Last year was our first white Christmas, spent high in the Austrian Alps. It snowed on Christmas Eve and we spent a week in the bosom of warm Austrian hospitality – candlelight feasting, skiing and tobogganing . It was such an enchanting and different experience that I feared that returning to normal – no matter how good to be with all the family again – would be a disappointment.
Then, while hanging out the washing the other day (bear with me) I looked up to see the blood-red blooms of the pohutukawa tree at the neighour-two-doors-over.
Boom. It was like a wee Christmas elf had waved a magical pine wand and transported me to the beach.My head was suddenly full of sand, sea, strawberries, blue skies, sunblock, ice creams, chilli bins, Christmas cake, Christmas nuts, Christmas pudding, leftover pavlova, barbecue, bare feet and eating outside on the longest days of the year.
It was a powerful reaction and it delighted me because I had no idea how closely I associated the pohutukawa with Christmas and summer.
The pohutukawa, if you’ve never been to New Zealand, is a native tree found on the coast of the warmest parts of the country where its craggy, wandering and ever-so-briefly flowering branches provide much needed shade from the savage South Pacific sun.
If the pohutukawa blooms at Christmas you are in for a long hot summer. It’s a fact that has nothing to do with meteorologists and computer-generated weather patterns.
And that’s why, during the most manic month of the New Zealand calendar – when school is breaking up and the social calendar is full and there are Christmas preparations and summer holiday preparations and gifts to buy and pack and Christmas cards to send – if you see a pohutukawa in bloom, you are reminded that the rush will be over in just a few days and you will go to the beach. Even if it’s a city beach. Even if it’s just for the afternoon. Life is about to slow down.
It’s not just the pohutukawa that put you in the mood. It’s also the strawberries. You don’t just see them in the shops at this time of year. There are market stalls all over town and the countryside too. It is so New Zealand. It’s so Christmas. Didn’t miss it at all last year but it is lovely to come back to.
These quirks of the summery antipodean Christmas have put me in a cheerful frame of mind and I see around me all manner of kindnesses and courtesies – among friends, neighbours and complete strangers – despite all the things the radio is saying about the mess that the world is in.
A young Muslim woman in a department store a couple of days ago wished me a Merry Christmas with the warmest smile and we both laughed when I stumbled over exactly what to wish her. I left the store with my eyes prickling. I know that the world is falling to pieces but not completely. Not yet.
On Christmas morning while the boys were engrossed in their Santa sack goodies, I put on my pohutukawa Christmas dress (it’s getting tighter every year but I can still breathe) and a pendant made from greenstone that has been in my family for generations and settled down to enjoy a thoroughly red New Zealand Christmas with the boys and Sabbatical Man and his parents and all the cousins and aunties and uncles on his side of the family.
We’re currently on the road, heading south to attend our second Christmas dinner, with my side of the family.
My parents live at the beach near a much bigger volcano than the one I live next to and just up the hill from the most beautiful pohutukawa I know – smack in the middle of the skatepark in the reserve across from the surf club.
There will be turkey tonight, and cousins and aunts and pavlova and Christmas pudding and lots of talking and not so much listening and hopefully we will end the day with an evening walk on that black sandy beach. It will be a typically New Zealand Boxing Day Christmas and it will be great.
Seasons greetings to all you lovely people – I wish you bucketloads of happiness, health and adventure in the year ahead.