NZ's unique Christmas gift: the Kiwi-as Santa in a korowai

BRADEN FASTIER / STUFF
Nelson's 2018 Santa parade has a distinctly Kiwi twist.

OPINION: God, it's amazing what gets us fired up as a country. I guess it's because we have such soporifically boring political news. Maybe if Jacinda Ardern started building a wall and threatening to grab Judith Collins by the lady parts then we'd have something to talk about.

However, as we don't, we're left to get rarked up by bird of the year, biscuit of the year and now ... Santa. Everyone's favourite plus-size festive figure has hardly been out of the headlines in the previous month, garnering the type of public interest that Simon Bridges would sell his shiny haired soul for.

No doubt you heard this week the outrage about Nelson's Santa parade? All because Santa, who usually resembles a fat, old white dude in fur-lined pyjamas, was instead a moustached, man-bunned Māori guy sporting a red korowai and a tres on-trend floral shirt.

Ponsonby's chubby-cheeked challenge to Santa conventions.
RADLAB
Ponsonby's chubby-cheeked challenge to Santa conventions.

Merciful heavens, cried everyone, what fresh horror is this! And the internet lit up with tweets from @PERpetuAllyOuTRagedANdGraMATicalLYchallENged, Palmerston North.

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I was similarly surprised, primarily at the appearance of a Kiwi dude who owned a collared shirt that wasn't the blue-and-white checked number all men pop out of puberty wearing. I would have considered it a win on that front alone, but I also happen to think Santa's makeover was choice as. It's just so uniquely Kiwi.

Verity Johnson: "One of the things I love most about New Zealand is its unique ability to take inherited British and American traditions and phenomenons, and then remake them as Kiwi products. So when I saw what we'd done to Santa, I got little patriotic shivers."
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Verity Johnson: "One of the things I love most about New Zealand is its unique ability to take inherited British and American traditions and phenomenons, and then remake them as Kiwi products. So when I saw what we'd done to Santa, I got little patriotic shivers."

One of the things I love most about New Zealand is its unique ability to take inherited British and American traditions and phenomenons, and then remake them as Kiwi products. So when I saw what we'd done to Santa, I got little patriotic shivers.

When I was 13, I moved to New Zealand and started learning to become a Kiwi. I realised that one of the coolest Kiwi-isms we have is reinventing British and American phenomenons as our own. Take Michael Jackson's Thriller. In every other country in the world, Thriller is just, well, Thriller. But not here. Here the song's iconic choreography and imagery has been so firmly meshed together with Poi E, and Taika Waititi, that the line, "Hey Chardonnay, wanna see some Michael Jackson dance moves" is enough to send proud Kiwi goosepimples up your spine.

And while we're talking about dance, look at the phenomenon of Polyswag, the Auckland version of hip-hop that reimagined the American dance format with a Polynesian fire and went on to become a viral, cultural sensation after the Auckland crew won the 2010 Hip-Hop International championships with it.

Robert Herewini in Nelson's Santa Parade.
BRADEN FASTIER/STUFF
Robert Herewini in Nelson's Santa Parade.

And Christmas is one of the times when we do this best. Growing up in England, Christmas was a formal, familial and religious affair. Whereas New Zealand looks at the earnest, white Christmas righteousness of northern Europe and thinks, "Sod that, I'm going to make Christmas all about BBQs, warm booze and about sunburnt on the beach." Sure, a Santa hat is a Christmas symbol, but it's worn with jandals while carrying a slightly battered chilly bin and moaning about how your boardies are chafing.

That's why I thought Nelson's Māori santa was amazing. It had "traditional" Christmas elements like reindeer, a sleigh, and so much tinsel it looked like it had been attacked by an ADHD elf with a Kmart fixation. But then it meshed that together with iconically Kiwi elements like the korowai, and executed a perfect example of New Zealand's signature twist on tradition.

And again we reinvented a fundamentally American image. The current visual image we have of Santa, the red-suited, fat jolly man with a white beard and rosy cheeks, was popularised in the 1930s by Coca-Cola, which in turn was inspired by the 1893 edition of The Night Before Christmas.

Thriller with a uniquely Kiwi twist, from Taika Waititi's movie Boy.
Thriller with a uniquely Kiwi twist, from Taika Waititi's movie Boy.

But before then, he'd been everything from a spooky elf, to a fat Gimli-esque dwarf who supported confederate American troops, to a saint in holy robes, to a thin, grim bishop-like figure who sternly dispenses potatoes. He'd worn head-to-toe green, star-patterned jackets, and even beige before he became cemented in furry tomato PJs.

So in a lot of ways, our reinvention is in keeping with Santa's evolutionary story. And given that we're always moaning how we're becoming Americanised, isn't it a nice example of how we're challenging the slide towards the stars and stripes through the medium of tinsel and baubles?  

There's also something kinda cheeky about taking what you're "supposed" to do and changing it up. It's another fun Kiwi habit that we see when we do things like our airline safety videos. Or create Auckland's Ponsonby Santa statue – that chubby-cheeked challenge to convention who has done everything from cross-dress to don a cycling suit in true sun's-out, buns-out spirit.

So I love this demonstration of Kiwi-ness. And if your kids are confused by Santa's new style, take it as an opportunity to tell them that's just how we roll here. We make Santa our own.

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