Grant Gillanders: 'I knew there were a few Kiwi Christmas songs around that hadn't got much recognition, but didn't know how many I would find.' Photo supply.
A New Zealand musicologist's collection of New
Zealand-flavoured Christmas songs embraces the old and the
new and includes more than a few curiosities. Oh, and Fred
Dagg is in there, too, writes Shane Gilchrist.
Christmas might be a seasonal event for many, but Grant
Gillanders has been embracing yuletide themes for a good year
An Auckland-based musicologist and archivist, Gillanders has
just released Pohutukawas & Pavlovas: 60 Years of Kiwi
Christmas Songs, a 33-song compilation that ranges from
1949 to this year.
It includes such curiosities as Sticky Beak the Kiwi,
the 1962 song by Julie Nelson and the Don Ball Orchestra, a
13-minute musical skit by the members of Split Enz, who sent
their fans an album of personal greetings in 1982, as well as
Fred Dagg's take on Star of Wonder and Billy T. James'
A Maori Christmas.
''Like most of my projects, people thought that I might
struggle to find enough suitable tracks,'' says Gillanders
who, having begun compiling Christmas-related songs by Kiwi
artists in 2011, ended up with more than 300 tracks from
which to choose.
''It started out as a bit of joke. I knew there were a few
Kiwi Christmas songs around that hadn't got much recognition,
but didn't know how many I would find.''
The album opens with Pixie William's 1949 version of Best
Wishes, her follow-up to the Ruru Karaitiana song Blue
Smoke (which topped New Zealand radio hit parades for six
weeks the same year and sold more than 20,000 copies in a
Gillanders initially had another opening track in mind,
Auckland singer Esme Stephens' 1943 recording of White
Christmas with famous American band leader Artie Shaw,
who toured New Zealand as part of a United States Navy band
in August of that year. However, he was worried the poor
quality of that recording might deter potential listeners
from taking in the remainder of his collection and
''chickened out'' and left it off.
Pohutukawas & Pavlovas: 60 Years of Kiwi Christmas
Songs is the third part of a Gillanders trilogy that
began with Rucks, Tries & Choruses: the history of NZ
rugby . . . in song, which was released by major label
EMI in time for the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The other
instalment is Kiwiana Goes Pop. Ranging from farm
songs and pub songs to television themes, it was released by
Universal NZ at the same time as Gillanders' Christmas
compilation, though the latter is on another label, Frenzy
Gillanders, who collaborated with EMI in releasing Waiata:
Maori Showbands, Balladeers & Pop Stars in 2011,
clearly enjoys the detective work involved in tracking down
artists and others.
''If I'm working on a project, sometimes I have to stay on at
night because I get so excited. If I go to bed, I just don't
Likewise, he takes pleasure in providing more than a little
historical context in his liner notes.
''I wanted to keep the track listing chronological, but the
booklet highlights what were the key presents people might
buy at the time. I wanted to tell a bit of a story. For
instance, the 1940s was all about wooden toys, but by the
late 1960s they were all plastic.''
But back to the music. Gillanders says it was important to
include Christmas songs specific to New Zealand.
''I started out thinking I wouldn't find many New Zealand
composers' tracks, but close to half of them are. I just
thought they'd all be cover versions or ones that had been
changed around a bit, like Billy T. James' take on When A
Child Is Born. So it was quite a buzz to find so many
locally written things.''
Gillanders says the 1960s and 1980s witnessed a deluge of
Christmas music, although he can't explain why.
''I found that with my rugby series last year. It's beyond
me. I think there was a bit of a spike in sales of local
content in the 1980s compared to the 1970s, but it's hard to
Though loath to select a list of highlights, Gillanders says
he was particularly happy to locate then secure the licensing
rights to the Split Enz oddity, Billy T James' A Maori
Christmas (1985) and Fred Dagg's 1976 version of Star
''Those three tracks were the hardest to licence. I got one,
then two ... I wasn't expecting to get the Split Enz one, but
Tim Finn said that was fine.
''Those have all become my little friends now, but I'd hate
to pick out one.''