Key Points:

If you love nostalgia, wallow away in this charming survey of "Kiwi Christmas celebrations" from the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington.

Chief librarian Chris Szekely explains in the introduction that Ell's selection spans three centuries, starting with Sydney Parkinson's engraving of the flower, stem and bud of a metrosideros tomentosa (pohutukawa) from 1769, ending with Chris Slane's Christmas day in Auckland, showing Santa-dad outside cooking on the BBQ in the pouring rain.

Let's hope that doesn't happen next week. Ell has drawn on the library's vast and varied collections of drawings, prints, photos, books, Christmas cards, and even a Christmas Day menu, so it's a social history of a very young colonial country. There's a back story to the handpainted Christmas cards made by John Philemon Backhouse in the 1880s, offering "Xmas Greetings from the Land of the Manuka".

English-born Backhouse came here via Australia and served with the Waikato Militia to "defend European-held territory during the New Zealand wars". For his efforts, he was given a land grant. Wanganui printing firm A.D. Wills specialised in producing scenic Christmas cards to send back "home".

In 1886, the Mt Tarawera eruption inspired the production of five cards devoted to "before and after" images of the volcano and the destroyed Pink and White Terraces. In 1893, the prospect of women being allowed to vote prompted artist William Blomfield (an artist for the NZ Herald) to create a cartoon on "Some Good Old Christmas Customs Reversed by the Female Franchise", depicting frazzled men slaving away in the kitchen.

Premier Richard Seddon sent Christmas cards to New Zealand men serving in the Boer War in 1899; Seddon's photo on the card was appropriately stern, considering he had sent 6500 men to war, of whom around 200 died in battle or accidents, or of disease. The 1911 Christmas Day menu from the T.S.S. Ulimaroa, a steamer which criss-crossed the Tasman Sea, features delights such as Turbans d'Anchois, boiled moki, lamb sweetbreads, roast sucking pig (sic), and roasted beef, lamb, turkey, goose and pheasant, ending with a plum pudding, gateaux au cognac and, quite possibly, nausea.

The images take a darker turn when they enter the years of World War I, with photos of two soldiers in a dug-out in Gallipoli, 1915, just days before the Allied withdrawal after eight months of hell. A "Cheerio from France" was sent by "Bob, somewhere in France, 4.11.18", a week before Armistice.

We enter the 1930s, the age of radio, cinema and shopping, with images that include the "Xmas Shopper's Gift Giver's Guide", and a holiday timetable for the South Island trunk line and the Lake Wakatipu steamer service in 1934-35. See "the Pinhead Chinaman", a "man with the head the size of an orange" and the "troup of Clever Chinese" at the Evans Bay Xmas Carnival in 1938, before we lapse into war again and a fine photo of Anglican Padre J.T. Holland conducting a Christmas Day service in Libya, 1942.

The next page shows photos of the Maori Battalion at Maadi Camp, Egypt in 1943. And so it goes on: the Queen greeting Father Christmas at Government House on Christmas Day, 1953; rumming the Christmas pudding at Campbell Island, 1959; Christmas at the Hermitage, 1963 ("Timaru crayfish in the shell" accompanied by McWilliams NZ Bakano red wine); Charles Fleming's 1970 "Save the Manapouri" card; and a photo from the Evening Post from 1977, showing kids running out through the Karori Normal School gate with such glee on their faces. It's the "start of the school holidays".

By flicking through this book, you learn so much about the minutiae of New Zealand history - without even noticing. Highly recommended.

A New Zealand Christmas
By Sarah Ell (Random House $49.99)