New Zealand Christmas is less about snow and sleigh bells and more about sun, sand, and barbecues in the backyard.

The origin of New Zealand Christmas

The Christian origins of Christmas meant that before European contact, the celebration had no place in the calendar of Aotearoa. The first celebration of Christmas in New Zealand coincided with Abel Tasman’s voyage to New Zealand in 1642.

On 19 December 1642, the Dutch ships Heemskerck and Zeehaen were anchored in Golden Bay, home of the Ngati Tumatakokiri people. The locals felt threatened by these strange vessels and people. One of Tasman’s small boats was passing between the two vessels when a waka (Maori canoe) rammed it. Four of Tasman’s parties died. Several Ngati Tumatakokiri suffered when the Dutch opened fire from both ships.

Tasman saw no reason to hang around. After naming the place Moordenaers Baij (Murderers’ Bay) he immediately set sail. On 20 December his expedition reached the Manawatu coast of the North Island before crossing the entrance of Cook Strait and anchoring east of Stephens and D’Urville islands. Here the crew encountered what many Wellingtonians have become used to at Christmas time – poor weather. While sheltering from a storm, the Dutch enjoyed the first Christmas dinner in New Zealand – freshly killed pork from the ship’s menagerie washed down with extra rations of wine.

Popular activities for holidaymakers on Christmas:

  • Have a traditional Kiwi Christmas
  • Go to the beach
  • Spend it with a Kiwi family by WWOOFing
  • Go on holiday
  • Work for extra cash
  • Volunteer

Have a traditional Kiwi Christmas

New Zealand follows similar Christmas traditions as the UK and the commonwealth, involving Christmas trees, decorations, stockings, gifts, carols, etc. It mixes these traditions with summer-time activities like BBQs, going to the beach, and enjoying the great outdoors. So while you are backpacking at Christmas, you can follow the traditional Kiwi Christmas. Although Christmas is a family-orientated in New Zealand, you can follow the traditions listed below with your flatmates and backpacker buddies.

Christmas presents

Wrapped in festive paper, gifts are always under a Christmas tree and opened on Christmas Day morning.

Christmas tree

There are two types of New Zealand Christmas tree. One is a pine tree, usually artificial, to decorate inside the house. The other tree is the pohutukawa tree, which blossoms with red flowers around Christmas time. They mostly grow in coastal areas of the North Island.

The beautiful pohutukawa is a New Zealand’s iconic Christmas tree. The pohutukawa also holds a prominent place in Maori culture: the locals believe an 800-year-old tree clinging to the cliffs of Cape Reinga guards the entrance to a sacred cave through which spirits pass on their way to the next world.

The pohutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa) with its crimson flower has become an established part of the New Zealand Christmas tradition. This iconic Kiwi Christmas tree, which often features on greeting cards and in poems and songs, has become an important symbol for New Zealanders at home and abroad.

Christmas Eve and boxing day

Christmas is a 3-day event. Christmas Eve (24-December), involves some New Zealand families to go to Midnight Mass at church. Christmas Day (25-December), is when everybody opens their presents and families enjoy Christmas dinner together. Boxing Day (26-December) extends the time spent with family or going to some mad Boxing Day sales!

Christmas dinner

The food enjoyed on Christmas day differs from family to family. Some like a traditional roast like roast ham, veggies, potatoes, and gravy. For dessert, they can have Christmas pudding, “Christmas Cake” (fruit cake) or mince pies. Other families enjoy a lighter meal, obviously because it is summer, such as a BBQ, salads, and the pavlova for dessert. People prefer to enjoy the latter outdoors at the beach or in the garden.

What else can I do on Christmas?

Spend New Zealand Christmas with some WWOOFING hosts

Christmas with WWOOFing hosts is a way to become a part of the New Zealand family Christmas!

WWOOFing is working usually for about 3 to 4 hours, five days a week, in exchange for food and accommodation. Although traditionally, WWOOFing was just for families with farms, now there are all kinds of hosts looking for backpackers to help with tasks for a cultural exchange.

Work at Christmas

If you are more of a practical traveler, then consider working during the Christmas period. With no family obligations, you are free as a bird. Also, it’s likely that you will get paid doubled salary during the public holidays like Christmas Eve, Christmas day and Boxing Day.

Employers in retail and hospitality look for temporary staff to help out with the busy Christmas period. This will most likely mean working Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and maybe even Christmas Day.

Volunteer for Christmas

Christmas is about goodwill! In cities, especially Auckland and Christchurch, you can volunteer for City Mission, providing free Christmas lunches to those who have nowhere else to go.
Even in the run-up to Christmas, you can volunteer as one of City Mission’s Santa’s Helpers distributing food parcels and gifts to those in need in New Zealand.
Charities and organizations are looking for volunteers prepared early so don’t leaving applying to volunteer until Christmas Eve.
Keep an eye out for different projects every year. You can find volunteering opportunities at your nearest Volunteer Centre.

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