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Christmas trees are inextricably linked with stories – no matter what form these trees take. There are a myriad of aspects to these stories but their origins all stem from the simple tradition of having a decorated tree indoors, and increasingly outdoors, as a symbol of our Christmas celebration.

In New Zealand we have two native Christmas trees – the pohutukawa and the rata – although the pohutukawa tree is the one most people would identify as our special Christmas tree. The emergence of their red flowers is our signal that Christmas is not far away. Unfortunately both these trees are under threat and their numbers are declining dramatically.

Scientists discovered that more than 90% of coastal pohutukawa stands had been eliminated. The tree had entirely disappeared in many areas along the west coast of Northland.

Disturbed by these findings, staff from Northland Department of Conservation and New Zealand Forest Products (now Carter Holt Harvey) came up with the idea of creating a community-based project to help pohutukawa. In 1990 the Project Crimson Trust came to life.

Initially focusing on the pohutukawa, because this species was considered to be significantly endangered, the Trust extended its mandate in 1996 to include the pohutukawa’s cousin – the rata.

My entire life I have known these red flowering trees and every time I look at them I smile. They are the best kind of outdoor Christmas tree. They don’t need lights – their red flowers sparkle and dazzle all those who take the time to notice them.

Flowers from the Pohutukawa tree: New Zealand's native Christmas tree The cultural icons of a New Zealand Christmas are no longer the snow-covered holly and fir trees of our Northern Hemisphere ancestors, and instead, kiwis have begun to celebrate our summer festive season, and the fiery burst of colour that heralds Christmas in Aotearoa, lets us know Christmas is coming.

There are two main species of tree that we are used to seeing splashed all over Christmas cards, and even decorations at this time of year, and they are the Rata and Pohutukawa trees. Both from the myrtle family, they are related to guavas, feijoas and even eucalyptus trees, but are native to NZ.

The pohutukawa is a very hardy and tough tree, and can withstand salty winds and drought, as well as being able to successfully grow in the poorest of soils.

The scientific name for pohutukawa means tall ironwood, and the wood was hugely favoured by early European boat builders, because the natural bends were ideal for making boats, and the timber was immune to seaworms. The ribs of the largest sailing ship built in New Zealand, the 409 tonne Stirlingshire, were made of pohutukawa.

Legends of the young warrior Tawhaki and his attempt to find help in heaven to avenge his father’s death, tell of him falling to earth, and the crimson flowers of the pohutukawa is said to represent his blood.

A lone and small pohutakawa tree clinging to the cliffs at Cape Reinga is thought to be 800 years old. Maori believed it guarded the entrance to a sacred cave through which spirits would pass through on to the next world.

Source: What’s Up DOC – Pohutukawa Tree, 13 December 2006, from TV One’s Good Morning Show.

Spiritual pohutukawa at Cape Reinga, New Zealand. Photo by Helen Evans.

Photo source: Spiritual pohutukawa at Cape Reinga by Helen Evans

As I sat in my darkened living room the other evening (by choice by the way; I turned off the main lights) looking at our Christmas tree, I had flashbacks to other moments in time. The tree looked so incredibly beautiful – the lights, the colours, the reflections, the patterns, the decorations. I felt a sense of calm overwhelm my weary mind and soul as the sparkling brilliance before me wove its magic.

I remembered the Christmas I bought this tree that was in front of me. I was on my own with my three children – a solo parent – something I had never envisaged as being a possibility. These were really dark days for me as I struggled with the unknown world I had been placed in. It all changed overnight. There was no preparation. It was an alien world and I was completely disoriented. We had lost our home. I had to go on a social welfare benefit. I was desperately clinging to my self respect but that was proving increasingly difficult. My ex-husband’s side of the family – people I loved and would have done anything for – stopped all connection with my children and me, at a time when we needed their love and support more than ever. I learnt the hard way how poisonous conditional love could be. This is a long, very painful, and gory story; one I am not quite ready to share.

Our world as we knew it had been shattered. Hope seemed to be wavering. I remember having to make the conscious decision as to whether or not to run and hide, or stay and face this new reality. There was no contest here really – I was not a quitter! Everything that could go wrong did – a tidal wave of destruction had hit our world. One thing after another. There was absolutely no respite. Its impact spread wide and far. I felt like I was drowning but I couldn’t allow that to happen. I had three children that needed me. I was their mother. I was responsible for them. They kept me going.

Worst of all, amongst all the chaos that had been wrought upon us, my precious son was fighting for his life; he was in the throws of battling leukaemia. Life was tough yet as I look back these were also special times. We all grew and learnt so much about life and living through the adversity we were experiencing. I formed an incredible bond with my children as a result. I couldn’t give them things but I could give them my love, my support, and my time – all of it unconditional. My pain was inconsequential to their needs. My priority became my children. However, nothing could disguise the fact that we were living off the smell of an oily rag. It was the generosity and endless love of my immediate family, our many friends, and members of our local community that helped us to get through this nightmare. I will eternally be grateful to all these people.

One example of this generosity was when a friend handed me some money with the explicit instruction that I was to go and buy something for all of us as a Christmas treat. I decided on a gift that has turned out to be a gift that has kept on giving; it has provided years of delight for each of us. Thank you David Mirams wherever you are. This gift was the Christmas tree that adorns our home every year at this time.

Up to this point we had always had a ‘real’ Christmas tree (in New Zealand that is most commonly a radiata pine tree). I loved the pine smell that permeated our home. To this day I still associate the smell of pine with Christmas. There was always a challenge to keep the tree looking alive for the period of time we had it up and decorated. There were all sorts of magic cocktails but the one that seemed to work the best was feeding the tree a large dose, as in six tablets, of disprin dissolved in the water we gave it – it seems ironic the tree was being given pain medication. There was, however, one major problem associated with having a ‘real’ tree (if you discount having to get rid of the tree once Christmas was over) – it aggravated our allergies and we are an allergy ridden household. No sooner had the tree arrived so did the sneezing, the itchy eyes, and the runny nose. It wasn’t just us that were affected, visitors were too.

Even so I had always resisted buying a ‘fake’ tree because the discomfort caused by a ‘real’ tree somehow seemed worth it in the big scheme of things. The experience was more important – well, so it seemed. As I write this I can’t understand this logic but then again I am supposedly older and wiser now. However, our world had changed this particular Christmas back in 1993 and so had my priorities. I had a critically ill child to consider and I was desperately trying to create an environment that would nurture us all and be healthy and safe. Added to this I couldn’t justify spending the precious money I did have on buying a tree while at the same time I couldn’t imagine Christmas without a tree. By some miracle of generosity a solution presented itself to me. I headed off to town with my money in hand and I didn’t say anything to the kids about it.

I managed to get our tree in a pre-Christmas sale. I was delighted as I still had some money left over. The tree was beautiful then and it still is now, thirteen years later. Every year we put up this tree I remember how it came to be and I am thankful.

I remember what it was like then and how far we have all come.

I remember all those painful lessons and experiences and know I am richer as a person because of it; as are my children.

I remember that by some miracle my son is still alive to spend another Christmas with us.

I remember the power of love that got us through a nightmare I would wish on no-one.

I remember who I was then and look at the person I am now.

I remember turning on the lights on the tree, lighting the many candles placed all around our tiny living room, putting on a Christmas CD, laughing, crying, dancing and singing with my three children in this ‘Christmas light’. The love we shared for one another that Christmas has only strengthened with time. What a gift this Christmas tree has been.

As I continued to sit and observe our tree my eyes focused on the white star. I also remember the night I embroidered that decoration. I was sitting in the kitchen of the flat I was living in at the time. I was alone and I had a little black and white television set on in the background. It was getting late and a special news announcement caught my attention: All contact had been lost with an Air New Zealand sightseeing flight to Antarctica. The story of a disaster unfolded as I continued to embroider my Christmas star.

On Wednesday 28 November 1979, Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed in to the side of Mount Erebus, Antarctica, during a sightseeing flight. This is New Zealand’s biggest air disaster to date.

257 (237 passengers and 20 crew) people died on the slopes of Mount Erebus. It turned out I knew someone who died on the side of that mountain down in Antarctica. This white star reminds me of this tragedy, of her, and how life can change in a split second.

Decorations from our Christmas tree

There are countless other stories behind each decoration on this tree, like the red paper and bead ornament beside the white star. My oldest daughter Zofia made this decoration. These stories are important and are worth telling. They are part of your history. Pass them down so the next time someone is decorating the Christmas tree that piece of history will continue to live on.

My mother decided not to put up her big tree this year, so she passed down to us some of the ornaments from my story, my history, my places in time …

I’m, um…well, I’m speechless at the sheer, magnificent, overwhelming beauty of it all.

Source: Patti Digh, Own your past, 37 days

Keep these stories alive. Share them. There is a reason you have that particular ornament on your tree. There is a reason why you even go to the effort of having a Christmas tree. Share this too. Don’t let these stories get lost. They are a part of your past and may form a part of someone you love’s future. This is what traditions are all about.

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