AUCKLAND, New Zealand - We stood on the sidewalk waiting for the Santa Parade on Queen Street and took in the crowd around us; it was the usual mix of families, old-timers, and teens traveling in packs. One thing was different, though, for a December activity: Almost everyone was wearing T-shirts and shorts. This was our first Christmas season Down Under, where the calendar is turning the page from spring to summer and the holidays take place beneath palm trees and sunny blue skies.
Christmas Day traditions include having a barbecue, sailing on the turquoise-tinged waters of the harbor, or playing a game of cricket in the park. That may not be much different than in Miami, San Diego, or other warm places Stateside; but we doubt that the highlight of those cities' Christmas parades is a giant balloon of a kiwi bird wearing a Santa Claus hat.
We joined the crowd in cheering the floats featuring beach and surfing scenes. But when it came time for the big guy, Santa himself, the palm trees were just a memory. His float was covered in white with "snow"-covered trees and a castle. Even Down Under, the dream of a white Christmas lives.
Many smaller towns have Santa Parades as well. Dunedin on the South Island featured that old Christmas chestnut, Snoopy and longtime nemesis the Red Baron, engaged in a dogfight down the main drag. We're not sure what it had to do with Christmas, but the kids seemed to eat it up.
A more recent annual event is the Santa Run to raise money for the KidsCan charity. The race takes place in seven cities throughout New Zealand. For a $30 fee, each runner is given a red felt Santa suit to wear. Race veterans often show up in homemade outfits as elves or reindeer. The run in Dunedin takes place on the beach with the starting line just across from the local pub. There was clearly a party atmosphere, but fortunately the race, if it can be called that, was mercifully short so casualties were few.
A nod to the Kiwis' British heritage is the celebration of Boxing Day on Dec. 26. Traditionally it was the time when the lords and ladies of the manor would box up the leftovers for the servants. Today it's a way of extending the holiday by another day, and who wants to work the day after Christmas anyway? Since the stores are all closed on Boxing Day, there is no waking up early to rush to the stores at 4 a.m. for markdowns or gift returns. What a wonderful idea, and a great treat for retail workers.
New Zealanders also include customs of the first settlers of this land, the Maori people. Christmas cards and decorations bear Maori motifs, while many dig into a Maori treat called a hangi. Similar to a Hawaiian luau, hot stones are placed in a hole in the ground, and then lamb, potatoes, and whatever else strikes the chef's fancy are placed on top of the stones to bake. A warm Meri Kirihimete is wished: that's Maori for Merry Christmas. Not so different from the Hawaiian Mele Kalikimaka.
Across the Tasman Sea, the Aussies have put a unique spin on Santa's flight path. Apparently it's too hot in the outback for reindeer, so Santa is propelled by six white "boomers," also known as kangaroos. One bush-country resident, innkeeper Deb Wright, said, "It's so hot that we usually have cold meats and salads for the main meal, and much beer is also consumed due to the delirious heat." Despite the weather, stores are decorated with snowy winter scenes.
If all the talk of beach vacations and barbecues is not Christmasy enough for you, visit in six months, when many Aussies and Kiwis celebrate Christmas in July. Snow is in abundance for ski vacations on the South Island and in southern parts of Australia, which in this topsy-turvy hemisphere is colder than the north.
The season is a poignant time in Christchurch this year. The city suffered a devastating earthquake in February that destroyed the downtown and killed 181 people. There was talk of canceling the annual Santa Parade due to lack of a sponsor and the traditional parade route's being closed off for safety reasons. However, a shopping center stepped in to provide funding and the parade was rerouted.
More than 100,000 people, one-quarter of the town's population, turned out for the event. We spoke with one woman, a nurse who was preparing a patient for surgery at St. George's Hospital when the quake struck. "It's certainly been a challenging year," she said. "But we'll survive and rise above it."
The town Christmas tree was lit, and, in a new custom, visitors were encouraged to bring gifts to place under the tree. They will be distributed to Christchurch children who have had a particularly difficult time.
The international symbol of the devastation wrought on the city was the heavily damaged Christchurch Cathedral. At Christmastime last year, three larger-than-life sculptures of angels were hung from the ceiling. However, the quake made the building unsafe (it will be rebuilt, in a form yet to be determined), so this year the angels are suspended from construction cranes. The angels represent consolation, comfort, and hope. What fitting symbols to watch over the residents of Christchurch during this season of birth and renewal.