Tuesday, December 14, 2021

White Wine in the Sun

It's sand not snow for Christmas in New Zealand

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone. 

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening, In the lane, snow is glistening ..."

With more than 200 cover versions, ranging from classics like Big Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald to modern takes from Michael Buble and Radiohead, since it was first sung in the 1930s, those first lines of "Winter Wonderland" have become synonymous with Christmas across films, television shows, radio, and just shopping at this time of year. 

Growing up in New Zealand it was always kind of amusing that so much of the Christmas theming was wintry - snow, sleighs, chestnuts roasting over open fires, Jack Frost nipping at toes. And yeah, folks dressed up like 'Eskimos' (Inuit, if Nat King Cole had written "The Christmas Song" nowadays rather than in 1961). 

Because in New Zealand (like for our friends in Australia, South Africa, and other Southern Hemisphere climes), the holiday season was far from snowy. The only soft white stuff under our feet was sand on the beach. The nights were light until late, a great time for swimming up the river or at the beach or hanging out with friends, and barbeques were a favourite evening meal. So maybe "sausages roasting over open fires, sand flies nipping at your toes."

A more typical Kiwi meal during the festive season

I have a lot of fond memories of this time of year growing up in New Zealand. Unlike our friends in the UK and US, not only was it the 'opposite' season to what we saw on Christmas cards and in festive movies like Home Alone or National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, it was also the end of the school year. The time between one school year and another, actually occurring at, you know, the end of the calendar year rather than in the middle. So Christmas was part of a six-week long summer holiday (longer when I was at high school or university). 

With the long days full of sunshine and the light nights were the outdoors was still a playground until late, it was a time when you felt you had plenty of time: to relax, to explore, to spend with friends and family. All of this felt completely normal, but as young Kiwis we were aware that things were different in the US, UK, and elsewhere in the northern hemisphere - thanks to the Christmas cards, Christmas songs, and Christmas movies. 

My first full-on Christmas in the snow, in northern Finland in 2012

So when I had my first 'northern' Christmas in 2009, in Koln, Germany, it wasn't too jarring. It was a fun, different, experience. Ditto my Christmas in Lapland in 2012, where I made snow angels and went reindeer sledding, along with cross-country skiing, dog sledding and nightly hunts for the Northern Lights. I've also had wintry Christmases in Belgium (great markets and tours of the Western Front) and the UK in recent years. 

But even when I spent Christmas itself in the wintry north, I would most often still have many weeks of summer in New Zealand either side of that (either because I was living there, or more recently to visit family and friends during the holiday season, even if I spent Christmas Day and that week itself in the UK - eg volunteering with Crisis, a tremendous charity fighting homelessness - before heading 'home' for some summery times.)

Summery Santa in 2013 - a run through by the vineyards to kickstart Christmas Day 

The funny thing is though, that while I've found most Kiwis and Aussies I know quite enjoy a Christmas or two in the north - getting to experience all those wintry things we grew up seeing from afar in movies and books - even if we prefer the summer festive seasons of our youth, that many of my northern friends get completely discombobulated by spending the festive season Downunder. 

Even if they like it, it's just 'too weird' for them to grasp. 

I guess that makes sense, given that while we've experienced wintry Christmases vicariously as kids, while enjoying the realities of summery Santa time, the idea of a summer Christmas with beaches and barbecues and sunshine and heat is just so very foreign for more of my American and European friends. It's not like you get summery Santa cards or films to watch as kids, even though a good chunk of the world actually has a non-wintry Christmas. 

I was reflecting on the whole 'summer Christmas' thing over the weekend, when an Aussie pal of mine, the terrific crime writer Emma Viskic (award-winning series starring deaf private eye Caleb Zelic) tweeted about the Tim Minchin song "White Wine in the Sun". I'm a fan of Tim Minchin, from his silly songs to his more thoughtful ones - well many are both -  he's a rather brilliant composer and artist (he was a musical comedian who more recently has written the musicals for Matilda and Groundhog Day). So I was aware of this song, and it was a Christmas favourite in recent years. And a rarity: an antipodean Christmas song about a summery version of this time of year. 

Unfortunately due to the pandemic, I once again won't be spending the holiday season with friends and family back in New Zealand, which is a bit tough, to be honest. In the first forty years of my life, while I had several Christmas Days abroad, I only had two years where I wasn't back 'home' at all over the southern summer months - once when I was doing a yearlong backpacking trip through the Americas and had Christmas in southern Patagonia, and my first year in the UK when I was waiting four months for a visa decision so couldn't travel at all. Usually, even if I'm volunteering with the homeless in London on Christmas Day I'll be on a plane back to New Zealand soon after to spend New Years and a few weeks more with friends and family. Not this year, unfortunately. Three in a row now. 

A Kiwi books pal, who used to run Penguin publishers in New Zealand, gave me a few 'Kiwi Christmas' kids picture books for Miss Almost-Seven when she was Miss One (eg A Kiwi Jingle Bells, A Kiwi Night Before Christmas), so we'll enjoy re-reading those again this year, to get a wee taste of summer Christmas along with plenty of Zooms with friends and family. Classic Christmas songs adapted for a summer setting, quite fun and clever. 

A summery twist on the usual Christmas carols

So, to finish up, I hope you all have a really wonderful festive season, wherever you're spending it. If you get to be with those closest to you, cherish and enjoy it, despite any bickering or holiday stresses. If you're in Aotearoa or Australia or anywhere else south of the equator, enjoy the beaches and barbecues and raise a glass of white wine in the sun, for me. Hopefully we'll be able to join you next year. 

Oh and PS, every year Tim Minchin donates all proceeds from any sales of his "White Wine in the Sun" song that occur during the festive season (November-January) to an autism charity. So if you like it too, nab it on Apple Music, Amazon, or wherever, and support a good cause. It is a time of giving, after all. 

Happy holidays, and Meri Kirihimete everyone! 

The pohutukawa, or 'New Zealand Christmas tree'


  1. My favorite Christmas song has long been the Nat King Cole version of "The Christmas Song." Not any more. Tim Minchin is new to me but his "White Wine in the Sun" literally blew me away! I must find more of his music. Thank you for that, Craig.

    I'm sad to hear that you'll be missing another Christmas in NZ, but Barbara and I wish you and Miss Almost Seven a joyful, healthy and wonderful holiday season.

  2. My niece and cousins in Australia insist that a barbecue is the BEST way to celebrate. I have been doubtful, but now that white wine has joined the festivities, I, like Jeff, am convinced!