14 Dec 2023

Which NZ town has the most Christmas spirit?

From Morning Report, 7:53 am on 14 December 2023
Wellington's road cone Christmas tree

Wellington's 'road cone Christmas tree'. Photo: Georgina Campbell

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas as towns across the motu celebrate with decorations, lights and events.

A 'road cone Christmas tree' erected in Wellington represents all the different infrastructure projects under construction, according to the city council.

But for some locals who struggle to get through the city without encountering disruptions, the joke has fallen flat.  

So which New Zealand towns do well in December - generating impressive amounts of Christmas spirit and cheer?

Nelson's Santa Parade Trust chairperson Trevor Marshall said his city would be a strong contender. 

"When the float comes around with Santa on it, the eyes of the kids light up," he said.

Marshall became involved in the trust after it fell into financial trouble back in 2016 - the same year the council was criticised for a lack of festive spirit in the town. 

The mayor at the time told media she forgot to budget for decorations. But Marshall was determined to turn that around.

"We've completely rebuilt the entire parade. Our whole emphasis is about the spirit of Christmas - not so much the religious aspect. It's about the good will towards other people."

Seven years on, the parade's organisers have lofty ambitions.

"That first year had about 13,000 to 15,000 people. Last year, we had 25,000 people watching the parade," Marshall said. 

"It is certainly growing. We know Auckland only got 30 floats in their parade, and Hamilton does 80. Our goal is to be the biggest parade in New Zealand."

This year's parade was the biggest yet, with more than 50 floats.

The city's mayor, Nick Smith, backs Marshall's vision for Nelson at Christmas. 

"As the sunshine capital of New Zealand, our council is determined that the 2023 Christmas will be a cracker Christmas," Smith said.

But the 'Most Festive' title is not an easy one to win in Aotearoa.

Mark Ottoway first brought Christmas lights to Kaiwaka - south of Whangārei - more than 30 years ago.

"My bakehouse was next door to the Anglican church," he said. 

"I looked at it one day and I thought, 'that would look good with Christmas lights on it'. After that it snowballed... the pub, the post office, the fish shop - they all had theirs done."

Kaiwaka's display has been through its ups and downs. But it was revived in 2021 by a local residents' group, and the Ottoways still light up their house. 

Ottoway spoke to Morning Report producer Emma Ricketts from his basement, where he is building a Christmas village to complete this year's visitor experience.

"We have a lot of fun. We meet people - locals as well as tourists coming through," said.

"We don't do it for recognition or anything, it's a hobby. It's cheaper than playing golf."

Down the other end of the country, in Southland, Riverton is home to one of the nation's longest running Christmas parades - it has run every year since 1946.

In a newer tradition, it hosts an annual "Magical Christmas Doors of Riverton" walk, featuring 80 doors resting among a dense native bush track.

Mayor Rob Scott said these events clearly demonstrated the town's festive spirit.

"It's been described as a small community with a big Christmas heart. It will put a smile on your face - you'd be silly not to come and check it out. I'd say it would easily win best in the country."

Christmas isn't really about competition, but it can be tempting to better others. 

Masterton Mayor Gary Caffell acknowledged other places do well, but he backed his Wairarapa town. 

"I'm a former resident of Gore. Gore is always thriving around Christmas, but it's nothing like what Masterton has."

Gore Mayor Ben Bell disagreed. 

"Gore definitely does it better," he said. "I've only been to Masterton to drink wine."

Two local governments, throwing some Christmas shade at the most festive time of the year.