Counties-Manukau essays

Christmas in the nineteenth century

Bruce Ringer


We sometimes think of Victorian times as somewhat grim and cheerless, perhaps influenced by the fact that most engravings and photographs from those days are in black and white. In reality, the times were no less colourful, hardly less playful, and certainly more innocent, than our own. It’s worth recalling a few notable local Christmases from the past.

On Christmas Eve 1858 the Maori residents of Patumahoe put on a Christmas feast in honour of their new European neighbours and settlers. The hosts served their guests with all kinds of delicacies, and made sure they were content, before sitting down to the leftovers themselves.

In 1863, in the shadow of war, a group of Germans in the Waikato Militia celebrated Christmas Eve at the newly built Howick stockade. Much to the delight of the Howick residents, they celebrated in Bavarian style, putting up a large Christmas tree, exchanging presents, and singing Christmas carols. The following day their colleagues at the Miranda and Esk redoubts celebrated Christmas with a church parade followed by sporting events (the celebrations at Miranda were the quieter, since the officer in command impounded all supplies of beer).

In 1864 the settlers at Drury held their first Boxing Day sports. The events included a cricket match, foot races and sack races. Similar events were held about this time at Papakura, Port Waikato and Waiuku.

Pollok, on the Manukau Peninsula, was generally thought of as a sober Presbyterian community. On Christmas Day, 1870, however, some of the more secularly-minded residents gathered on the nearby west coast beach, erected an awning, and enjoyed their Christmas dinner al fresco. They picnicked on large roasts of turkey and beef, all kinds of vegetables, and large tranches of bread. The young men present then opened a few bottles of beer and held a shooting competition (in that order). Games and dancing followed, before supper and songs completed the festivities.

Most rural localities at the time organized community gatherings for the day after Christmas or around New Year’s Day. The first Mauku and Patumahoe sports, for instance, held in 1869, included a wide variety of competitive events: horse races, foot races, wheelbarrow races, sack races, climbing a greasy pole, catching pigs with soaped tails. The Mauku sports continued to be held each year for more than a century. In some communities the tradition of an annual sports day survives even to the present day.

For more information: see Manukau’s Journey.

Publication record: first published in Connexions, no. 99, December 2008, p. 5. Revised and corrected for publication on the Manukau Libraries website in September 2009.

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