The history of Christmas dinner in New Zealand

With festive eatables on everyone’s mind at this time of year, history curator Katie Cooper traces the history of the Christmas dinner in New Zealand, and considers how our antipodean Yuletide has changed since its first celebration in 1642.

Cheslyn Rise - Christmas dinner, circa 1920, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (B.022885)

Cheslyn Rise – Christmas dinner, circa 1920, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (B.022885)

The First Festive Feasts

Abel Tasman and the crews of the Heemskerck and Zeehaen were the first to celebrate Christmas in New Zealand, enjoying a meal of freshly-killed pork and wine while weathering a storm off the coasts of the Stephens and D’Urville islands in 1642.

The next New Zealand Christmas came more than a century later, when the crew of the Endeavour, anchored off North Cape, improvised a festive feast. Botanist Joseph Banks recorded the meal in his journal, writing:

’25. Christmas day: Our goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion.’ (1)

Goose pie was a favourite Christmas dish in Yorkshire, Captain Cook’s home county. This version wasn’t quite like those Cook would have remembered from his boyhood, however, for in the absence of geese a gannet was used instead.

From that day to this, generations of New Zealanders have clung nostalgically to Christmas traditions originating in Northern climes, steadfastly ignoring the ‘inconvenient fact’ that these traditions make little sense in the Southern Hemisphere.(2)

Colonial Customs

For homesick British settlers who came to New Zealand in the nineteenth century, Christmas was a time to celebrate tradition and replicate the customs of the ‘Mother Country.’

Some denominations, such as Scots Presbyterians, did not customarily observe Christmas, but by the end of the nineteenth century most settlers had opted to take the day as a holiday and mark it with some sort of special meal.

English poet George Withers described a cheery Christmas scene in his A Christmas Carol, written between 1626 and 1633.

This was reprinted frequently in New Zealand newspapers throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

‘Lo, now is come the joyful’st feast!

Let every man be jolly,

Eache roome with yvie [ivy] leaves is drest,

And every post with holly.

Now all our neighbour’s chimneys smoke,

And Christmas blocks are burning;

Their ovens they with bak’t meats choke,

And all their spits are turning.

Without the door let sorrow lie,

And if, for cold, it hap to die,

We’ll bury it in a Christmas pye,

And evermore be merry.’ (3)

This carol, now almost 400 years old, describes key features of the ‘joyful’st feast’ which we still know today: namely the baked meats and the Christmas pie.

If the Yuletide feast had its origins in the Middle Ages, however, it was during the Victorian period that the dishes we are most familiar with in New Zealand became commonplace.

Mince pies transformed into a meatless mix of fruits and spices, roast beef and goose were replaced by roast turkey, and the Christmas pudding was increasingly seen to be ‘the triumph of the housewife’s art.’(4) Settlers brought these traditions with them and, as far as possible, they maintained them in their new home.

Pudding dolls, another Victorian tradition brought to New Zealand, were baked into Christmas puddings or wrapped in Christmas crackers. This one dates from the 1870s and was found in the Randell family cottage in the 1990s. Pudding Doll - head and body glued together, maker unknown. Gift of Beverley Randell Price, 2009. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH012256)

Pudding dolls, another Victorian tradition brought to New Zealand, were baked into Christmas puddings or wrapped in Christmas crackers. This one dates from the 1870s and was found in the Randell family cottage in the 1990s. Pudding Doll – head and body glued together, maker unknown. Gift of Beverley Randell Price, 2009. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (GH012256)

‘Generous indulgence’

Sarah Amelia Courage, who arrived in Lyttleton in 1864, wrote in her autobiography that the colonists’ social habits were ‘curiously obstinate,’ for under the ‘heat-distilling skies of the antipodes’ they wore much the same dress and ate mostly the same foods ‘as in the frosty airs of the northern world.’

On Christmas day in their Canterbury home, Courage wrote that there were ‘titillating odours issuing from the kitchen, in which that succulent and very useful vegetable, the onion, largely predominated. In spite of the heat, Mrs Clark [the cook] was roasting the savoury meats and boiling plum puddings, for neither she nor her husband were afflicted with indigestion, nor restrained by fear of consequences from a generous indulgence of the good things of this life.’(5)

This photograph of the Adkin family dinner, taken in 1905, captures something of the formality of colonial Christmases. It is likely that a hot roast dinner was on the menu, although traditional adornments have been replaced by a vase of fresh flowers. Xmas (Christmas) dinner 25.12.05 , 25 December 1905, Levin, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.005936)

This photograph of the Adkin family dinner, taken in 1905, captures something of the formality of colonial Christmases. It is likely that a hot roast dinner was on the menu, although traditional adornments have been replaced by a vase of fresh flowers. Xmas (Christmas) dinner 25.12.05 , 25 December 1905, Levin, by Leslie Adkin. Gift of G. L. Adkin family estate, 1964. Te Papa (A.005936)

Festive Picnics

Although the hot roast dinner and the plum pudding remained festive favourites into the twentieth century, some concessions to the summer season were made and Christmas picnics became common in many families and communities.

One such picnic was described in the Clutha Leader in January 1877, which reported that

‘The whole population of Mokerita, with a few exceptions, enjoyed a little social intercourse at a most excellent picnic at Mr Dodd’s, Anderson Park, on Christmas Day. Everything was considered highly successful, and so far as an abundance of eatables, plenty of racing, leaping, and gaming form a criterion, with each vying with his or her neighbour to make everything pleasant and enjoyable, there certainly was success.’(6)

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By the mid twentieth century, summer foods such as new potatoes and fruit salad had been incorporated into the festive menu.

In 1938, 9-year-old Brian Mytton of Gebbie’s Valley wrote an updated Christmas carol reflecting his family’s holiday traditions, and this was printed in the children’s section of the Press.

Press, Supplement, 24 December 1938, p5. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand. CC BY_NC_SA licence.

Press, Supplement, 24 December 1938, p5. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand. CC BY_NC_SA licence.

The Modern Kiwi Christmas

Today, our Christmas celebrations are a blend of old traditions and new.

In many households, the Christmas meal incorporates recipes and foods from all over the world, and rather than huddling around our fires in rooms dressed with ivy and holly, most kiwis take every opportunity to get outdoors and enjoy the sunshine.

Lee-Johnson family and friends at Christmas time, 1950s, New Zealand, by Eric Lee-Johnson. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Te Papa. Te Papa (O.006300/01)

Lee-Johnson family and friends at Christmas time, 1950s, New Zealand, by Eric Lee-Johnson. Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. © Te Papa. Te Papa (O.006300/01)

That said, some elements of Victorian Christmas traditions have survived, as demonstrated by the fact that the My Christmas Food Bag this year includes a roast turkey.

What are your Christmas traditions? Do you have a hot roast with all the trimmings, or more summery fare?

Whatever is on the menu, we hope that you enjoy your jolly feast and festive season.

Happy Holidays!

Footnotes:

  1. J.C. Beaglehole, (ed.), The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, 1768-1771 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1962), 449, quoted in David Veart, First Catch your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008), 257.
  2. Veart, 258.
  3. ‘The Christmas Dinner,’ New Zealander, 25 December 1852, p.4. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.
  4. J.C. Freeman, Victorian Entertaining (New York: Mallard Press, 1989), 20, quoted in Veart, 260.
  5. Sarah Amelia Courage, Lights and Shadows of Colonial Life: Twenty-Six Years in Canterbury New Zealand (Christchurch: Whitcoulls Ltd., 1976 [1896]), 114.
  6. ‘Mokerita Annual Picnic,’ Clutha Leader, 5 January 1877, p. 6. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand.

Slideshow Image Credits:

  1. A typical New Zealand Christmas dinner, 1905. Supplement to the Auckland Weekly News, 21 December 1905, p. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19051221-1-1. No known copyright.
  2. Godber family picnic group at Waikanae, Christmas Day 1924. Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949: Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: APG-1309-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
  3. A motoring party at the Addington show grounds enjoying their Christmas dinner, 1937. Press, 27 December 1937, p. 12. Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand. CC BY_NC_SA licence.

Further Reading:

  • ‘Gannet Pie for Christmas’
  • Public Holidays in New Zealand
  • Victorian Christmas
  • Alison Clarke, Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007).
  • Sarah Ell, A New Zealand Christmas: Three Centuries of Kiwi Christmas Celebrations from the Alexander Turnbull Library (Auckland: Godwit, 2008).
  • Helen Leach, Mary Browne & Raelene Inglis, The Twelve Cakes of Christmas: An Evolutionary History, with Recipes (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011).

8 Responses

  1. Ruth Norman

    Interesting read, but I would have liked to have known if Maori celebrated the tradition?

    Reply
    • Katie Cooper

      Hi Ruth. Thank you for your question. Yes, many Māori who converted to Christianity in the nineteenth century did celebrate Christmas, and the feasting aspect in particular fit well with established customs of hospitality. Alison Clarke writes about this in her book Holiday Seasons, and suggests that those close to missionary stations celebrated in a more traditionally ‘British’ way, while other iwi and hapū combined elements of their own feasting rituals with new Christmas customs.

  2. Les louisson

    Brian Mytton the boy in the charming Christmas invite advert died in 1985 aged 55 as I read his add I am 55. Strange coincidence must cut down on Christmas new year excesd

    Reply
    • Katie Cooper

      Oh gosh, that’s sad to hear. I thought the poem was so charming I just had to include it.

  3. Nell

    Lovely, enjoyed this a lot!

    Reply
  4. Vicki

    Cracking read – cheers Katie. Merry Christmas all (pass the pyes).

    Reply

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