By Professor Peter Lineham

There is an oft-heard lament that Christmas is becoming too commercial.

Horrified at the way in which shops and manufacturers push their products on us from as early as September, while advertisers stuff our mailboxes with their fliers, we long for the good old days when Christmas was a happy family event, with a gentle but inoffensive religious flavour.

Now recipients target the givers to buy specific products, the workplace is full of enforced bonhomie, while references to the season are carefully stripped of religious content.


In very recent years Christmas has arrived in Beijing and Delhi, but as the festival has become global, the desire not to offend has led some to urge a bland celebration of "happy holidays".

I am sceptical of the purveyors of bland goodwill. But I am also doubtful of the call to get back to the pure religious holiday. Because it was never just that.

Christmas has a very mixed history.

Just 50 years ago it was not a festival embraced by all Christians.

Catholics observed midnight mass, and Anglicans expected members to go to communion on Christmas day but Presbyterians, Baptists and most Protestants followed the Puritan and Scottish pattern of not observing Christmas but rather the New Year, regarding all that forced goodwill as rather insincere.

So while Christianity in New Zealand began with a Christmas service in the Bay of Islands, that might not have happened had that particular Christmas Day not been a Sunday.

The tradition of feasting has its origins not in anything religious but in the ancient mid-winter Yule festival which early settlers brought to New Zealand, and which Maori quickly adopted.

In the early years in New Zealand (except in Otago) picnics were very common on Christmas Day but gradually the settlers followed the growing Victorian custom of making it a family feast.


We have forgotten the displays of meat which were so popular in the 19th Century, and we seem to be abandoning the Christmas cards that came in with the introduction of the penny post in 1840.

As for the giving of gifts, there was a tradition of giving to the poor on Boxing Day.

Then came the Christmas tree, (previously a German tradition), and Santa Claus, who as recently as my childhood was known as Father Christmas, and not traced back to Saint Nicholas.

It was 19th Century Americans who combined the two.
Coca-Cola clad him in red as recently as the 1930s and he morphed into the fat man, rather than the Santa sprite that had to go down the chimney with the gifts!

So the modern family Christmas celebration has quite recent origins.

And in the context of our summer sun and holiday season, it all seems somewhat misplaced.

No wonder that I find it hard to fit in all the miscellaneous traditions of the midnight service, the carol singing, the gift purchasing and giving, the Christmas tree, the Christmas lights and the huge meal!

But as usual this year, I will enjoy it all, and then need the summer holidays to recuperate.

Peter Lineham is a professor of history at Massey University, specialising in New Zealand's religious history. He has written about Christmas trends in his chapter "The New Zealand Christmas and the Interweaving of Culture and Religion", in Sacred Histories in Secular New Zealand (Victoria University Press, 2016).