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Goose pye and panto

Three centuries of New Zealand Christmases past.

The first Christmas Day in New Zealand's history was celebrated in 1642 by Abel Tasman, breaking out the roast pork and wine for his sailors off D'Urville Island. As he lacked the foresight to leave us any drawings of the occasion, however, the earliest image we can associate with Christmas in New Zealand is Sydney Parkinson's 1769 sketch of a pohutukawa sprig.

Of Christmas Day 1769 aboard the Endeavour, Joseph Banks noted that: "Our Goose pye was eat with great approbation and in the Evening all hands were as Drunk as our forefathers usd to be upon the like occasion." Started as we meant to go on, then.

Sarah Ell has taken a plunge into the Alexander Turnbull Library's ephemera and photographic collections and surfaced with an offbeat Christmas miscellany: a sketch portrait of how New Zealanders have eaten, drunk, worshipped or partied away the festive season over the past 240 years. A New Zealand Christmas is a portrayal based on a bran-tub of illustrative material that has fetched up in a single public collection; and although this means it's neither a narrative nor perhaps even a representative choice, its flaky serendipity has charms of its own.

The format is simplicity itself - a full-page illustration of each library artefact is faced by 200-300 words of background text. Repeat 99 times. Result: a hundred diverse aspects of Christmases past. The relationship between items is not teased out. The evolution of national attitudes towards family, shopping, food, entertainment and religion can be glimpsed as patchwork pieces, but it is left to the reader to stitch them into a quilt.

Early New Zealand Christmas cards seem designed to amaze the folks at Home. This collection includes hand-painted cards from Nicholas Chevalier, Isabel and Frances Hodgkins, HG Robley, and Kennet Watkins depicting gee-whiz scenes of life in the exotic new colony where Christmas was a summer feast. Marvel, freezing British, at a jolly Christmas Day picnic amid the tree ferns, a church decorated with toetoe or Mt Tarawera luridly erupting.

Not only the seasons were upside down Downunder. By the 1890s, New Zealand's daring social reforms impinged on Christmas, with cartoonist William Blomfield predicting that Yuletide customs would be reversed by the folly of female franchise. His down-trodden paterfamilias, in lace pantaloons and a pinny, struggles to serve Christmas pudding while his idle wife urges their children to show gratitude for Papa's slavery over a hot stove.

With the advent of sophisticated chromolithography in the early 1900s, Christmas cards move from artisan to mass market. The very essence of a New Zealand Christmas image is now a winsome Maori maiden and a spray of manuka. But there are hints the days of the pure and wholesome may be numbered. Although the sentimentality of Edwardian cards ("The sweet and gracious time is here, To every gentle heart so dear ...") and the refinement of a modest advertising flyer from Wellington's DIC still seem innocent enough, the rot was setting in. In 1903, Wellington's Christmas panto, The House that Jack Built, featured Mammon, "the evil spirit of the age". Mammon flexes his muscles during the early 1930s, with the Xmas Shoppers' & Gift Givers' Guide, a booklet from a group of Christchurch retailers flogging shiny new household wares. The marketing boys have dropped the frankincense to focus on the gold.

Religious observance makes a desperate stand in 1942 with a photograph of Padre Holland improvising a Christmas altar for the troops on the beach at Nofilia, Libya. After that, Santa rules the imagery.

The final image is Chris Slane's tart Christmas Day in Auckland (1992), where a family gaze out the window at a stoic Santa, standing in pouring rain by the rotary clothesline, barbecuing Christmas dinner. Choice.

Though strong on cards, Ell's selection also includes menus, programme covers for Christmas performances, sheet music, tourist brochures, cartoons, photos of Christmas activities - post office mail sorters, making figgy pudding on Campbell Island, Santa promoting children's health camps - and the Tangiwai disaster. Of special interest is wartime material from soldiers serving overseas, marking the holy season by digging hangi in the Egyptian desert, or, in the case of officer prisoners of war in Oflag VIIB in Bavaria, dragging up for a fully costumed panto.

For a fuller story of how earlier generations celebrated Christmas locally, you'll also want to visit Alison Clarke's more conventional history Holiday Seasons: Christmas, New Year and Easter in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand (2007) or the classic A Christmas Garland by Shirley Maddock and Michael Easther (1980).