The Holly And The Ivy

28th December 2010

In recent weeks my friends and family in the UK have expressed a natural curiosity about my experiences of a summer Christmas “down under”. With most Brits – myself included, until now - knowing only dark, cold Decembers and the annual bombardment of festive merchandise promoting idyllic Christmas scenes of snow-dusted cottages and sledging Santas, it is difficult for us to imagine celebrating such an instinctively wintery time of year in shorts and a t-shirt on the beach. Given the arctic weather conditions to which Europe has been subject in recent weeks, the notion must seem all the odder (not to mention galling) for everyone back home, though at least the residents of my home town Loughborough have finally been able to tick off the ever dreamed-of white Christmas, something that has typically transpired the one year I’m not there to witness it.

I found adapting to a hot Christmas quite jarring at first and in the weeks building up to the big day I didn’t feel quite as festive as I usually do at this time of year. Part of the reason, I think, is that New Zealanders don’t throw themselves into the party season spirit with quite the same vigour as we do back home, perhaps because they want to save themselves for the extended summer holidays many of them take in the weeks immediately after Christmas. Also, many of the traditions that we commonly associate with Christmas back home, from the drinking of mulled wine to singing carols by a roaring log fire, are clearly inappropriate when temperatures reach the upper end of the twenties and the only fire you want to be stoking is the one heating up the barbecue. Strangely, though, Kiwis continue to partake in many of these customs despite their incongruity in this climate, presumably as a result of New Zealand’s origins as a British colony. They even produce Christmas cards depicting the same snowy scenes you’d expect to see on the British versions, even though it’s probably been several millennia since snow last fell in Auckland during the summer.

Though New Zealand has its own indigenous “Christmas tree” - the red-flowered Pohutukawa - most households here still opt for the traditional European pines and firs to adorn with gaudy baubles and tinsel. Conveniently, the house in Kumeu has a multitude of such trees growing on the surrounding land and with the help of Holly’s sister-in-law Liz and a long-armed saw we spent a fun/exhausting afternoon in the first week of December lopping down a ten-foot branch from one of them and dragging it indoors for decoration. We later came to regret our early advent enthusiasm as the formerly verdant bough had turned brown and wilted by the time Christmas week came around and we were forced to go through the whole branch-hacking process all over again to ensure we had a vaguely respectable tree for Christmas Day. Perhaps we’d be better off sticking with a plastic one next year.

Christmas Day itself is, of course, a family occasion and every household will have its own special way of doing things, often with idiosyncrasies that would seem utterly bizarre to an outsider. I grew up, for example, strictly forbidden from opening any presents until after the Queen’s Speech had been broadcast at 3pm – this despite the fact that the address is pre-recorded and has already been played out on the radio earlier on Christmas morning. The wait for my five-year-old self was, as I’m sure you can imagine, interminable. Thankfully, this family tradition has slackened somewhat in recent years (helped along, in part, by the insistence of myself and my younger brother) and we have tended to enjoy a more relaxed afternoon gorging ourselves on the obligatory roast turkey lunch and catching up with the relatives we hadn’t seen since the previous Christmas.

The most frustrating thing about Christmas Day back home is that the weather usually confines everyone to the house after lunch. There are, after all, only so many hours one can bear sitting around in multi-coloured hats playing charades without a significant intake of sherry. The Antipodean summer Christmas, on the other hand, allows for a far more dynamic programme of activities and I was particularly pleased to be able to burn off some turkey calories with a game of cricket with some of Holly’s relatives after we’d finished eating lunch at her dad’s house in Auckland.

Though I missed my customary binge on “the trimmings” of a Christmas roast (bread sauce, pigs in blankets, chestnut stuffing – you know the routine), I enjoyed the diversity of food on offer at a more buffet-style lunch, with the turkey accompanied by a range of cold meats and imaginative salads. Traditional Christmas pudding and brandy sauce was conspicuous by its absence but I was more than compensated by an array of other delicious desserts, including the famed New Zealand pavlova and a particularly decadent tiramisu.

Otherwise, Christmas Day was much the same as back home, complete with crackers containing rubbish jokes and useless plastic gifts, operatic renditions of carols blaring out of the stereo and the horrible realisation, around 4pm, that you’ve eaten far too much and pray that the toilet is far out of the earshot of your fellow revellers. Oh, and they even watch the Queen’s Speech over here, a full seventeen hours before the UK gets to. My dear old granny would be mortified.

Christmas Day was made for indulgence and I was pleased to discover that the evening festivities here were no less extravagant than the afternoon’s. Retiring back to Kumeu, we were treated to a delicious spread of barbecued food courtesy of Holly’s mum and were still sitting outside eating and drinking close to midnight. Skype - that wonderful tool of modern communication - then allowed me to wish my family back home a merry Christmas on their Christmas morning whilst feeling slightly queasy at the thought of the gargantuan food binge still awaiting them. Though I was sad to be unable to spend this most family-oriented of days with my own relatives, I felt very fortunate to experience another culture’s take on festivities, but still with so many reassuringly familiar elements and with Holly’s welcoming family making me feel very much at home. Our Boxing Day excursion to the Eden Park stadium, where we watched New Zealand comfortably outscore Pakistan in an entertaining Twenty-Twenty cricket match, even helped to stop me missing my usual trip up to Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane for the traditional post-Christmas football match, though my subsequent discovery of a 3-2 loss to Hull perhaps went further towards softening that particular blow…


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