Christmas in Australia and New Zealand
Updated: Jan 29
A Brief History
The first Christian service conducted in Australia took place on Sunday, February 3, 1788 in the colony of New South Wales. The service was conducted by chaplain Richard Johnson, who arrived with the First Fleet. The First Fleet is the name given to the eleven ships that sailed from Great Britain to Australia in May of 1787. The ships arrived at Botany Bay in January 1788. Chaplain Johnson’s text came from Psalm 116, beginning with “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me?”
Before the arrival of the Europeans, Australia had been inhabited by aboriginal people. Aboriginal means ‘the first’ or ‘earliest known.’ Aboriginals had continuously inhabited Australia for thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
After the dispersal at the Tower of Babel, men migrated to various parts of the earth. Those who ended up in Australia were eventually cut off when the land bridge between Australia and Papua New Guinea was submerged thousands of years ago. Thus, they are one of the oldest people groups in the world, as they had been cut off from other groups preventing racial mixing.
The story of Aboriginal Christianity is a tragic one. Due to imperialism, the indigenous people of Australia suffered a great deal of persecution at the hands of the church, beginning with the arrival of the First Fleet. Despite numerous unfortunate and murderous attempts to control and/ or eradicate the Aboriginal people of Australia, most Aboriginals claim Christianity as their religion, though many mix in traditional Aboriginal spiritual belief. Aboriginals call their traditional animist belief system the Dreamtime.
New Zealand’s indigenous people are called the Māori. The Māori arrived by canoe from eastern Polynesia before 1300 AD. Māori Christian history is not as tumultuous as Australia’s, in that most of the violence amongst natives was self-inflicted. Tribal warfare escalated in the early 1800’s due to the introduction of muskets through trade with European sailors. Tens of thousands of Māori killed one another through a series of 500 or more battles between 1807 and 1842.
Muskets were used at first by one tribe to subdue another, and eventually, every tribe was scrambling to procure muskets to defend themselves and exact vengeance for their murdered loved ones.
As Māori sought a way out of the cycle of revenge and retribution, the gospel of peace and reconciliation became very appealing, thus opening the door to Christianity. The vast majority of Māori claim Christianity as their belief system. Some of the Māori people also created their own forms of Christianity-- Ratana and Ringatu being the largest. The first recorded Christian service in New Zealand was led by the Reverend Samuel Marsden on Christmas Day 1814 at Oihi, Bay of Islands.
The populations of Australia and New Zealand are more than 50% Christian and celebrate Christmas in much the same way. Since Australia and New Zealand lie in the southern hemisphere, Christmas falls in the summer for the land ‘Down Under.’ Therefore, it is hot and everyone is on summer vacation. Christmas is celebrated outdoors: camping, swimming, surfing and hiking are the norm for Aussies and Kiwis.
Christmas trees are not the norm, and if anything, a few branches of a tree or a Christmas bush may serve the purpose.
Since it is so hot during Christmastime in Australia, Christmas dinner is as likely to be cold turkey and ham and/or a fresh seafood platter as a traditional English Christmas meal. In years past, the meal was roast turkey, pudding, and ham, but in the past few decades, Australians prefer to BBQ or cook any hot foods at night and serve them cold on Christmas. A very popular Christmas dessert is pavlova, a meringue dessert. Some say it was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, after her visit to Australia and New Zealand in the 1920’s. Although there is great debate between Aussies and Kiwis as to the origin of this light dessert, it is enjoyed by both.
More and more Australians are claiming to be of no religion as the society becomes more post-modern. The Australian Aboriginals have been oppressed by Western culture for 200 years. There is still a need for racial reconciliation in Australia. Pray for the Lord to heal old cultural and racial wounds in Australia. Pray for the hearts of Australian men and women to be open to receiving and living out the gospel message.
New Zealand struggles with race issues as well; the Māori tribes lost their land to the British settlers by an unfair treaty in 1840. There is a great financial disparity between the Polynesian and European peoples here. Also, churches are shrinking and losing young people, who think that Christianity is irrelevant. Pray for restitution for Māori, and for revival throughout New Zealand.