For whatever reason, New Zealand has largely been spared the Christmas-wars that blemish American public debate at this time of year. There doesn’t seem to be any of that pointy-elbowed policing of appropriate greetings (happy holidays, anyone?); rural towns erect public manger scenes and global soft-drink corporations bankroll “Christmas in the Park” without it ever coming to litigation. A multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multi-cultural crowd pours out onto the streets of Auckland to watch Santa go by.
Even so, as surely as Christmas will bring sweaty, harassed throngs to the suburban shopping malls for the next two weekends, it will bring forth a phalanx of pundits keen to hector you about the “authenticity” of your Christmas.
Saint Matthews will erect a controversial billboard whose tacit message is that no-one in Auckland thinks about Christmas in as penetrating and perceptive a manner as Saint Matthews. A local clergyman will write an op-ed for a local paper reminding you that Christmas is not, after all, all about shopping. Some public-spirited individual will inform you (just in case you had forgotten) that Christmas is really a “pagan” feast that was kidnapped by the Christians. Someone will ineffectually lament (for at least the 200th time in two-hundred years of Christmas in New Zealand) that it just doesn’t seem right to celebrate a winter festival in the middle of summer.
But there is one thing on which all festive pundits find themselves in agreement: whatever you thought you were doing, you’re doing it wrong, and you should all feel very, very guilty.
So let me do what I can as an historian to relieve you of this burden: there has never been one, true, cast-iron, copper-bottomed, quality-assured, officially-approved, democratically-ratified “reason for the season.” In the whole of the history of Christmas – as in the history of any tradition – there have always been multiple “reasons” jockeying for top-billing, and, as far as I know, none of those reasons has ever had Christmas completely to itself.
By way of example, I want to look at couple of these prescriptive Christmas “myths” – one from the religious side and one from the less religious. I’ll look at the first in this post, and if Caroline has nothing else planned, I’ll look at the second myth some time next week.
The first “myth” involves the decline and fall of Christmas, and it goes more-or-less like this: the Christmas of olden-times (exactly when remains unspecified) was a decorous, wholesome and reverent affair, a bit like Dickens’s Christmas Tale but with more church-going. Later, though, (again unspecified) it became a season of crass excess and commercialism, in which Jesus was largely forgotten.
This overlooks a couple of things – both of which were recently brought back home to me by Alison Clarke’s book Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand, and by a talk given by Peter Lineham at the recent conference of the Religious History Association of Aotearoa-New Zealand.
The first is that, in early 19th century New Zealand, Christmas was not a “Christian” feast. It was a Catholic, Anglican, and (to a lesser extent) Methodist feast. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and others sternly disapproved of it. As far as Presbyterians were concerned, Christians were commanded to observe only the (Christian) sabbath. Any other observance (and for Presbyterians this included Easter) was idolatry- or worse, popery. Unlike even Easter, Christmas wasn’t even given an approximate date in the biblical account. So observing it involved an embarrassing concession to tradition, and, again, to popery. So in Otago Scots and Irish Presbyterians punctilious worked on Christmas Day, while their English and Irish Catholic counterparts took an unofficial day off.
Even for those who celebrated Christmas, it was never just, or even primarily a religious feast. As Alison Clarke observes, when the first English settlers arrived in New Zealand – i.e. the traders, whalers and sailors – their Christmas was:
a rowdier community event, which featured, alongside special church services, various forms of carnival and misrule… Above all it was a time for eating and drinking in abundance (Clarke, 26)
A number of accounts of early Christmases in New Zealand note its association with over-eating, swearing, brawling and catatonic drunkenness. While there were no doubt more temperate celebrations, it was never a straightforward case of Jesus being “the reason for the season.”
As with many other aspects of 19th century life, Christmas was gradually “tamed” and drawn into the cult of domesticity promoted, above all, by the royal family. It’s to the second half of the nineteenth century that we owe Christmas as a “family” feast, focussed on children, presents under the Christmas tree, and elaborate church services with the singing of Christmas carols. Some Protestant churches even set up a Christmas crib – an idolatrous appurtenance to which their ancestors would have taken an axe. As with the revival of gothic architecture in this period, the Victorians made their newly wholesome Christmas seem timeless. It was anything but.
So, as Peter Lineham remarked in his own recent paper, the late 19th century saw all of the churches trying to hitch their wagons to was an increasingly popular and commercially successful feast. Even the Presbyterians eventually relented. By the the 1890s some of the racier Presbyterian congregations were holding Christmas services, though these celebrations were not approved by the Church as a whole until 1932.
Finally, as the Christmas cards suggest, earlier New Zealand Christmases were not nearly as attached to the wintery trappings of Christmas as our shopping malls are today. Santa, reindeer etc. emerged not from Britain, but from America in the late 19th century, and began to feature prominently in the imagery of the New Zealand feast from that point on. But as you can see from the pictures below, Pakeha settlers were happy to experiment with clover, ferns and cabbage trees.
There is no take-home lesson from any of this. If there were, I would have become just another Christmas pundit. All I can do is hope that your Christmas is free from the burdens of guilt, reproach and subtle disapproval that we all lay upon each other at this time of year. If the even Presbyterians can learn to enjoy themselves, there’s hope for us all.