As it happens the festive season is also the busy season at Dunedin’s Wildlife Hospital on the Otago Peninsula where a massive influx of patients fills the wards throughout the summer. The hospital is home to some of the world’s most threatened species including penguins, native birds, seals and sea lions. Ongoing donations are crucial to the hospital’s survival and if you’re stuck for gift ideas this Christmas, the hospital Xmas Shop has a variety of novel presents for sale from a $5 burger for a Kiwi, $10 bucket of fish to feed sick penguins and seabirds, X-rays for Kereru to bandages and shark bite surgery for saving injured penguins.