Celebrating the festive season off-season with Keith Lyons from New Zealand, where summer solstice and Christmas fall around the same time
There is something quite surreal that happens across the Southern Hemisphere in the last week of December. It seems to be a mismatch between festivities and seasons. Temporarily, around Christmas, the world ‘down under’ somehow pretends it is winter, not summer. The European and North American cultural traditions associated with the birth of Jesus Christ, believed by Christians to be the Son of God, get mixed up when the seasons are reversed. Within the same week as the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, many throughout the South still celebrate the observance with images of snow, tinsel, evergreen conifers, mistletoe, reindeer, sleighs, and of course, jovial Santa. So, during the hottest months, when Christmas carols can be heard in petrol station forecourts and in the ‘music on hold’ when waiting for customer support, there is an artificial feel to the merry Christmas and tidings of great joy.
As the child of immigrants to New Zealand, I guess Christmas time must have been both comforting and disconcerting for my Scottish and English parents, who had been used to chilly temperatures, the prospect of real snow, and the need to have hearty traditional British Christmas foods including roasted turkey, ham on the bone, puddings infused with brandy and hot drinks. For some reason, we always had the out-of-season Brussel sprouts on the table for the main Christmas day meal.
For most of my childhood, we stuck to the typical Christmas foods, always eating too much of the plum pudding made with treacle and the beef fat suet after a huge meal prepared by my mother slaving away in the kitchen with the oven set at 180C on a 30C day. It was only in the 1980s that our family, like many other New Zealanders, gradually moved towards cold meats, seafood and salads. Eventually, the Christmas plum pudding was replaced by the pavlova, the meringue-base topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. More families gather together at the beach at Christmas time, listening not to sleigh bells but the sizzle from the BBQ.
In recent decades, some New Zealanders have got seasonal-correct, by having a mid-winter Christmas complete with roast meat, potatoes, sweet potato, and pumpkin, at a time of year when such warming food is best appreciated.
The first Christmas in New Zealand happened many centuries after the arrival of the first settlers, the Maori. In 1642 Dutch explorer Abel Tasman celebrated with fresh pork and extra rations of wine, while English navigator James Cook, who landed more than 250 years ago, feasted on pies made with seabirds on Christmas day in 1769.
Over time, Christmas has become localised to its climate and geographic location. In New Zealand, there is a native tree, the Pohutukawa, which blooms vibrantly red during what is still known as the ‘silly season’, and this has been dubbed the Kiwi Christmas tree. Some Santas in shopping malls wear red shorts, and local businesses, community groups and churches make decorative floats for the annual Santa parade which always includes fire trucks reminding participants of the impending forest fire danger.
With the warm temperatures and long days, the holiday time is more about a lazy game of cricket on the back lawn or getting sunburnt at the beach than excessive feasting and drinking, awkward gift-giving, and church attendance. One modern development in my hometown is that one neighbourhood has taken on the North American tradition of decorating houses with festive lights and kitschy displays. However, as it doesn’t get dark till after 9.30pm in December, parents must allow their children to stay up later to visit the suburb when the lights are on and glowing.
I’m fascinated how cultural events (and religious festivals) have been exported and imported around the world. In New Zealand, where Indians make up 4% of the total population due mainly to recent arrivals for study and work, the Hindu festival of Diwali is celebrated in most of the main centres, with calls for it to be declared a public holiday from 2022. Sikhism is the fastest-growing religion in the country according to the latest census, and my hometown of Christchurch now has more than 10,000 Sikhs (more than 2.5% of the population), meaning that there’s a good chance that someone from Chandigarh, Amritsar, or Ludhiana lives in your street.
When I’ve lived in other parts of the world, I’ve noticed how festivals, some with nature-based or pagan origins, may at first seem out of kilter with the seasons or time of year. Among the Yi, Bai and Naxi of southwest China’s Yunnan, a torch festival is held around the summer solstice to symbolise warding off locusts and ghosts. One legend about its origin tells the tale of a spirit being sent to torch the Earth and its evil residents, but when he fell in love, he convinced the inhabitants to light fires for a few days to make it seem that he’d accomplished his task. It’s an almost identical tale on the west coast of Ireland where an ancient midsummer festival to protect the crops is said to have its genesis in the desire of an angel for harm not to come to the Irish people.
This year 2020, which for pretty much every one of the Earth’s 7,800 million human inhabitants has been interesting, to say the least, closes with some unusual phenomena, including the ‘Christmas star’ created by the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on the solstice, and perhaps a collective sigh of relief when midnight rolls over on the 31st of December.
From afar it must have looked as if the world was both on fire and burned down, as wildfires have raged across Australia, the Amazon, Siberia and California, and whole populations have ‘sheltered in place’, deserting once crowded streets and landmarks, reducing pollution and carbon emissions.
As we reflect on the year, perhaps we could learn from the words of prize-winning novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren: “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.”
Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. He has been published in newspapers, magazines, websites and journals around the world, and his work was nominated for the Pushcart prize. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).
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