Saturday, 6 January 2018

New Zealand Christmases in the 1950s.

I have the advantage of having moved several times in my childhood.  This means my memories can be broken into chunks of several years and makes it much easier to remember events etc. that happened at different stages.  I was born in Wellington in 1945 while my father was in Europe 'serving the King' as he used to say.  When he returned at the beginning of 1946 we moved to Hawkes Bay where he had grown up.  We lived in Havelock North for a couple of years and then in Hastings.  In 1953 when I was eight we moved to Wellington which is where my mother grew up. I spent the rest of my childhood and youth there but left New Zealand in 1967 and never returned to live there.

I have not changed names in these writings which I realise is dangerous when anyone can access my blog but as most of the people are long dead I am going to risk it for now.

Christmas Food: 

Chicken was the Christmas meat of choice for most of my childhood.  It was very much a special occasion dish.  It was always roasted plain but with stuffing and served with roast potatoes and green peas which were fresh rather than frozen. We also had chipolata sausages with bacon wrapped round them but I think this may have been something that only happened in Wellington.  There were two years in Hastings when we were given meat by one of my grandmother’s friends.  This was Mrs Graham, the only person I knew as a child who shared my birthday.  The Grahams were farmers at Maraekakaho which I see from the map is some distance into the hills from Hastings.  We occasionally visited them and I have memories of turkeys running around on the drive.  One year we were given a turkey and another a goose.  The birds were put into a cool store for some considerable time and then we collected them just before Christmas.  I have distinct memories of what I assume is the goose.  This must have been 1951, the year when I was in hospital and only discharged on Christmas Eve.  My father went and collected the bird, only to find that it had not been plucked.  So my memory is of him plucking it by the light of a Tilley (hurricane) lamp on Christmas Eve.  He fixed it to the upright of the trellis that we grew our runner beans up.  This was just outside our bedroom window and I can remember seeing the feathers blowing around!

I cannot remember eating Christmas pudding in Hastings and suspect we usually ate something like jelly and ice cream rather than a hot pudding.   I think it is possible that our Hoadley grandmother and aunt had Christmas dinner with us some years but sometimes they were away.  This is because the rest of the Hoadley family spent Christmas at Taupo and I can remember the first time I went there I learnt about threepenny pieces in the pudding as my aunt always made sure there was one in the pudding.  We had Christmas cake but no mince pies until we moved to Wellington.  In those days people in New Zealand ate the same heavy winter meal as people in Britain.  It was always too heavy for the time of year and we children used to get very full indeed.  I can remember running in the street in Wellington between the meat and the pudding courses in order to create enough room in our stomachs for the second course.

Christmas cake: We definitely had a Christmas cake.  This was made to a recipe from someone in Wellington, Mrs Rees-Jones, who gave the recipe to my maternal grandmother years before I was born.  At some point Margaret (my sister) and I were given responsibility for the Christmas cake (me) and the Christmas pudding (her).   Obviously our mother was in overall charge but I have strong memories of the ‘making’ of these two dishes and these memories definitely start in Hastings.  In the 1950s there were no packs of dried fruit as there are now so all the raisins, currants etc. had to be cleaned.  We would weigh them out, then put them in a clean tea towel, sprinkle it with flour and then rub to remove the stalks and the Australian dirt!  Candied peel came in large pieces so that all had to be cut up fine, too.  The pieces of peel were halves of lemons and quarters of oranges and the insides of the fruit still had candied sugar in them.  This was delicious to eat.  The main utensil for mixing was the preserving pan.  The eggs generally curdled as they were added but nobody worried.  Scraping the bowl was part of the ritual.  Initially my father got the bowl and we children had to make do with the spoon but as we got older we were allowed to share the scrapings in the bowl between the three of us.  My mother used to mark it into thirds before we began.  I cannot remember icing the cake and think we used bought icing for some years.


I do not remember ever having a Christmas tree in Hastings.  We did not get a lot of presents but received them from parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles plus one great-aunt.  Margaret and Pip also got presents from their godparents but as my godparents happened to be my aunt and uncle I did not get an extra two.  We had stockings at the end of the bed.  These were ones my mother had discarded, not fancy things from a shop.  The smaller presents were inside the stockings along with the regulation orange (I never ate oranges after my 1951 hospital stay so this was a bit wasted on me) and I seem to think one or two nuts.  However, there were usually one or two larger presents that would not fit in the stocking so were just piled up beside it.  The ‘main’ present came from Father Christmas (our parents) and we got expensive presents from our maternal grandparents.  However, these were generally very useful things and I can remember getting a rubber pillow when I was about five and then a rubber mattress the following year.  This was to help with my hay fever (rhinitis) which was bad.  Books were a popular gift but the most important presents were the ones that Father Christmas paid for.  One year in Hastings Margaret and I woke up to find strings stretching from our beds right through the house to the dining room where these really good presents were.  They were dolls with beds.  Both of the dolls had belonged to our mother and she had made wonderful beds for them.  My doll (which I promptly rechristened ‘Shirley’) had a beautiful china head.  She had been given a new wig before I got her.  Her bed was a proper basinet like babies had.  My mother had made the bedding which was pink satin with white organdie overlay.  My grandmother had made her a new ‘layette’ of knitted clothes.  Margaret had inherited my mother’s second-best doll.  This she named Frances but Margaret could not love her because she was bald so the next year she was given a 1950s doll.  Frances came in a green wooden cot. 

This was our Christmas 1952 photo.  As you can see, Margaret does not look very happy even though she now has her modern doll.  She says this was because it did not have hair.  When we moved to Wellington in 1953 I had to go on my own by Newmans bus (coach) so I took my doll with me and it sat on my lap.  Its eyelids dropped out!  They were never replaced but I kept the doll forever and have now passed it to Margaret for her grand-daughters.


Although we did not have a tree in Hastings we still had Christmas decorations.  The best of these were the two ‘paintings’ which Dad made.  One was of the nativity stable and the other of the Bethlehem. skyline.  They were silhouettes cut out of heavy black paper and I think silver foil was involved.  The base layer was coloured heavy weight paper; one red and the other blue as I remember. They were very impressive.  We also made lots of paper chains from folded crepe paper.  These were then hung across the room. 
We had one special decoration which I still have. 

 This was a wooden Father Christmas made by someone in Havelock North.  It has a beard made of fur.   I think the maker was Swiss, but he may well have been a European refugee from one of the formerly Nazi countries.  I can remember buying this decoration when we were living in Hastings.  It became a tradition to have it on the dining table and every year it still comes out and sits in the dining room until Epiphany.  I ‘inherited’ it as the eldest but when my parents came to England in the early 1970s they bought two more, one each for Margaret and Pip.  Theirs were slightly smaller.

When we moved to Wellington in 1953 we had our first Christmas tree.  We were living with my grandparents while we waited for the house purchase to go through.  Not for us a tree from a shop, though.  My father took Margaret and me on one of his ‘surprise walks’ to fetch this one.  We took the bus (it may even have been a tram) to Lyall Bay.  Then we went for a walk on the hills at the western end of the beach.  We knew this area quite well but my father really knew it because it was where the ‘forts’ had been during the War and he had been stationed there.  I do not know if he had planned to find a tree, probably not, but the hills were covered with self-sown pine trees.  They were very small so it was quite a simple matter to lever one out of the ground (I cannot remember our having any tools with us).  We then had to carry it back to Kelburn on the bus/tram and I assume take it up in the cable car.  My main memory of this trip though, is of the hay fever that my father and I got.  It was the height of the lupin flowering season and we were both very allergic to it.  I do not think I knew that I was allergic to lupin until I began sneezing.  We used every handkerchief we had on us including Margaret’s.  Even writing about it now makes my nose itch.


We used to dress up as if in a nativity play and sing carols.  At some point I was given a good book of carol music and we used this.  My mother played the piano and we sang. 

Our first Wellington Christmas in 1953 was also memorable because of the Tangiwai rail disaster.  As people who visited Taupo we knew where Ruapehu was but nothing about ‘the other side’ of the mountain.  The disaster happened on Christmas Eve when the bridge at Tangiwai was washed away from under the main train service from Wellington to Auckland.  It was the worst rail disaster in New Zealand history.  I can remember all the adults feeling very sad and disturbed and we children not being sure how we were supposed to behave given it was Christmas Day.  As I remember it, it was a very wet day.  After lunch Margaret and I took our dolls for a walk to the Glen.  This was a sunken area just opposite my grandparents’ house.  Our dolls wore their new rain gear which had been a Christmas present.  We had to descend a lot of steps to reach the Glen and I am sure we did not take any dolls’ prams so we must have had to take great care carrying them, given that mine had a china face.
After Christmas dinner we would generally have family photos taken in the garden.  The one above was taken in Hastings in 1952.  Then we would play with our new toys.


The main event on Christmas Day was attending the eleven o’clock service of matins.  I cannot remember it but I was not allowed to forget that when I was three I loudly sang ‘While shepherds watched’ in a silent part of the service.  I seem to remember that in Hastings Mum stayed home to cook the Christmas dinner and look after the baby and that I went to church with my father, aunt and grandmother.  Once in Wellington we would go to church at St Pauls Cathedral where my grandparents even ‘had’ a pew.  This was second from the front on the right-hand side and whenever there was a party present from Government House we would have to sit elsewhere.  There were bench seats with incredibly scratchy cushions.  People on the vestry had allocated pews which is why we had this privilege.

From 1954 on we had Christmas in at out house in Karori. Our grandparents came to lunch and also, from 1955, my father’s cousin Joan who was unmarried and had returned to NZ after twenty years living in London.  At some point we started eating Christmas dinner in the evening.  We began to have three courses, the starter being halves of grapefruit infused with sherry, flashed under the grill and then decorated with a glace cherry.  My grandmother had been brought up as a teetotal Methodist and I will always remember how one year, when I was much older, my father telling me that I must remove the sherry bottle from where it was on top of the fridge in case she saw it!

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