“Christmas in New Zealand is less about snow and sleigh bells and more about sun, sand and barbecues in the backyard.” – NZhistory.net.nz
It was to be my first summer Christmas. That was about all I knew of how the day would look not even a week before “the show” or “the big dance,” as they call it in Elf. Christmas may be the biggest commercial holiday, even the biggest economic stimulus for many countries as Wikipedia says, but for me and this year in New Zealand, I wanted to let the day take on a shape of its own, instead of racing to fill it with my own plans. My cynical brother would most likely say this was due only to having no plans to begin with, but all I knew was I wanted to be wearing flip-flops (or jandals, in Kiwi-speak) when I sat down to Christmas dinner.
I’d made the decision to stay in New Zealand over the holidays sometime back in July, a decision which makes it pretty awkward to hear songs like “I’ll be home for Christmas” and even more difficult to “break the news” to your family. But after talking with several of my friends, it came down to the fact that at least once in your life, you need a summer Christmas – and in what better form than a Kiwi Christmas? Most of all, I was simply just curious – what does Christmas look like without the possibility of snow and the roaring log fires and the hot chocolate?
I didn’t know where I’d spend it, though – while in Christchurch, I thought I’d return there; in Queenstown, I told everyone I’d come back for a few weeks over the holidays. If you can’t notice a pattern, I was only slightly influenced by where I was at the current moment. But ultimately, I chose neither – some might say I chose the option that made the least amount of sense: starting over in a new city only four weeks before Christmas. It was such an area of concern for people, as well – “But what are you going to do for Christmas?” became the resounding question. In a way, though, it was a challenge. How fast could I build a life in Wellington and find myself a home for Christmas day?
It certainly hadn’t felt like Christmas in the weeks leading up to it. I didn’t have to take part in the mad rush of getting all my shopping done, having bought and wrapped all my presents back in October to avoid exorbitant express shipping rates. And because I was staying out of the shops, I was inadvertently dodging most of the barrage of commercialism that so often accompanies Christmas. I wasn’t forced to endure Christmas music, tacky decorations, and seasonal specials. My world stayed fairly balanced in its Technicolor spectrum, the frequency of reds and greens remaining at relatively normal levels.
Indeed, the chief reminder in my life that it was the Christmas season was the number of offices that chose to have their work Christmas parties at my restaurant. There, they’d swap Secret Santa gifts and break open their crackers, wearing the paper crowns for about ten minutes until the novelty wore off and they’d fall crumpled to the floor where they’d lay with all the other rubbish from the crackers until the group left and we could swoop in to deal with the aftermath.
Another sign Christmas was on its way was the row of pohutukawa trees in full bloom outside the restaurant. In all my ignorance, I hadn’t realized the full extent of the red bloom’s significance. All I knew was the flower could be seen on anything from shopping bags from the gift shop of Te Papa Museum of New Zealand to the posters that hung in the front windows of banks wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. It wasn’t until talking with a customer one day about if and when summer would arrive in Wellington that she said while pointing to the trees outside, “Well, the Maori say if the pohutukawa flower early, it’ll be a good summer.” Now I had a name for them, a name that led me to a story on a New Zealand history website that gave me the final piece of the puzzle – the pohutukawa is actually considered New Zealand’s Christmas tree. No wonder their importance!
It’s a connection that extends back to the 1800s, when early writers spoke of the crimson flowers as “antipodean holly” – antipodean meaning “to refer to the land on the opposite side of the world compared to the speaker” – which, when you think about it, couldn’t be more fitting of a word for the perspective I myself am writing from.
From the Pohutukawa trees, I went on to read of the history of Christmas in New Zealand itself, the first recorded Christmas dinner being that which Abel Tasman and his crew held on board their ships in 1642. In 1769, James Cook again celebrated from the decks of his ship, the Endeavor, with a “goose pye” prepared from gannets. But it wasn’t until 1814 that the first proper Christmas service was led (and by proper, I mean only one actually held on New Zealand soil) by Samuel Marsden at Oihi Bay in the Bay of Islands. Kiwi Christmas traditions have come a long way since then, but I found the more I read and researched, the more disconnected I felt from the day itself and how I’d hoped it would look.
* * *
That was how much I’d estimated Christmas of 2009 to cost me. Shortly after I arrived in Wellington, the church I began attending with my flatmates offered those without a place to go for Christmas to spend it with one of their families. This seemed like a perfect option and I left that first Sunday happy to have finally gotten Christmas sorted. After beginning work at Vercelli’s and getting to know my English friend Aimee, we’d also talked about getting together later on in the day, perhaps heading to the beach – weather permitting, of course.
But a couple weeks before Christmas, I met an American at the restaurant, a man named Tim who, while originally from Chicago, had lived in New Zealand with his family for the past seven years. Tim said he and his wife Teri were having people over for a barbecue on Christmas Day – some English friends, some Kiwi friends – and he invited me to join his family. I liked the idea of it, the concept of an international mix, everyone coming together. I liked it so much, in fact, that I decided to take him up on his offer and forego other plans.
A few days later, I was serving yet another large group at Vercelli’s, this one in celebration of a young woman’s graduation from university. I’d gotten a good sort of banter going with the graduate’s father, a Sri Lankan man named Patrick, when he asked if he could get my number. He said he had a “lovely American couple” he wanted me to meet, so I didn’t see why not.
And so it seemed the day was set. As Tim and Teri were hosting a late lunch in the afternoon, I decided I’d spend Christmas morning Skyping home with family before a quick trip to the beach at Oriental Bay, a twenty-minute walk from my flat. That night, I hoped to meet up with Aimee or even Javier from work, homeless travelers sticking together. But two nights before Christmas, I had a voicemail waiting for me when I finished work. It was from Patrick and although it took me a few seconds to remember exactly who he was, it clicked just as I listened to an invitation to his house for Christmas brunch so I could meet this ever-acclaimed “lovely American couple.”
Turns out, it was going to be quite the Christmas of logistics. I spent Christmas Eve on the Metlink website, sorting out which bus and train lines I needed – and more importantly, just when exactly they would be running. To get to Patrick’s flat in Berhampore, I’d need two different buses, one costing me $3, the other $1.50. I’d then need another $3 to go from Patrick’s to the train station, from where I’d catch a train out to the Hutt Valley to Tim’s house. The train was $4.50 each way, so I estimated in total needing the aforementioned $16.50. I counted it out in small change from my restaurant tips, bought two bottles of champagne to give to each family, and fell asleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head.
I awoke Christmas morning to a blue sky and couldn’t have been happier. I was dead and determined to have as close to a summer Christmas as possible. In my jandals and sundress (okay, and sweater…), I waited at the bus stop…and waited…and waited, until finally a bus arrived. “Here, have a pen,” the driver says, handing me a red pen with a Santa bobble head attached to the end and “GOWELLINGTON” written on the side. I was glad to see someone in the Christmas spirit at least.
But because my first bus had arrived so late, I got to the second bus stop only to see I’d missed the one I needed and would have to wait a good twenty minutes, making me over half an hour late when I only had an hour to spend at Patrick’s in the first place. Although I debated whether or not it was worth the trip, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. A taxi drove by and I made a rash decision. “398 Sydney Street,” I said quickly before I could regret veering from my public-transport schedule.
Wouldn’t you know it, though, I was the first guest to arrive. I sat with two of Patrick’s sisters in their lounge as his brother, sister-in-law, and daughter walked into the room. Each time, Patrick would say, “You remember Candace, don’t you? She was our waitress at Vercelli’s for Laura’s graduation.” I loved watching their bemused faces as they racked their brains, trying to place me. I, on the other hand, felt almost like a Victorian servant allowed a chance to mingle with the family.
Finally, though, the American couple walked through the door, and I don’t think anyone could have missed their arrival. In true tacky-American style, Kathy had on wide-legged red pants, a green cardigan sweater, and – the pièce de résistance – a white turtleneck with a colorful pattern of Christmas trees, jingle bells and presents repeated all over it. Mein gott! was all I could think. “And check these out,” she says, pulling up her pants to show off the Santa design on her socks. “I’ve had this shirt for about twenty years, but it only comes out once a year.” Her clarifying comment at the end only mildly restored my faith in her fashion sense. Her husband Mike wasn’t dressed quite as loudly, but had a voice to make up for it. “I’m wearing these shorts in the vain hope it will get warm enough, but the merino sweater is more practical.”
Old friends of the family, Mike and Cathy were busy catching up with everyone in the room until Patrick came over and said to them, “Candace is the lonely American I invited over today. She’s the waitress I was telling you both about.” “Well why didn’t you say something earlier!” Cathy exclaims all of a sudden. “I hadn’t even made the connection. Well Patrick certainly fell in love with you,” she says and I let out a little nervous laughter. We were able to chat for a few minutes, as I learned they’ve lived in New Zealand for over fifteen years now, until it was time for lunch.
Growing up, Christmas lunch always looked a lot like Thanksgiving in my house – a turkey, potatoes, veggies, carrot cake, etc. And even though last year was spent in the French Alps on my snow trip with the Kiwis, the barbecue we had wasn’t anything too outside the unexpected. This year, however, certainly took a hard left turn at normal. The Sri Lankan meal featured spicy lamb curry and rice that had been baked in coconut milk. As if having a summer Christmas wasn’t different enough!
From Patrick’s, I caught a bus back to the train station where I was pleased to learn all trains running on Christmas were free, more than making up for the eight dollars I’d spent on the taxi that morning. I settled into a seat on the train, pleased with my little Christmas adventure and happy to finally have the chance to see some of the suburbs surrounding Wellington. Lower and Upper Hutt are two well-known areas I’d heard of, but yet to visit. Tim was waiting for me as I walked out of the train station, sporting a teal-colored Hawaiian print shirt. Looks like Mike wasn’t the only one holding out for warm weather.
The afternoon was a quiet one. While Tim had made it sound like a large get-together, I myself made the total group count come to only nine people: Tim, his wife and two sons; Tim’s mother, visiting for the first time from Illinois; and two of Teri’s colleagues, Jill, from England, and Nikki, a Kiwi, and Nikki’s mother, Mary. Nikki, as one of the only Kiwis present, was officially put in charge of the barbecue, firing up chicken kebabs, sausages, and asparagus. Mary had equally done her Kiwi-part by preparing a delicious pavlova cake adorned with fresh strawberries. Finally, I was starting to see some of the advantages of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere. But as amazing as the pavlova was, nothing got me more excited to see Tim’s mother bring out a Tupperware filled with chocolate chip cookies baked like only Americans know how to bake.
When we weren’t eating, we filled the afternoon with round after round of ping pong and darts, a little friendly competition in the air. As I went to say goodbye to everyone in order to catch a train back into central Wellington, I thanked Tim and Teri again, probably for the fifth time that day, for having me over. “Of course,” Tim says, “No one should have to be alone on Christmas.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said that, and all I wanted to say was, I wasn’t going to be alone! But I figured you’ve got to pick your battles, and defending my honor (and social life) wasn’t one worth fighting over on such a holiday.
After I got home from the full day of running around, I got on Skype again with my brother. As I told him about my day and how I was feeling slightly off, just a little out of sorts, he asked what was on the agenda for the rest of the night. I mentioned potential plans with friends from the restaurant or if those didn’t pan out, a movie perhaps, and as we said goodbye, he said almost flippantly, “Finish strong, sis.” You gotta love him.
* * *
That’s what I spent in the end on Christmas transport, a dollar less than I’d expected. I smiled as I thought about it, how well it represented my Christmas as a whole. I hadn’t gone into the day expecting a Christmas like home. It was, after all, not my first one away from my family. I’d survived last year, and I fully expected to make it through this day without too strong a dose of nostalgia. But then again, it wasn’t the summer Christmas I’d been hoping for either. Friends in warmer areas of the country talked of going to the beach, and I think that’s what I’d envisioned. Things didn’t quite add up like I’d expected. I was hoping for more synergy, whereby the whole would be greater than sum of its the parts, whereby I could piece together a Christmas that was as good as home, just different. As grateful as I was for the kindness of strangers to welcome me into their homes on such a personal day, I look forward to spending next year’s with my family…and maybe seeing who we can open our doors to.
But in the end, I’m used to Christmas being quite the sedentary holiday, with extended family always coming to our house. Maybe the very effort of coordinating bus routes and train lines, travelling to new sections of the city and the suburbs, made this Christmas of logistics one to remember…