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Growing Up In New Zealand 1925-1950

Part 8 - Looking Back At Christmas
Dorothy - 22/12/00

You can read the previous part in the Growing up in New Zealand 1925 - 1950 series here, or read the articles from the original Growing Up in New Zealand series.

Many of today's children reading about what Christmas was like in the years between 1925 and 1950 would think that it was not very exciting to look forward to, but children then looked forward to Christmas with intense excitement.

For most people it was a time when family gathered together and the best meal of the year was served.

The impact of the Depression in the thirties and of World War 2
Christmas celebrations were much curtailed for most families during the Depression when they could afford only the cheapest foods and during World War 2 when men and women were serving overseas and food and petrol were rationed. Families waited around the radio for Christmas messages which were broadcast from some of the men and women in the forces. Christmas cakes were made and sent from New Zealand to those overseas in the hope that the merchant ships would arrive safely and avoid enemy attack. Most parents still tried to make Christmas meaningful for children with simple but happy celebrations.

The Festive Season's chores
The Christmas season was a time of stress for adults, especially the women. Not only were there presents to buy, often to make, parcels and a few cards to send, and Christmas food to prepare, but it was also the time when berry fruits ripened and had be to picked and made into jam. Blackcurrants ripened in most gardens around Christmas and had to be picked, most often on Boxing Day. But this wasn't all. It was the time of the great New Zealand shut-down when many firms closed down and their staff went on holiday with their families. This meant that the mother in the family was also making ready the clothes to be worn on holiday, and perhaps packing up and preparing the food to be taken on holiday, often camping or at the beach. There were no freezers to allow for preparing well in advance.

Shopping had to be done in far fewer shopping hours than are available nowadays. Until 1945 shops were open on Saturday mornings, but for thirty five years after that there was no Saturday shopping in most places.

When Christmas Day was on a Monday, as it is this year, all shopping had to be done by closing time at midday on Saturday or later on by closing time at 9 p.m. on Friday night. The shops would remain closed until the day after Boxing Day. Grocery stores did not sell meat, and the butchers did not usually have a late night. Very few homes had a refrigerator, but some had an ice chest. Usually the meat was stored in a safe (a ventilated cupboard on the shady side of the house), in a ventilated metal safe hanging under a tree in the shade, or in a container in a tub with running water to keep the meat cool.

Presents and cards
Most families had little money to spare. Children were encouraged to make their Christmas presents and cards. Many women sewed articles for gifts.

The postman - always a man - delivered the mail twice a day through a slot in the front door of the house.

Christmas in the shops
Christmas promotions were much shorter. Helen O remembers working in a shop as a holiday job and helping put up the decorations about two weeks before Christmas. She also remembers that when she lived in Timaru as a young child the great treat was to window shop in Stafford Street, the main street in the town, and marvel at the decorated shops and the lights and watch out for people throwing little crackers at her heels as a Christmas prank.

Visiting Father Christmas
Father Christmas could be found in a few stores though there were no Christmas processions at this time. Zoe remembers her sister climbing on Santa's knee, asking for her present, and also saying that he was not to bring a present to her sister because she had been naughty!

Carol singing
The Salvation Army bands used to present Christmas Carols in the central city and often touring the suburbs in an open truck. Church choirs would often go carolling particularly outside elderly people's homes. Nurses sang carols in the wards of the hospitals.

Towards the end of the period, community carol singing on the banks of the Avon River in Christchurch first began. It continues to this day.

Church services
Helen remembers that after the shops closed at 9 p.m. she would be taken home and told to have a short sleep before being wakened to go to the Catholic church for a Midnight Mass. The priests also said two Masses on Christmas morning.

Anglican churches had services on Christmas Day, but most Nonconformist churches did not introduce Christmas Day services until after this period.

Father Christmas's visit
Few families had a Christmas tree or decorated their houses, but most children hung up a stocking or pillow case at the foot of the bed. Joan B remembers getting an orange, an apple and what she especially wanted - a round container of coloured pencils which fitted neatly into the stocking. Lawrie remembers getting an apple and an orange and a small present and, great riches, a shilling in the toe of the stocking. Stewart remembers being greatly excited when he found in his small stocking some lollies, an orange, a banana, two apples and some fancy socks. He says that there may have been other trinkets, but he was especially thrilled with the fancy socks.

Zoe remembers opening the parcels on Christmas morning. She remembers finding an orange, something new to wear, and a book. The book was often one in a series of Annuals called The Wonder Book. One year it was The Wonder Book of Animals, another of Flowers, another of Children. She vividly recalls the desolate feeling when she had opened all her parcels and thought, "I've got to wait a whole year before I can do this again."

Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner usually consisted of roast lamb or chicken (which was rarely eaten at any other time), new potatoes and fresh green peas. Podding the peas on Christmas morning was usually a shared chore for the family. Most people had bigger families than they do today, and Daisy remembers podding peas for thirteen people. Helen's father asked them to whistle as they podded the peas. That way more of the peas reached the pot!

Popular desserts were trifle, fruit salad and traditional Christmas pudding, often made wrapped in a cloth and boiled in the copper. These were usually made well ahead of Christmas and sometimes hung on the clothesline in their cloths. An exciting treat was to find in your helping one of the boiled threepences or even sixpences in the pudding. As Tom pointed out, in those times silver currency WAS made of silver. A dish of raisins and almonds was another Christmas treat.

Christmas dinner was usually eaten in the middle of the day, and many people had a rest afterwards because they had eaten such a large meal. Frank recalls one year when he was lying on the lawn after dinner, growing rather drowsy, and was awakened by an earthquake!

In the evening there was high tea. Zoe recalls going to her grandparents for Christmas tea with all the aunts, uncles and cousins. Contrary to the usual custom her grandparents arranged for the adults to have their meal first. With Christmas being in the summer in New Zealand the children were sent out to play in the garden. Although they had eaten a large meal in the middle of the day they went straight to the gooseberry bushes and feasted on sweet ripe gooseberries. Looking back she thinks her grandfather would have been rather upset when he went to look at his garden the next morning. The soil usually looked "as if it had been put through a flour sifter", but near the gooseberry bushes it would have been trampled on and covered with the skins the children threw on the ground as they ate the fruit.

Country Christmases
Ada remembers that her grandfather was Vice President of the Leeston Pipe and Brass bands. On Christmas Eve there would be a party for the bands. They would play on the lawn at his home and then a supper of home-baked food would be served in the house.

On Christmas Day the extended family would sit down to Christmas dinner at long tables in the grain shed. There was ample food and there were plenty of leftovers. Ada remembers a swagger coming up the drive and asking for food. Her aunt gave him a huge plateful. He took it down the long drive to a hollow near the gate where other swaggers joined in the special meal.

Stewart remembers two families sharing Christmas at different houses. At his uncle's house there was a billiard room. The table would be covered and set for dinner. It seated twenty four and the family "dined royally".

In his family and Ada's after the meal there were sports and lolly scrambles for the children. Stewart's uncle had a tennis court and a pool, which was a large hole dug at the bottom of the garden and filled with water diverted from the stock race.

Boxing Day
On the day after Christmas most people were on holiday in the towns, and picnics were popular. Many families set out on holiday. On the farm it was a busy season and everyone went back to work.

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