Just a little over 200 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1814, Reverend Samuel Marsden conducted what is widely regarded the first formal Christmas sermon in New Zealand’s history.
His was not the first Christian service to take place in New Zealand on Christmas Day.
Both the voyages of Abel Tasman in 1642 and James Cook in 1769 celebrated Christmas in New Zealand waters. Tasman’s group feasted on freshly killed pork from the ship, and Cook’s sailors on gannet pie.
In 1769, a Christmas Day service was conducted in Doubtless Bay by Father Paul-Antoine Léonard de Villefeix of the de Surville expedition. It is also likely that other early explorers, who visited New Zealand waters during the summertime, would have conducted similar services to mark this special day.
But Marsden’s sermon is widely regarded as marking the advent of both Christianity and Christmas in New Zealand because he reached a new audience beyond those already well-familiar with the tradition.
Marsden was born on July 28, 1764, in the town of Farsley, Yorkshire. Educated in both Hull and Cambridge, he easily rose to prominence, eventually becoming a minister of the Church of England.
In 1800 he was appointed head chaplain of New South Wales, and gained the reputation of working heroically in the penal colony, although not without controversy.
Marsden was by no means a paradigm of a man, as he gained notoriety for severely punishing his labourers, despite treating others generously. Among those he treated well were several Maori guests that he entertained at Parramatta, where he lived. Through them, he gained an interest in New Zealand.
New Zealand had at that time become surrounded by stigma following an event known as the Boyd incident, in 1809, where numerous Pakeha and Maori were killed.
This delayed, but did not sway Marsden from wanting to mount a mission to New Zealand. He departed on December 17, 1814, arriving in the Bay of Islands on December 22.
Marsden’s assistants and good friends, Ruatara, Hongi and Korokoro, introduced Marsden to the locals, and it was agreed that a service take place on Christmas Day, thereby setting foundations that over the following decades would spread throughout New Zealand.
In many ways, colonisation normalised Christian customs and traditions in New Zealand, including Christmas.
Ashburton’s first newspaper, The Evening Echo, gives early insight into how Christmas was celebrated.
It records that in 1878 carol singers paraded through the streets until 3:00am, and that services were held in both the Episcopalian and Wesleyan churches.
Otherwise, according to The Evening Echo, the town was so quiet, it would have the ‘appearance of a Sabbath’, as business was suspended for Christmas.
Many people also absconded to the seaside, or other summer holiday locations – a tradition that’s definitely stuck.
As time goes on, it becomes apparent that as New Zealand developed, Christmas has stayed much the same at its core, while decorative practices and activities have changed a lot.
Throughout the 1880s, Christmas articles from the Ashburton Guardian give insight into how Christmas was celebrated.
Walking through town on Christmas Eve, 1886, you would see every shop displaying their best selection of goods in their windows. One such example was a display put on by Mr. Flower, a confectioner, who had ‘Merry Christmas’ spelt in split almonds on toffee, in the window of his store on East Street.
Shop window displays were also embellished with designs made from coloured card, evergreens, and other decorative plants and items, much like today.
Despite all the cheer, there were undoubtedly a few Scrooges, as an editorial written in 1889 ridiculed those ‘miserable individuals’ who do not enjoy Christmas.
From 1900 onwards, Christmas continued to change in little ways, resulting in the familiar holiday people know and love today.
By Connor Lysaght
- Samuel Marsden, from the frontispiece of “Life and Work of Samuel Marsden”
- The second Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, built in 1882
- The old F Frost Butcher’s window, proudly displaying some fine carcasses
- Stephens Church, decorated lavishly for celebration