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).
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.
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…
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 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.
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).
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!
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.
By Chelsea Dickson
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).