No winter wonderland: a history of Christmas in New Zealand.

It’s that time of the year again, carols, Christmas shopping, annual staff parties, parades and backyard barbeques. For many of us, Christmas traditions are passed down through our families, and some of the fare found on our festive tables may be reminiscent of a Victorian Christmas, the way the occasion was once celebrated in the motherland. However, today on the blog, we compare and contrast the modern, and the Victorian New Zealand Christmas traditions, and we will see how the festive season has changed for New Zealanders over the generations.

 

The modern idea of English Christmas celebrations was introduced in the Victorian era. While Santa Claus didn’t get a foothold in our chimneys until the 1890s (or Father Christmas as he was called then), presents were still exchanged. This exchange was originally done on New Year’s Day, before Prince Albert’s introduction of his native German-style Christmas to England in the 1840s (Midgley 2010). Around this time, the gifts were nowhere near as elaborate as the modern commercialised Christmas industry (which must keep Santa’s elves rather busy year-round). Instead, they were often nuts, sweets, oranges and sometimes toys (Clarke 2007).

A ghostly looking Father Christmas (Mr. McMillan) at Heathcote School - Mrs. Yeale in foreground - Mr James Weir - Chairman School Committee - 1900 – 1910. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: Gimblett 0009.

A ghostly looking Father Christmas (Mr. McMillan) at Heathcote School – Mrs. Yeale in foreground – Mr James Weir – Chairman School Committee – 1900 – 1910. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference: Gimblett 0009.

 

Christmas cards were first introduced in 1843 by Sir Henry Cole and the English illustrator, John Callcott Horsley. The practice of giving specialised cards caught on as a form of present giving in itself, and it made Christmas gift exchange more conceivable between the New Zealand settlers and their families left at home. You may recall this tin postcard we recovered from a house in central Christchurch a couple of years ago. It is dated 21st December 1914, and appears to be a homemade Christmas greeting card.

 

1914 Christmas greeting card addressed to Mary. It reads: “Forget Me Not” “Don’t laugh Mary at this dear x x. Dear Mary, just a PC [postcard], hoping you are well, as it leaves me the same well. Mary I received your loving letter, but you know that I have a lot of letters to write so I got tired. Dear Mary, you might tell Mary Martin, that I am going my holidays on Christmas to Petone. So I will not see her. I am sorry more news next time. Well fondest love from your [?] Wish you a merry Christmas x x x.” Image: C. Dickson.

1914 Christmas greeting card addressed to Mary. It reads: “Forget Me Not” “Don’t laugh Mary at this dear x x. Dear Mary, just a PC [postcard], hoping you are well, as it leaves me the same well. Mary I received your loving letter, but you know that I have a lot of letters to write so I got tired. Dear Mary, you might tell Mary Martin, that I am going my holidays on Christmas to Petone. So I will not see her. I am sorry more news next time. Well fondest love from your [?] Wish you a merry Christmas x x x.” Image: C. Dickson.

 

Essentially, the largest difference between Christmas celebrations in the old and new continents was the adaption to the warmer Christmas climate – it was the difference between ‘Jack Frost nipping at your nose’ and summertime heat waves (for us, think, more chilled sauvignon blanc, less mulled wine). The Christmas festivities were moved from indoors – huddled together by a fire, to relaxing outside in the sunshine. Instead of ‘decking the halls with bells of holly’, these new-New Zealander’s decorated their homes with evergreens and native ferns and flax, and the pōhutukawa tree became the ‘Summer Christmas Tree’ (Clarke 2007, Swarbrick 2016). However, although barbeques are ever popular, our modern Christmas tradition still fiercely clings to the concept of hot plum pudding and a roast meat dinner. This is possibly because the 19th century saw many of the early settlers longing for the white Christmas of their former homes…

 

Lyttelton Times 24/12/1859: 3

Lyttelton Times 24/12/1859: 3

New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator 28/12/1842: 2.

New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator 28/12/1842: 2.

 

So what about the way people celebrated in wider community events? The first Santa parade wasn’t held in New Zealand until 1905, and before 1873, most people were required to work on Christmas Day! Law changes in 1873 and 1894 entitled most workers the day off (excluding farmers, of course). The season became more like the holiday we know it to be following the ‘Mondayising’ of Christmas and New Year’s days in 1921 (Ministry for Culture and Heritage 2014). During this era, many employers were known to throw company parties for their workers – so what kind of Christmas party is your workplace having this year? The team here at Underground Overground Archaeology is having a picnic in Hagley Park – this was actually a very popular way for workplaces to celebrate Christmas in New Zealand during the 19th century. Picnics required only an open space for spreading the food out and playing games, and parks offered an inexpensive venue that was able to accommodate a large number of people. These annual picnics also acted as an opportunity for employer/employee role reversal – at a company picnic the bosses would socialise with the workers, which wouldn’t have typically happened at the office or factory (Mitchell 1995: 20).

 

Christmas holidays at Wainoni, Christchurch, watching the Punch and Judy show [Jan. 1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0066.

Christmas holidays at Wainoni, Christchurch, watching the Punch and Judy show [Jan. 1906]. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 11, IMG0066.

 

Christmas in the new frontier may have meant an additional challenge for some of these early female settlers who came from the higher social classes of England. Many may have been required to learn to cook for the first time since arriving on new shores – such women would have been accustomed to the services of a cook in England, but the scarcity of servants in New Zealand meant that this luxury was not guaranteed for all (Burton 2013).  Imagine if this year, you had to cook your Christmas dinner using only the cooking equipment that our ancestors used here in the 1800s! We have found a few pieces of food preparation and cooking equipment during our field work – some of these are not too dissimilar to what we use today (often just replacing similar ceramic designs with stainless steel or plastic versions). But something you might not expect is the preparation of your plum pudding in a metal cauldron! Such vessels were not only utilised for witches’ spells or storing leprechaun treasure, but for stovetop cooking as well.

 

A selection of food preparation equipment found in central Christchurch. Clockwise from left: enamel pot, drainer, colander, egg timer?, milk pan.

A selection of food preparation equipment found in central Christchurch. Clockwise from left: enamel pot, drainer, colander, egg timer? and milk pan.

A metal cauldron from central Christchurch. Image: S. Canton. Here is an 1843 exert from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol on how a cauldron like this may have been used to make a traditional Christmas pudding: "Oh! All that steam! The pudding had just been taken out of the cauldron. Oh! That smell! The same as the one which prevailed on washing day! It is that of the cloth which wraps the pudding. Now, one would imagine oneself in a restaurant and in a confectioner's at the same time, with a laundry nest door. Thirty seconds later, Mrs. Cratchit entered, her face crimson, but smiling proudly, with the pudding resembling a cannon ball, all speckled, very firm, sprinkled with brandy in flames, and decorated with a sprig of holly stuck in the centre. Oh! The marvelous pudding!" - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843).

A metal cauldron from central Christchurch. Image: S. Canton. Here is an 1843 exert from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol on how a cauldron like this may have been used to make a traditional Christmas pudding: “Oh! All that steam! The pudding had just been taken out of the cauldron. Oh! That smell! The same as the one which prevailed on washing day! It is that of the cloth which wraps the pudding. Now, one would imagine oneself in a restaurant and in a confectioner’s at the same time, with a laundry nest door. Thirty seconds later, Mrs. Cratchit entered, her face crimson, but smiling proudly, with the pudding resembling a cannon ball, all speckled, very firm, sprinkled with brandy in flames, and decorated with a sprig of holly stuck in the centre. Oh! The marvelous pudding!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843).

 

Arguably, the most useful innovations for the cooking of your traditional Christmas roast dinner would be the coal ranges specifically designed for New Zealand’s sub-bituminous and lignite coal. The Shacklock Orion range, developed in 1873, had a shallow firebox, drawing in extra air to stop the ovens smoking, a problem with previous models. These ovens were hugely successful and remained a popular piece of kitchen equipment until the 1940s (Burton 2013).

 

Advertisement for Orion cooking range. (Southland Times 01/01/1898:1)

Advertisement for Orion cooking range (Southland Times 01/01/1898:1).

 

Another of most helpful of cooking innovations would have been the rotary type egg beater. These first appeared in the 1850s but were popularised by the Dover Egg Beater (patented in 1873). These types of beaters enabled the user beat eggs in five seconds, or to quickly whip the egg whites into stiff peaks (for your pavlova?). Before this time, eggs were beaten in a shallow earthenware pan with two forks strapped together, “a broad-bladed knife or clean switches, peeled and dried”. This was a time consuming arduous task!

 

Advertisement for a rotary style egg beater. (Manawatu Herald 8/06/1880: 1)

Advertisement for a rotary style egg beater (Manawatu Herald 8/06/1880: 1).

 

Lastly, just while we are on the subject of whipping egg whites into stiff peaks at Christmas time – this may be the perfect opportunity to put to rest the trans-Tasman dispute of the origin of the humble pav… In 2008, Professor Helen Leach of Otago University established that in 1929, New Zealand beat out Australia by publishing the first creamy meringue cake recipe called pavlova. An Australian newspaper had published a pavlova recipe slightly earlier, but it was a four layered jelly dessert (Leach 2008).  So argument over? It would seem not. It was rather trendy to name fluffy deserts after Miss Pavlova in the 1920s, but prior to her pirouetting onto our dinner tables in the early 20th century, it seems that the idea of a meringue cake served with fruit and cream was something that the Germans and Americans had been devouring for quite some time. German people who had emigrated to America took with them the idea of a schaum torte (or foam cake). Duryea Maizena (an American cornflour company), ran with this concept and printed a similar recipe to our pavlova on the back of their corn-starch packets, and these were imported into New Zealand as early as the 1890s (Eleven 2015, Otago Daily Times 28/07/1896: 3).  This product was advertised in our newspapers with a very simple yet mysterious advertisement: “Use Duryea’s Maizena” (it’s all about the subliminal messages). Simple yet effective? Maybe with a catchier jingle we would have remembered to attribute this earlier version of pav to Duryea’s, and confined the Christmas bickering to the family dinner table.

 

Merry Christmas!

By Chelsea Dickson

 

 

 

References

Burton, D., 2013. ‘Cooking – Cooking technology’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/cooking/page-1 (accessed 15 December 2016).

Clarke, A., 2007. Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand. Auckland University Press.

Eleven, B. 2015. ‘Pavlova research reveals dessert’s shock origins’. Good Food. [online] available at: http://www.goodfood.com.au/eat-out/news/pavlova-research-reveals-desserts-shock-origins-20151010-gk5yv9

Leach, H. 2008. The Pavlova Story: A Slice of New Zealand’s Culinary History. Otago University Press.

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. 2014. A day off for Christmas. [online] available at: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/christmas-day-holiday, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 8-May-2014.

Mitchell, I. 1995 ‘Picnics in New Zealand During the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries: An Interpretive Study’, MA thesis, Massey University.

Swarbrick, N., ‘Public holidays – Easter, Christmas and New Year’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/public-holidays/page-2 (accessed 12 December 2016).

 

A man & his dream

Today I’m going to tell you about what is possibly my all-time favourite archaeological site (there is another contender, but it doesn’t have any connection to Christchurch or Canterbury so is unlikely to feature here). I reckon this site has pretty well everything going for it: a spectacular location, cool archaeology just lying around waiting to be explored and an excellent story. You see, it’s the story of a person (a man, as it happens, but that’s not that relevant) with a passion, who was determined to pursue their dream. And all of those things come together to form a place and story I love.

The site’s on the true right of the Rangitata River, in the lee of Mt Harper. It’s rugged country, made famous recently by a certain movie trilogy, and made famous in the 19th century by Samuel Butler, although he was on the other side of the river. It’s mountainous, there is a river (obviously) and there are lakes. And lots and lots of tussock. Not so much bush. It’s my kind of place. And there’s snow on the tops. And in winter there’ll be ice. Which is the crucial detail for this story.

Yes, ice.

The Mt Harper ice rink, from the slopes of Mt Harper. Image: K. Watson

The Mt Harper ice rink, from the slopes of Mt Harper. The trees were planted to provide shelter for both the rink and the Barkers. Image: K. Watson

You see, this was also Wyndham Barker’s kind of place (that’s a Barker of the Barkers of jam-making and photography fame). Barker was a man who loved ice skating. Not too much is known about his early life, but his first wife was a Dutch woman and the couple and their children lived in the Netherlands for a time in the 1910s, and the story goes that this is where Barker learned to ice skate. Certainly, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot of places he could have learnt to ice skate in New Zealand.

By the early 1930s, Barker and his second wife were back in New Zealand, and Barker and his two brothers had taken up the Ben McLeod run, on the true left of the Rangitata, just opposite Mt Harper. And Wyndham set about building an ice rink. Not just any ice rink, mind: an outdoor rink, with natural ice (to be fair, this would be the easiest sort of ice rink to build at the time).

Barker strikes me as the sort of person who’d have put a fair amount of thought into just where he was going to build his rink. This was no casual, carefree enterprise. This was a man on a mission, determined to bring the sport he loved to New Zealand. The site he chose was by no means easy to access – today, from Geraldine (the nearest settlement), it still takes over an hour (and a boat ride) to get there. And once you got over the river, there was quite a bit of swampy ground to cover before reaching Barker’s site (just perfect for getting a 4WD stuck in. It’s not an adventure if you don’t get stuck, right?). So the first thing Barker did in the summer of 1931-32 was build a causeway across the swampy ground to his proposed ice rink. And then work got underway on a house for himself and Brenda, his second wife.

The Barkers' house, which lies between the rink and the river, and looks out over the rink (albeit at a distance). The Barkers lived here year round, growing all their own vegetables, in what would have been a particularly harsh environment. Image: K. Watson.

The Barkers’ house, which lies between the rink and the river, and looks out over the rink (albeit at a distance). The Barkers lived here year round, growing all their own vegetables, in what would have been a particularly harsh environment. Image: K. Watson.

In spite of Barker’s careful approach, he got one thing wrong: the site of the first rink he built, in that summer of 1931-32. This site was some 300 m from the base of Mt Harper, and too exposed to the nor’west, which howls down the Rangitata – and rippled the ice. The first rink was prepared by ploughing and working the ground to level it, and building sod walls to contain the water. The causeway from the river bank connected directly to these walls, ensuring that skaters would not get their feet wet (assuming, of course, that they hadn’t got wet feet crossing the river). The great thing is you can still walk across this causeway, should your boat happen to land you in the right place. But it wouldn’t be fieldwork if you didn’t get your feet wet.

The plough used to form the first rink? Who knows, but it was undoubtedly used to form an ice rink. And the roller in the background was no doubt used to level the ground. Image: K. Watson.

The plough used to form the first rink? Who knows, but it was undoubtedly used to form an ice rink. And the roller in the background was no doubt used to level the ground. Image: K. Watson.

From the archaeology (the sod walls survive), we know that the first rink was triangular, and it was fed by a water race that took water from a nearby stream. The flow of water into the rink was controlled by a timber and concrete gate. Getting the flow just right was critical: too much water and it might not freeze. Too little and, well, there wouldn’t be enough ice. Barker was later to perfect a system of getting the ice in just the right condition by slowly building up layers of ice over a number of nights, and keeping it smooth with a Model-T Ford (known as Matilda. Or maybe it was Betsy. Sources disagree.) fitted with a grader blade. Cracks and holes were repaired with hot water. And sometimes the ice was sluiced with water from the hydropower scheme. Yep, you read that right, a hydropower scheme. So they could skate under lights at night, of course. See, isn’t this the best story?

The shed that housed the pelton wheel (which remains inside) for the hydropower scheme. This was installed by the 1938 skating season. Image: K Watson.

The shed that housed the pelton wheel (which remains inside) for the hydropower scheme. This was installed by the 1938 skating season. Image: K Watson.

After the failure of the first rink, Barker rethought his approach, and consequently built a new rink closer to Mt Harper. Oh, and by this time Wyndham and Brenda were living there year-round, in their corrugated iron-clad timber-lined house, with central heating. Well, you wouldn’t want to live in the mountains without central heating, would you? And let’s not forget that Wyndham had lived in Europe, and Europeans are so sensible about home heating. Not only was their house warm, it contained a workshop for repairing skates.

Tools for repairing ice skates, in the Barkers' house, with boxes for storing skates on each side. Image: K. Watson.

Tools for repairing ice skates, in the Barkers’ house, with boxes for storing skates on each side. Image: K. Watson.

It’s not entirely clear how the rink complex developed. It seems like the winter of 1933 might have been a bit of a trial run for the Barkers, after the failure of the previous winter, and that 1934 was the first major public season. By 1936, there were at least two rinks. Over the next few years, these rinks would be subdivided into smaller areas, and there may have been as many as seven rinks at one time, one of which was dedicated to ice hockey. One of the reasons for subdividing the large rinks into smaller areas seems to have been that the ice was no longer freezing as well. An early sign of climate change, perhaps? (This was in the 1940s.)

Along with all those rinks, there were also several buildings, including the White hut, a skate shed, men’s toilets, another toilet block (possibly for the women?!) and a ticket office. By the 1940s (after Barker had sold the rink), there was a shelter for the ice hockey rink and a refrigeration unit (to deal with the diminishing ice situation). This last ultimately ended up at the Centaurus rink in Christchurch. And of course there was the shed for the pelton wheel for the hydropower, installed by 1938.

The door to the White hut. Image: K. Watson.

The door to the White hut. Image: K. Watson.

Let’s go back to the White hut (imaginatively named for its white coat of paint…). This was actually built as a cow byre, for Sissy the cow (true story) – perhaps further evidence of the European influence on the Barkers? Not only did the Barkers drink Sissy’s milk, it was also used in drinks for skaters. In the 1940s, after the Barkers left, the hut was used for accommodation. Now it’s the only weather-proof building at the rink (although not possum-proof…).

In 1946, the Barkers left the rink, gifting it to the people of Canterbury. It was not to last much longer, however, with public use of the rink ceasing in the mid-1950s.

And what remains today? Pretty well everything – you can walk along the sod walls that surrounded the rinks, clamber through the remains of the Barkers’ house and, if you’re feeling energetic, scramble up to the water race that supplied the hydropower scheme. It’s easy to conjure up images of groups of people skating under the stars and lights, with the snow- capped peaks glistening in the distance, the laughter, the friendships formed. For me, it’s a magic place. I hope Wyndham Barker felt that he’d succeeded in his ambitions. Certainly, he left something pretty awesome behind.

Katharine Watson