What? A commercial-free Christmas? I’ve never experienced anything like it. I knew it would be an odd feeling to spend Christmas away from home in summer, in a place like Nelson, New Zealand, but I never imagined how refreshingly different it would be to have no secular lead up to Christmas, be it in the form of massive sales, or decorated trees, or lights strung on houses, or Perry Como songs playing in the shops and over the air waves.
Christmas in New Zealand—at least in Nelson—is more akin to an American 4th of July, without the fireworks. It’s a day off work. A day to spend with family and friends, with lots of eating and drinking. The first day I felt like it was Christmas, really got into the spirit, was Christmas Eve. Shops closed earlier than usual, the words “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Christmas” were spoken in public, roads got intensely crowded (by Nelson standards), hotels and motels switched their neon signs to “No Vacancy,” and a smattering of people could be seen wearing Christmas-themed hats and/or reindeer antlers.
Then, at 8:30 in the evening, something really magical happened. My wife, Lisa, and I were on foot and nearing Trafalgar Square to dine at Cod & Lobster, a new brasserie in downtown Nelson, at the foot of Church Hill. We’d picked that establishment mainly because of its close proximity to the cathedral.
This hill, known to Maori as Pikimai, is the focus of the city of Nelson. Church services were held here from 1842, firstly in temporary premises, then in a purpose built church. This was later transformed into the landmark cathedral of today.
Nelson became a city by virtue of having a Bishop, hence the need for a cathedral for what was then a small settlement. A large number of trees were planted in 1861 and today the hill remains an oasis of tranquility overlooking the city. The Cawthron steps create an imposing access to the hill. They replaced the three flights of wooden steps built in 1858 to ease access to the Cathedral. Local philanthropist Thomas Cawthron generously funded the project and the Tonga Bay granite steps were designed by A. R. Griffin and opened in 1913.
On a normal day, the steps serve as a favorite meeting place for a dozen or so citizens. Thankfully, Christmas Eve is no normal day. We saw hundreds, maybe even a thousand or more people from Nelson, other parts of New Zealand, and many foreign countries congregated and participating in something festive. Streets were closed to car traffic, and as many people were standing around the base of the steps as were those sitting on them. In the midst of this humanity sat a symphony of musicians, along with an emcee carrying a microphone. At first, it reminded me of a pep rally, the sort one would expect to see on a college campus the night before a football game between rivals, like Auburn and Alabama.
The emcee was, in fact, the Bishop of Nelson, Richard Ellena. He was leading the crowd in the singing of Christmas carols, taking time to speak with people young and old, native and foreign, about the meaning of Christmas and allowing his wife, Hillary, an extremely gifted singer, to perform a solo that rocked the ‘house’. All of this continued as Lisa and I dined inside Cod and Lobster, by ourselves, but with extraordinary views of the crowd through two six-foot windows. I would love to provide great details about the yummy meal and bottle of local sauvignon blanc we enjoyed, but this is a Christmas story.
By 10:30, the music had stopped and the streets and steps were empty. But our evening was far from over. We walked up the steps to the cathedral entrance to procure perfect seats for the 11:30 Christmas Eve service. What if all the revelers in the square came to the service? Even just the ones holding candles? It could have been a mad house.
Fortunately, it wasn’t. Even with a few ‘Cs and Es’ and misdirected Catholics in attendance, the prospects had pruned down to one hundred and fifty souls. Good for us, really, since it was an Anglican service, and, we being Episcopalians, weren’t sure we’d be able to follow the liturgy. In fact, I had been told that the Lord’s Prayer would be recited in Maori, which added to our anxiety. But that was not the case. It was in English. But it was said before the passing of the peace, not during Holy Communion. So we were able to be a bit rebellious afterall.
The procession started after the choir sang a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the crucifer raised a cross perhaps eight feet tall, wooden staff and all. That’s a total of more at ten feet of human and material. The congregation sang “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” then Reverend Nigel Whinney provided a welcome, which included a reminder to note the nearest exit in the event of an emergency. An earthquake emergency, not a potential long-winded or even controversial sermon. After the lessons and gospel reading, Bishop Richard delivered his sermon. The clock had just struck midnight, so he promised to be brief. He didn’t have to be; he had the gift.
It’s worth noting that Bishop Richard also serves as the cathedral choral director. That emcee gig on Trafalgar Square wasn’t impromptu at all.
Bishop Richard called our attention to a photo found inside the bulletin, one of perhaps eight children, including the bishop’s grandson, looking at the nativity scene inside the cathedral, taken a week earlier when the bishop gave them the ‘soft’ version of the Birth of Jesus story. Those children expressed a sense of wonder and awe, the kind of look most of us adults have abandoned through routine. We need it back.
The adult version of the story shed new light on some of the facts I’ve learned over the years. If true, “No room at the inn” simply meant “No Vacancy” in the upstairs guest room, but a comfortable in the bottom-level family room, where the animals would also sleep on a cold night. Shephards were at the lowest rung of the social ladder and were the ones who worked the night shift. They were the brunt of many jokes, like Poles and Newfies. The wise men weren’t even believers; they were simply curious astronomers in search of a star.
Then the bishop brought the story to a 21st century parallel, when Joseph and Mary were correctly called refugees. They were forced to return to Bethlehem for a census, walking 700 kilometers, with Mary being massively pregnant, perhaps even overdue as we might say today. Imagine those same Syrian women today; little has changed in two thousand years.
It was pure evangelism, what must be a tough sell to most Anglicans. But with pure heart and message, Bishop Richard made us feel right at home. It was an Episcopal message, and we retuned to our motel room most satisfied with our short, but most memorable Christmas.