Where the spirit of Christmas thrives


The spicy scents of cinnamon and cloves greet you when you step inside Karen and Peter Taylor's Ohauiti home. The house is unseasonably warm on what is otherwise a tepid December day.

More than 60 candles, some of them festively aromatic, flicker on tables, windowsills and even the floor.

"It can get pretty hot in here," Karen laughs.

Karen is a self-professed "crazy Christmas lady".

For 20 years, she has collected hundreds of Christmas decorations, most of which have, surprisingly, come from the Salvation Army.

"How much was this one?" she tries to recall, turning over a red and green biscuit tin with the price still on the bottom - 30 cents.

While she has an eye for a bargain, the result is anything but budget.

"I really like olde worlde Victorian. I have done a lot based on Victorian Christmas cards - robins, birds' nests, holly. I love that kind of look," she says. "And I try to make everything really low so when the kiddies come in they can see it at their eye level," she adds, gesturing at a row of soft toys, dominated by teddy bears and angels.

Every year, the Taylors open their house to more than 80 guests, who are treated to a mug of warm mulled apple juice - and a candy cane for the children - as they wander through and admire Karen's handiwork.

Her extensive collection of Christmas decorations fills 20 white plastic storage boxes and it takes her two weeks to put everything in place. She likes to have all the decorations up by November, so visitors have plenty of time to enjoy them, and takes them down the week after Christmas.

Included are two Christmas trees - one with traditional red and gold baubles on it and another "girly" tree with ballerinas, roses, pearls and butterflies.

Karen has also lovingly restored and furnished a doll's house she bought for $10, for little girls to marvel over. And on the sideboard in the lounge is a miniature village, with figurines skating on a frozen pond.

Outside, where 800 fairy lights hang all year, she puts up net curtains to create an outdoor room.

"It's just something I started. When I had kids I wanted to create something they would remember," says Karen, who has three sons, now in their 20s. "Christmas has always been quite magical and special. I love the whole feeling of it. I love that families come together."

Across town, in Brookfield, Nicola Lyons' home is equally Christmassy. But her decorations have a far more modern twist.

"My style of Christmas is definitely a little bit different," she says. "I don't have the typical red, green and gold."

Instead, Nicola has a black Christmas tree, which this year she has decorated with feathers and roses.

"It's more like a French-style look."

Nicola, who speaks to groups about Christmas tree decorating, says she is "passionate about a good looking tree".

"I don't do real trees. I don't like the mess ... they go all droopy and you can't hang decorations on them as well."

Nicola has two little boys, the eldest of which has his own mini Christmas tree in his room.

"He's had a lot of fun playing round with it," she says.

For those whose Christmas tree is their pride and joy and who are reluctant to put up decorations made by little hands, it's a great alternative. In a male-dominated household, where even the cat and dog are male, Nicola says it's her "outlet to have the house pretty".

"I have thought about when the boys are older doing something really fun, like matchbox cars all over the tree."

Other Christmas enthusiasts choose to dazzle with lights.

Alan Davies decorates the exterior of his Mount Maunganui house with more than 10,000 lights, worth about $8000. His collection, which he begins putting up at Labour Weekend, has been built up over the past eight years.

"It started with one tree," he says.

Alan also dresses up as Santa Claus and hands out lollies to children who come to see his Crane St wonderland.

"I've always been a bit of a kid at heart. I love seeing the enjoyment on children's faces."

But it's not exclusively for the young.

"There was one lady who was 97 years old and she made her son bring her every night. She couldn't get out of the car so he drove her backwards and forwards and up the driveway ... she loved it."

Over in Maungatapu, the residents of Plover Place have a combined display to rival Blackpool Illuminations.

The nine-year tradition draws thousands of visitors every year.

It all began when Alan Holloway put up a few lights and neighbour Vicky Barnett suggested others follow suit.

The concept grew, the word spread and it soon became one of Tauranga's main Christmas attractions.

Although the intention was never to raise money, people started asking if they could donate money, so a donation box was put up for Waipuna Hospice, where Alan's wife, Raye, died and where the couple had been volunteers.

In the first year, $750 was donated, growing to $2500 in the third year.

However, Vicky is adamant donating is by no means compulsory. "We just want to give. It's not about collecting money.

"The lights bring us out on to the street. We catch up with lots of friends in the street. I really enjoy it. It makes you feel really good being part of it.

"Everyone's so appreciative."

Over the years, the residents, many of them retired, have shared information, ladders and bulb testers in their quest to make their light displays bigger and better.

Some homeowners in the street have even stipulated in rental agreements that their tenants put lights up at Christmas.

"It does really bring us together," says Vicky.

At Number 7 lives an extremely well-known figure. Listed in the phone book as John Shakespeare (whose father, he tells me, was called William) he is known to children across Tauranga as the "real" Santa. There is no cotton wool beard on this snowy-haired gent, who starts growing his facial hair on September 1.

(Although he admits to a splash of poster paint here and there to whiten up the few remaining dark bits.)

"The kids get hold of it and give it a tug to see if it's real," he laughs, with almost a ho, ho, ho.

Every night leading up to Christmas, John sits outside his house from 8.30pm until 11pm handing out sweets to children and listening to their Christmas wishes.

One year, he dished out 20kg of lollies.

Originally from Liverpool, England, he speaks with a thick Scouse accent but tells the kids it is "North Poleian".

A former television technician, he has fully embraced the spirit of the street, with thousands of lights decorating his house, including a Santa, reindeer and sleigh on his roof.

"There are lights everywhere. Up trees and down trees," he chortles.

He takes me into the garage to show me the complex configuration of plugs and wires that power it all.

By the door stands a pair of white-cuffed gumboots and hanging up in waiting is a red suit.

A high-backed cane chair with lights and Christmas trimmings is also at the ready.

As we squeeze past his shiny red car, I half expect to see elves scurrying about.

I begin to wonder just how a 71-year-old gets up onto the roof to put all those lights in place?

Is he really a retired television technician with a theatrical surname?

Or is it all just an elaborate cover?

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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