Pohutukawa blossom

Christmas is a time for family, friends and gifts. In the Southern hemisphere, it’s also a sign that summer is here. The lead up to Christmas is marked by the end of the school year with prizegivings and Christmas plays. There are office Christmas parties and Secret Santas, with most workplaces closing for a few works. In New Zealand, Christmas heralds the beginning of the summer holidays.

The New Zealand Pohutukawa Tree in bloom on a summer's day with a beach in the background

Christmas traditions in New Zealand

In many ways, Christmas in New Zealand has many of the same traditions as a northern hemisphere Christmas, especially as New Zealand is a former British colony. Santa appears in red and white and comes riding in on his sleigh. In recent years, there has been more effort to create summer variations on the theme, but you’ll there’s still almost always a hint of winter to Christmas décor.

However, there are some traditions that you’ll really only find in a Kiwi Christmas in the summer. In New Zealand, you know Christmas is near when the Pohutukawa trees bloom. Nicknamed the Kiwi Christmas tree, the Pohutukawa blossoms are deep red tying in beautifully with the Christmas tree. The night before Christmas, children leave out a carrot for a Rudolf and cookies for Santa - with bottle of beer instead of the traditional glass of milk (probably a good indication of the importance of beer to New Zealand celebrations).

On the big day itself, people usually gather at family member’s house. Some people go to church, although this isn’t as common as it used to be (and New Zealand generally isn't a very religious country), and some families choose to go to the beach for lunch. It’s also common for people to head away for Christmas, usually somewhere pretty and coastal. Often a Santa will turn up at the hotel or campground with presents for the kids. Regardless, mornings are the time to gather around the tree and open presents.

A table set for Christmas lunch outside
A family enjoying a roast meal for Christmas lunch in New Zealand

Christmas lunch

Lunch is the big meal, and there are usually plans to eat outside. This often happens, but not always, often due to clouds, rain or simply too many flies. The food is usually relatively traditional - think ham, lamb and roast potatoes. Seafood often features too, especially if you have a family member that fishes or dives.

In a nod to the weather, there’s generally a greater emphasis on salads and cooler desserts. Pavlova and trifle appear on almost everyone’s table. It’s not unusual for some of the food to be barbecued or smoked, and beer is definitely a staple.

During lunch, there are Christmas crackers and hats. People inevitably eat and drink too much which leads to a sleepy afternoon – the men in the household often sneak in an afternoon nap. Once the big meal has worn off, someone inevitably suggests a game, often cricket in the backyard. Or the kids will produce their Christmas presents – this is where you discover that all the cousins got water guns and chaos erupts in a big family water fight.

A santa hat hangs on a fence in rural New Zealand

The aftermath

The day after Christmas is Boxing Day – a time for shopping (there are usually good sales) and cricket. In the few days just after Christmas, many people also head on holiday, usually a beach for New Year’s. And there’s plenty of time to relax. New Zealand has an extra public holiday – the Day after New Year’s Day – just in case you need a little bit longer to recover from the festivities.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 16 May 2022

Lake Wakatipu view from Queenstown

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Famous for its natural beauty, New Zealand is a wonderful destination for travellers with a bit of an adventurous streak. A safe and accessible country, you'll find a huge range of activities to keep you busy, particularly if you enjoy the outdoors.