KIWI SANTA MISHAP

In 1642, Abel Tasman’s crew celebrated the first Christmas dinner in New Zealand with freshly killed pork from the ship’s menagerie along with extra rations of wine. In 1769 while James Cook was exploring New Zealand, his crew celebrated Christmas by feasting on ‘goose pye’ made with gannet.

When European settlers arrived in New Zealand in the early 19th century, Christian missionaries brought the religious festival of Christmas with them.  Santa Claus made his commercial debut in the young colony in 1894 when he took his place beside a tree in the toy section in the Wellington DIC Department Store on Lambton Quay.

SANTA ARRIVES

Competing against the DIC, George and Kersley Ltd went one step further with their Santa by hosting New Zealand’s first Santa Parade in 1905. The store invited local boys and girls to come and see ‘Mother and Father Christmas’ arrive at the railway station. The following year the Christmas parents appeared in the Hutt Valley and Petone en-route to the store in Lambton Quay, whilst another character, Punch, visited local suburbs and the hospital.

Other department stores in towns around New Zealand quickly saw the promotional potential in Santa Parades and over the next two decades they invented increasingly elaborate ways to promote their Santa’s arrival. Arrivals by car or train soon bored the public who wanted more drama in the parades. Christchurch store Armstrong’s had their Santa arrive on an elephant, while Farmers Trading Store in Auckland had their man arrive by plane before travelling by car to their store.

SANTA’S DRAMATIC FALL

In 1937, Auckland Farmers came up with what they were sure would be a truly dramatic arrival by getting Santa to parachute down onto the excited crowd. On the 20th November, George Sellars, dressed as Santa, narrowly escaped serious injury when he was able to swing his parachute away from the glass roof of the Winter Gardens as part of the store’s Christmas Parade.

The plan was for Santa to land on the Auckland Domain and distribute toys to waiting children. The plane he parachuted from was flying just 300m (980feet) above the Domain which was low enough for the excited spectators below to see him standing on the wing waiting to jump. Remember, at this time aircraft were still mechanical marvels and not many people had ever flown in one.

It was reported later that Sellars was only a few seconds from smashing into the glass roof when he was able to alter the parachute’s trajectory. He fell heavily into a garden patch between two hothouses, almost hitting two gardeners. As he watched his Santa heading for the glass roof, Farmers manager, Robert Laidlaw, thought, ‘I’m going to be the first man to kill Santa Claus’. Sellars managed to limp to a shelter and adjust his beard before bravely returning to help distribute the gifts.

SANTA PARADES EXPAND

By the end of the 1930s, Santa Parades had become exciting and colourful. Fairies and giants appeared as Santa assistants, along with storybook characters. In Farmers first Auckland Santa Parade in 1934 Santa was accompanied by the  Fat Boy, The Man that Walks on his Hands as well as an actor playing popular movie star Harold Lloyd, not to forget the Giant and the Big Fiddle. The following year, local competitor George Court paraded their Santa with the Boop family of Giants.

The Second World War brought a halt to the parades. But by 1948 Farmers had reinstituted their Auckland parade, and Hay’s in Christchurch held their inaugural parade with a series of floats depicting popular nursery rhymes and seasonal themes.

The next few decades were a period of relative stability for Santa Parades. The largest department stores in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin mounted parades with Farmers in Auckland, James Smith’s in Wellington and Hay’s in Christchurch presenting the most extensive events. A small number of the elaborate floats created for these events still appear in Santa parades today. Many of the traditions established during this period, such as Santa being preceded by a number of other acts, have remained in the modern Santa Parade.

Between 1989 and 1991 the longstanding parades in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch were taken over by charitable trusts as they had become too expensive for individual stores to mount. Since then, they have become more overtly commercial as the trusts sell the naming rights to both the entire parade and individual floats and characters. The parades now include a broad range of community and voluntary groups participating alongside local businesses and traditional floats. They also rely heavily on commercial sponsors to make up the cost of staging the event.

Santa Parades in the main cities remain elaborate affairs involving a broad range of floats and acts, as well as thousands of participants and volunteers. They also attract hundreds of thousands of spectators and cost many thousands of dollars to mount. It is comforting to know that the New Zealand Santa Parade remains a much-loved tradition and it just wouldn’t be Christmas without them.

Ceidrik Heward