We may not get snow and a roaring fire like those in the Northern Hemisphere but a Christmas at the height of summer is made all the better by the Kiwi Christmas tree in bloom.
We are blessed with so many beautiful and majestic native tress but the Pohutukawa is a firm favourite and has been for hundred of years – for Maori and European settlers alike.
“In 1833 the missionary Henry Williams described holding service under a ‘wide spreading pohutukawa’. The first known published reference to the pohutukawa as a Christmas tree came in 1857 when ‘flowers of the scarlet Pohutukawa, or “Christmas tree”’ formed part of table decorations at a feast put on by Ngāpuhi leader Eruera Patuone. Several years later Austrian geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter noted that settlers referred to it as such. The Pohutukawa, he observed, ‘about Christmas … are full of charming . . . blossoms’; ‘the settler decorates his church and dwellings with its lovely branches’. Other 19th-century references described the Pohutukawa tree as the ‘Settlers Christmas tree’ and ‘Antipodean holly’ (NZ History online).
Seeing as many Kiwis celebrate Christmas at the beach – with a barbie or a picnic, there is always a chance that Pohutukawa will be somewhere in the vicinity, with their incredible red flowers on display.
Apart from its beauty and iconic stature, Pohutukawa also holds a spiritual importance for Maori.
“A gnarled, twisted pohutukawa on the windswept cliff top at Cape Reinga . . . has become of great significance to many New Zealanders. For Maori this small, venerated pohutukawa is known as ‘the place of leaping’. It is from here that the spirits of the dead begin their journey to their traditional homeland of Hawaiki. From this point the spirits leap off the headland and climb down the roots of the 800-year-old tree, descending into the underworld on their return journey (NZ History online).
The oldest and largest Pohutukawa tree in New Zealand is in Te Araroa, Gisborne – named Te Waha o Rerekohu – it is approximately 65 feet tall with its branches spreading over 120 feet all round and is reputed to be over 600 years old.