If you’ve visited us recently you’ll have noticed the beautiful ‘Kiwi’ Christmas tree at the entrance to the museum, decorated with jandals, kererū, and pōhutukawa. Here, history curator Katie Cooper explores the history of the Christmas tree in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Christmas tree
The skies are grey in England,
While ours are blue and clear.
The holly gleams in England,
But the self-same Christmas spirit
Holds each world in thrall,
As we spread the Christmas message,
“Peace and goodwill to all.”
This poem comes from a 1930 edition of the New Zealand Herald, and it compares Christmas in England with Christmas in New Zealand.
The author notes that while holly is traditionally associated with Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere, in Aotearoa it is the pōhutukawa tree that provides festive red and green foliage each December.
Pōhutukawa was first described as the New Zealand Christmas tree in the 1850s, and it was used throughout the 19th century as a decoration for homes, churches, and other meeting places. This was a continuation of a Northern-Hemisphere tradition, where greenery was used to decorate and brighten dark rooms during mid-winter festivals.
A columnist for the Otago Witness noted in 1881 that ‘[t]here is merit in greenery as a Christmas decoration when green things are scarce; little or none when nature is in her summer dress.’ Nevertheless, the custom continued here.
Nineteenth-century Pākehā settlers adapted their seasonal traditions to suit the new environment, and Christmas developed into a distinctive festival mixing winter customs with summer foods, flora, and activities, while also combining religious and secular traditions (Clarke, 23).
The pōhutukawa tree was, and is, emblematic of this distinctive Kiwi celebration.
Today many New Zealanders mark the festive season by decorating an indoor Christmas tree.
The origin of this custom is disputed, although one of the more common theories is that it originated in medieval Germany as the ‘Paradise tree’. These trees (often firs) were brought inside on 24 December and decorated with apples to represent the Garden of Eden.
Another German custom was to display Christmas figurines on a ‘Christmas pyramid’ – a wooden structure with shelves – and by the 16th century the two traditions had merged to become the modern Christmas tree.
The Christmas tree spread throughout Europe and into North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it was popularised in Britain by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, in the 1840s.
In 19th-century New Zealand, Christmas trees were erected in the homes of the wealthy, although most of the population experienced them in institutions such as schools and churches.
Gradually the domestic Christmas tree was adopted by the wider population, and as these photographs from the Te Papa collection demonstrate, they were central to many Christmas gatherings in the 20th century.
However you choose to celebrate we hope you have a wonderful summer and happy holidays!
- Gerry Bowler, The World Encyclopedia of Christmas (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000).
- Alison Clarke, Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2007).
- Nancy Swarbrick, ‘Public holidays – Easter, Christmas and New Year’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
- ‘Pohutukawa trees’, NZHistory.