When sales rep Gareth Findon, 32, recalls family Christmases, Boxing Day also stands out as a special time. Gareth's family home in Palmerston North borders the Awapuni Racecourse so Boxing Day meant joining extended family and friends for a day at the races.
"I guess I was about 9 or 10 when I started going along," he says. "It was great - a chance for us kids to run round and have a Coke! And I loved watching the horses."
Fast forward, and attending the Boxing Day races has become such a tradition for the Findon family that up to 50 people now gather at their home, where a marquee goes up so brunch can be cooked and eaten.
The group then walks to the races, arriving in time for the second or third event (the first race is watched on TV at home).
Gareth now lives in Auckland but travels home to "Palmie" every Christmas and says the races provide a superb opportunity to catch up with old schoolfriends, work colleagues and relatives. When he's not in Palmerston North, he enjoys visits to race days at Ellerslie.
"I go to the main events at Ellerslie with friends. The races are a great place to catch up with people, but I like to watch the races, too."
Like the Findons, many families have summer rituals and traditions. It might be holidaying at a favourite beachside campground, taking off for a day on a friend's boat to go fishing at a special spot or going tramping at a specific place. Adding to the summer pantheon of beaches, baches and the bush, a day at the races is becoming an increasingly popular holiday activity because it also offers a chance to create lasting memories.
The Interislander Summer Festival incorporates 40 events at race courses throughout New Zealand, from Boxing Day to February 9. Each festival race day includes live music, free children's entertainment, food and, of course, the races themselves. There's a special emphasis on making it fun for the under-12s with Kids Go Racing entertainment, activities and novelty races. These activities have an equine theme and some put a new twist on old favourites: anyone for a sugar cube and spoon race? How about horseshoe toss or pin-the-tail-on-the-horse?
The famed Ruakaka Races, on Thursday January 3, feature 15 gallop and trot races making it a "dual code" event. In addition, there's live music from Ben and Tau, the Ballistic Blondes skydive onto the race track and the kids' area includes an inflatable slide. If the race day action gets too hot, change into your togs and go for a dip in the surf at nearby Racecourse Beach.
In Thames, the Interislander Summer Festival race day is Saturday January 5.
As well as Kids Go Racing events, there will also be a climbing wall and vertical bungy. A day later and the Te Aroha Trots take place. Jenna Rogers, event manager for the Morrinsville Trotting Club, says there's a greater emphasis than ever on kids' activities. These include Kidz Kartz Races (see sidebar), a chance for youngsters to get up close to ponies, and sulky rides where adults are harnessed to a sulky and pull the kids round the racetrack. Then, as part of Kids Go Racing, there are racing games on the track between horse races. There's even one where the kids bounce around the track on inflatable moon-hoppers. Four days later, Paeroa turns on the action for its festival raceday. Manager Jennifer Stewart says kids especially enjoy the pony and cart rides. Jennifer says the emphasis is on having a relaxed day out: casual summer attire is as dressy as it needs to get.
Meanwhile, in Rotorua on Thursday December 27 and in Taupo on Sunday December 30, there's a celebration of local food and wine. In Taupo, the focus is on prawn delicacies; in Rotorua the food court features hangi in a pie.
Those lucky enough to be holidaying in Tauranga have two opportunities to experience the festival. On Wednesday January 2 it's the gallops then, on Sunday January 27 the Bay of Plenty Harness Racing Club turns on the excitement.
For all Interislander Summer Festival race events see theraces.co.nz.
Advertising industry insider Ally, 25, says she and a group of friends have established a new tradition and go to the Boxing Day races at Ellerslie where they can catch up, socialise and enjoy a multitude of entertainment and, of course, have a flutter on the horses.
"I didn't come from a racing or horsey background but we went along and loved it. We dress up, put the fascinators on, have brunch and then head to the races where we can chat and watch what's going on and listen to the bands. It's a wonderful day out, a special time to catch up with friends you don't see often," she says.
Likewise, Amy McCormick, 24, says she and her friends started going along in their late teens and early 20s and return every year.
"I didn't really know what to expect but I went along and ended up having one of the best days of my life. More and more of my friends are coming now; my older brother and his mates always make a day of it, too. It's definitely become one of the things to do during summer.
"There's a great atmosphere, there's lots to do and it's very social."
And there's plenty of opportunity to have fun at Ellerslie this summer where major events include the New Zealand Herald Christmas Carnival. This begins with Ellerslie's Boxing Day Races, an institution on Auckland's social calendar for 150 years. Admission is free for under 15s and there are so many hospitality and seating options to choose from, everyone in the family is bound to be happy. You can treat yourself, friends and family to a day out in one of Ellerslie's premium reserved hospitality locations or soak up the on-course action from a spot on one of the public lawns or at Beach, Beats & BBQs in the Infield.
To create that beach, the folks at Ellerslie are shipping in more than 2000m2 of sand and 12,000 litres of water plus there's a beach cricket tournament, DJs performing themed sets throughout the day, and if you don't fancy buying food from one of the many stalls, you can use New Zealand's longest barbecue to cook your own. In short, Beach, Beats & BBQs combines a day at the beach with a backyard barbecue, summer sounds, free children's entertainment, chill out areas and horse races taking place just metres away.
There's free entertainment for the kids in the New Zealand Herald Kidzone, which features the Popsicle Planet Roadshow, Ellerslie Swingball Park, giant games, a bouncy castle and a face painter. If fashion is more your thing, Viva Fashions in the Field takes place attracting around 200 contestants and many more dedicated followers of fashion to watch.
If you can't make it on Boxing Day, the action continues on Saturday December 29 with the New Zealand Herald Christmas Carnival Summer Raceway. This is a lower key day out featuring 10 races and free use of a bouncy castle and the Ellerslie Swingball Park for the kids. There's free general admission, too.
On New Year's Day, some of the most hotly-contested races take place. The Carnival finishes on a high with six "black-type" races plus the Dunstan Feed Stayers Final. New Year's Day's premier races include the Group I Sistema Railway Stakes, Group II City of Auckland Cup, Group II Rich Hill Mile, Group II MediaWorks Championship Stakes, Group II New Zealand Bloodstock Royal Stakes and the Group III Stella Artois Eclipse Stakes. There's still free children's entertainment on-course, including the Popsicle Planet Roadshow.
Make sure you get a copy of Herald on Sunday on December 30 for your free general admission ticket to the New Year's Day Races.
The Interislander Summer Festival comes to Ellerslie on Saturday for the first time on January 12. The atmosphere is fun, relaxed and casual with deck chairs, umbrellas, shorts, jandals and picnics the order of the day. As well as the races, there will be music from resident Ellerslie DJ Kieran Bell, free children's entertainment as part of Kids Go Racing, and local food and wine. With entry at $5 per adult and free for children under 15 years, it's a great value day out for families.
The twilight New Zealand Bloodstock Karaka Million is a glamorous way to end Auckland Anniversary Weekend.
Held on the evening of Monday January 28, the Karaka Million Race links back to the National Yearling Sales held at Karaka the previous January. Back then, hundreds of finely-bred 1-year-old horses were sold to new homes in the hopes they would be train, thrive and become the next "big thing" in thoroughbred racing.
So, on Anniversary Day 2013, 14 of the top earning horses from the sales (all now 2-year-olds) race head-to-head in New Zealand's richest race: the $1,000,000 Karaka Million.
Okay, it's not until March but it's worth planning for Auckland Cup Week now.
This is the biggest and most glamorous party held in Auckland and the richest racing event in the country.
Some 350 of the fittest and most beautiful thoroughbred horses in the country will compete during three days of racing for prizes totalling more than $5 million, plus there's the national Fashions in the Field final and loads more entertainment.
For more about events at Ellerslie, see ellerslie.co.nz.