Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas down under

Christmas down under --
red pohutakawa blossoms,
swimming at the pool

When my Kiwi friend invited me to spend Christmas with her in New Zealand, I wondered what the holidays would be like down under, where Christmas falls in the middle of summer. I once spent the holiday in Hawaii, where Christmas trees are Norfolk Island pines with orange lights, the lyrics of traditional Christmas carols have tropical twists and Santa surf-boards in to Waikiki beach in floral trunks. New Zealand turns out to be just as strange compared to my American Midwestern experiences of snow and fir trees and Santa riding in a sleigh drawn by reindeer. Sure enough, we spend Christmas day at a swimming pool. 
          But one thing I love is the way people decorate their homes with red pohutakawa blossoms. The pohutakawa tree, native to the rocky coasts of the North Island, blooms in December. European settlers called it the "Christmas tree" and used the blossoms as a substitute for holly. The buds are as white as mistletoe before they open and then they  burst into tassels of crimson stamens set against oval green leaves that look like bay leaves. 
          The first settlers, the Maori people, used the leaves and bark of pohutakawa for a variety of medicinal purposes. Early European settlers used a concoction of the inner bark as a cure for dysentery. They also used the strong, durable timber for ship building, exporting much of it, which depleted stands of the trees. 
          Fortunately, they did not cut down one of the largest and oldest, an 800-year-old tree that plays a crucial role in Maori funeral practices. According to my Lonely Planet guide, "the wairua of the departed was told to haere ki te Po (go to the Underworld). At Te Rerenga-Wairua, Cape Reinga, the soul slid down the roots of a lone pohutakawa (which still stands), took a last look at Aotearoa from the summit of Ohau in the Three Kings Islands, and then rejoined the ancestral spirits in Hawaiki (simultaneously the name for the Underworld and the ancestral homeland)."

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