I haven’t actually heard anyone use the phrase “tis the season” here in New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean the country isn’t ready for the Christmas season. Queen Street, the main drag in Auckland, is strung with glittery decorations, shops ring out with pop versions of carols, and one of the department stores has its windows set up with a story of a sheep having adventures with Santa. The first Saturday of the month, the city kicked off the season with a tree lighting and street party, and I went to see what it was like.
Franklin Street is a road in the Freemans Bay neighborhood of Auckland that dresses up for Christmas. In the States, we’re used to most neighborhoods decorating their houses in lights for the month of December, but that’s less common here, so the fact that most of Franklin Street does it is notable. The first weekend of December, they throw themselves a street party, and this year it got more notice in the paper and people from all over the city joined in.
I walked down the street (a giant hill, as most streets in Auckland seem to be), and watched as neighbors mingled on one another’s lawns, drinking glasses of wine and chatting. Families strolled by, the kids oohing and ahhing at the different set-ups. At one point, I stopped to listen to a women’s choir sing a carol, and then joined in for a couple verses of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
By the time I reached Victoria Park, I was in a festive mood. I joined a group of people I’d met at a CouchSurfing event earlier in the week, and we settled in to watch the tree lighting ceremony. When I say “tree,” I don’t mean anything that you’d find in a forest. Strings of lights come together in the form of a giant pine, and the Telecom sponsors put on a little show to turn the lights on. It was strange to be at an event that was so clearly corporate sponsored, but I guess it does separate church and state more than the city-sponsored tree lighting ceremonies in the States.
Titanium performed their hit song ‘Come on Home.’ Oh, you don’t know Titanium? They’re only Auckland’s biggest boy band! It was great fun watching the tweens in the crowd go crazy for them, even during their insipid version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” While they performed, little kids ran into the old English-style phone booths stationed around the tree, which were labeled “Santa Line,” and called Santa personally, presumably to relay some very specific instructions.
Then the emcee stepped up on stage, bizarrely clad entirely in Raiders paraphernalia. He informed the crowd that even though this was the fifth year of the Telecom tree, they still hadn’t figured out how to turn the lights on. Kids yelled out practical suggestions like “hit the button” and “try the lever,” but no, no, those wouldn’t do. We’d have to call Santa on the Santa Line and see if he could help. When the emcee informed him that one of the suggestions to turn the tree on had been “get more kids,” Santa said, “well, that could take some time”—naughty Santa! He then informed us that this particular tree operated only on the laughter of children, and just our luck, he’d been practicing some jokes. So he told us some terrible jokes and the audience groaned, and finally the emcee cut him off rather unceremoniously and suggested we all just say “ho ho ho.” It took a few tries, of course, because we had to build suspense, but eventually a bunch of kids piled up on stage, directly under the tree, and shouted “ho ho ho” into it, and it lit right up.
I hadn’t been to anything so cheesy or family focused in a long while, and I enjoyed it immensely. The kids in the crowd were adorable, and the whole affair was charmingly ramshackle, despite this being a major city. I’m used to the crushing crowds of wintry Chicago during December, and it was refreshing to see this little city’s relaxed approach to the holiday season.