There is a lot of symbolic imagery that accompanies the time of Advent and Christmas. Generally I like imagery that enhances a sense of occasion, particularly imagery that connects me to the spiritual and religious meanings of a celebration. However I dislike it when the imagery becomes meaningless because it has been displaced through time and place – and the imagery of Northern Hemisphere Advent and Christmas being used in the Southern Hemisphere is a classic example. Trying to change our society’s expectations of Christmas, though, is like trying to move a mountain. Maybe I just need a little faith. And a bit more time.
Last year I was asked by an Englishman if our Advent imagery was based around summer icons rather than winter ones, given the reversal of the seasons here in the Southern Hemisphere. He was relatively surprised to hear that in Aotearoa New Zealand winter features large in pre-Christmas preparations. Our traditions were transposed directly from Britain with the British colonists who arrived after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. This resulted in a seasonal and place mismatch of imagery that has simply become part of what Christmas time means to us here in NZ. Despite Christmas occurring for us around the time of the summer solstice, Christmas cards often have winter scenes on them, Christmas trees have fake snow on them, evergreen wreaths appear on doorways (even though our trees are predominantly evergreen, so the wreath doesn’t’ symbolise anything special). People put up fake mistletoe, although the vast majority of us have never seen real mistletoe or know where or how it grows, or why it is significant to Christmas. To see the Christmas lights on in the towns you have to keep the kids up late. Our Santas just about expire in the heat when they are fully dressed for business. Even this year, there was a giant snow dome for children to play in at the Wellington Christmas festival.
As our country becomes increasingly secular, this mismatch becomes more pronounced. The story of nativity can be told independent of season and place. Christmas cards with religious themes on them are appropriate in either hemisphere, as are carols about the coming of Christ. With secularisation we tend to hear more Christmas songs than carols – and these tend to be related to the winter season, such as Winter Wonderland, Frosty the Snowman, I’m dreaming of a White Christmas… there is something quite ironic about listening to these carols in a crowded shopping mall in mid-summer when the air conditioning is struggling to cope!
There has been some resistance to the colonial Christmas mindset, as the country has moved into a post-colonial phase and discovers its own identity (an ongoing process). So we have strawberries with our Christmas pudding, our Christmas cards will often feature the Pohutakawa – the tree which flowers red at mid-summer – and Air NZ has produced a hospital fundraising video featuring Ronan Keating singing a reworded ‘Summer Wonderland’ with prompting from one of our newest stars, Julian Dennison. There have been some attempts to produce New Zealand carols and songs, yet to my mind they talk about summer or the birds/plants of Aotearoa with little reference to the meaning of Christmas. Even Shirley Murray’s carol “An Upside Down Christmas” just seems to me to overlay summer onto Christmas with minimal connection to religious symbolism.
An attempt to actually create new imagery that is (religiously) meaningful for Advent and Christmas in Aotearoa New Zealand was made in 2010 by the Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission of Aotearoa New Zealand (ARCCANZ) . They suggested symbolising light coming into the world through referring to the four stars of the Southern Cross, rather than using an evergreen wreath. This is part of their explanation:
In the night sky in the Southern Hemisphere, the four central stars of the Southern Cross shine permanently above us. From ancient times, these stars offered travellers and ocean navigators who looked up to them, a sure sense of direction, the way to true south. So also as Christians, we look to the cross of Jesus and the light of His resurrection to offer us a true bearing for our lives: the Way, the Truth, the Life. In the season of Advent, in particular, we remember and anticipate the coming into the world of the light that enlightens everyone, as a baby and as the Redeemer Judge at the end of time.
I do remember our church trying out this new idea. I think it lasted two years, then it was sidelined and we went back to the (British) traditional Advent wreath. To me, Advent imagery specific to our time and place would be so much better at pulling me into the meaning of the season. Yet it seems that such changes are too hard. Or is it that the ideas aren’t quite the right ones to capture the imagination? Perhaps it will only be successful in our secular world if businesses can use the imagery for commercial purposes?
Before Christianity, the solstices (and other seasonal markers) were established celebrations. The Northern Hemisphere winter solstice became appropriated as the Christian celebration of Christmas. How was this done – by decree, by force or by stealth and influence? How long did it take? (And yes, I am keen to have knowledgeable people inform me in the comment section). How can we create meaningful change?