About a third of you, Gentle Readers, are based in the Northern Hemisphere, where the church calendar was born and raised: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and so on, until Advent begins another church year again.
That means that your wintry Advent is naturally an expectant, waiting time that builds to the celebration of Christmas Day feasting, and a fortnight of Christmassy delights.
I, however, one of the two-thirds of the Sacraparental community based in the Southern Hemisphere, was always a bit hazy about the Twelve Days of Christmas as a child. I don’t think I realised the song meant the twelve days starting from Christmas Day until I was at least a teenager, if not an adult. In New Zealand, Christmas Day is the last day of Christmas.
All of December is celebratory here. As I’ve no doubt said before, it’s not only the end of the calendar year and the home of Christmas, but also the last month of the school year and the beginning of the whole country’s annual holidays.
In New Zealand, December is jam-packed with parties and functions. Every group and society has an end-of-year celebration these days (I don’t remember it being quite so mandatory a decade or two ago, but I may be wrong). There’s the ballet concert, the Scouts break-up, the book group dinner, orchestra drinks and any number of school Prizegivings before you even get to the work Christmas dos, which also seem to be getting more elaborate.
Our Taranaki pastors’ cluster used to have our Christmas lunch for pastors and their spouses in November to avoid the press.
If you’re churchy, there’s also a range of Advent and Christmas (the two mix and mingle here) services and events. You might go and hear Nine Lessons and Carols at an Anglican church, or join crowds at an outdoor Carols by Candlelight community singalong, or tour the Franklin Road Christmas house decorations (where I snapped the photo below), or attend a glorious performance of Messiah (thanks, Anna, for your one which I was delighted to hear this year!). Sundays are a bustle of excitement, crammed with end-of-year thankings, unique local traditions about decorations, songs and attire, and of course, the compulsory, delightful, kids’ Nativity play – about which, more in a moment.
Here, all of those get rolled into one happy, crowded month, because come Christmas week, we’re all on holiday. Truly, all of us. The odd nurse, engineer or police officer has to cover the essentials, and if you work in hospitality or tourism, the extra wages due on public holidays may see you serving flat whites to holiday-makers or emptying campground rubbish bins as usual, but most offices and non-retail businesses close entirely for between two and four weeks.
We’re staying at a campground with the whanau this week, and even had Christmas Day itself here, which is a little unusual, both in our family and in Aotearoa generally, where most people are with extended family, based at a house or bach, on Christmas Day. The camp was about a quarter full yesterday (the 25th), but from tomorrow (the 27th) it is completely booked out.
So you see why most churches are deserted for the next few weeks. We’re all at the beach.
The exceptions will be places like Christ Church in Russell, where we had the pleasure of sitting in the front pew on Christmas morning, so we could see the priest, organist and Advent candles – tealights suspended in a Southern Cross constellation – close up.
Judging by the overlap between the good-natured participants of their lovely Nativity Play, the readers and ushers, their cheerful, kind and welcoming congregation is normally small – Russell’s resident population in 2006 was 816 – but the church, the oldest in New Zealand, was packed that day. But it probably won’t be this Sunday, especially if it’s sunny.
Today is Boxing Day and Christmas is over for most of New Zealand. We’ve been singing carols and trying to ignore the Christmas muzak in shops for weeks. Shops are flogging off merchandise at Record Low Prices! Wherever we ate our ham or turkey, we’ve since left the Christmas decorations at home (except for my very festive parents, who have strung tinsel and Christmas lights outside their caravan and hung a wreath from the window latch). We may be eating leftovers and reading our newly unwrapped books, but otherwise the dominant mood is not celebration, but holiday.
There’s no arguing with this, really. But for those of you in the wintry North, who are just beginning the Christmas season (though shopping is no doubt pushing things earlier for you these days too), and for us in the South, who could still do with some relaxed, engaging Christmas reflections, do I have a treat for you.
St Paul’s Anglican Church in central Auckland is blessed to have some very artistically and technically talented people who have made their annual children’s Nativity play into a delightful video phenomenon. Below are all four of their now world-famous Christmas productions. My favourite is still the first – you may like to watch it both first and last!
So: Merry Christmas, Kiwis and friends elsewhere Down Under!
Enjoy the bountiful, beautiful outdoors. Thank God for each drop of summery goodness. May your toes in the sand and water wiggle in worship of the Creator.
Happy Christmas, Northerners!
Draw closer to each other for warmth against the cold and all that ails us moderns. Thank God for those who love you, for those whom you love, and for the blessing of good food. May the outdoor darkness be lit by roaring fires and wondrous (at least to Kiwis) central heating, and by the Light of the World.
I’m on blog-holiday for a couple of weeks, pottering around Northland with the whanau. But there are 250-odd posts on here to keep you fed, should you be keen on some Sacraparental snacking in the meantime. 2013’s New Year’s Guides (from grammar to cloth nappies to beating smoking) might be a good place to start fossicking around!