Ready or not

Louis Fyfe (11) and Mary-Jane Sanson (11) in nativity play costume at St Joseph's Cathedral...
Louis Fyfe (11) and Mary-Jane Sanson (11) in nativity play costume at St Joseph's Cathedral School, Dunedin, this week. Photo: Gregor Richardson
Spuds are being dug up, supermarkets are playing carols 17 hours a day, church kids are wearing tea towels, police and budget advisers are gearing up - it must be the festive season, writes Bruce Munro. But despite the frenetic activity, will we be ready for Christmas?

Save a prayer for Sister Anna. The 5pm Mass on Christmas Eve is the big one for the Holy Name community.

Several hundred people will gather in the North Dunedin Catholic church for the festive, family-friendly service.

The highlight, as it is each year, will be the narrated nativity play presented by 20 or more of the parish children. Preschoolers to pubescent teens, dressed in makeshift robes, with tea-towels tied to their heads, will be transformed into the shepherds, angels and Wise Men of the Christmas story.

The amateur troupe will have had a couple of practices on previous Sundays. Then, as always, it will "all fall together" when - in front of their parents and other congregants, including a fair smattering for whom this and Easter is their most substantial contact with the Church - the youngsters re-enact the Biblical account of Joseph and Mary finding no room in the inn and the birth of Jesus in a livestock pen.

Joseph and Mary. Therein lies Sister Anna’s problem.

Sister Anna is the pastoral worker at Holy Name. She is also the director, producer and costume designer for the church’s annual Christmas Eve nativity play.

In truth, her problem is not really with Mary. Sister Anna has an agreeable Mary who is contactable, albeit through her grandmother.

But Joseph, not so much. There is not really even the prospect of a young fellow who could be cajoled into being Joseph for a photograph for the newspaper, let alone to lead his miraculously, heavily pregnant wife up the aisle of the packed church in urgent search of temporary accommodation.

It won’t be easy, but Sister Anna still has three Sundays, or 17 sleeps, to find Joseph and prepare him for the role of surrogate dad to the saviour of the world.

Sometimes, as the year hurtles to a close, it is not certain any of us we will be ready for Christmas.

Many knew months ago that their homegrown jersey bennes were not going to be ready for the Christmas Day luncheon table - in fact, weren’t going to appear at all. A seed shortage of the sought-after, gourmet potatoes has left many home gardeners disappointed and empty-handed.

The burden of satiating the nation’s desire for jersey bennes, therefore, has fallen to the likes of Peter Armstrong, of Armstrong and Co, who grows potatoes in the legendary soils of Kakanui, south of Oamaru.

Yes, seed was hard to acquire and the early crops have been a bit light, Armstrong says. But he is hopeful the next crop, which will be harvested from next week, "will come through well". In anticipation, the number of workers on his farm has temporarily risen five-fold to ensure Kakanui jersey bennes are on supermarket shelves in time for the Christmas rush.

For many people, next on their Christmas Day menu after gourmet potatoes is a leg of ham. Swine flu in China is pushing up the price of imported ham. But John Grant, of Havoc Farm Pork, says the Waimate free range farm is flat-out processing up to seven tonnes of Christmas hams at its plant in Kaikorai Valley, Dunedin, to meet Otago and nationwide demand.

Turkey is starting to give ham a run for its money. About 250,000 turkeys now make their way on to New Zealand dining room tables each year.

Demand for free range gobblers is growing too. But will supply keep up with demand this Christmas? Only if Kyle and Aidan work like crazed elves all this month.

Kyle and Monique Smith own Crozier’s Free Range turkey farm, 10 minutes north of Ashburton. Monique says her husband and his brother are in the middle of processing turkeys and are putting in 100-hour weeks to get the work done.

The same sort of effort is going into getting 8000 tonnes of strawberries out of the fields and into Kiwi mouths. Doing her share is Leanne Matsinger who is the South Island’s biggest strawberry producer.

"We’re in the thick of it. The plants are oozing with fruit," Leanne, who has more than 20 people picking on her Peebles farm, north of Oamaru, says.

Cherries are the big question this Christmas. By now we should be past the early fruit and on to the big, crunchy, Christmas cherries. But Central Otago growers, who produce 90% of the country’s export cherries, are still waiting for summer to arrive, Richard Mills, of Summerfruit New Zealand, says. The hope is that the sun will shine and the week before Christmas will still be a big one for cherry pickers, packers and distributors. What is certain is that cherry prices will have a yuletide spike, reaching $39/kg in some stores.

Wine merchants will be hoping everybody is stocking up their drinks cabinets for Christmas. Hoping, because wine consumption has unaccountably been dropping in New Zealand. Still, Paul Williams, of Wine Freedom, in Dunedin, says he has been building up Christmas stock. Gift-buying is strong and sales of bubbly increase 30% in December, he says.

If homemade elderflower cordial or champagne is your thing, seize the day. Flowers are blooming now but will have largely disappeared by the week before Christmas. Sugar supplies are rarely a problem, but citric acid can run short on supermarket shelves.

Sprucing and decorating - be it streets, houses or bodies - is an important Christmas tradition.

Many cities and towns put up Christmas bunting.

Increasingly, householders are also getting in on the act. There is still time to get it done, unless you are the likes of Jan Robertson, of 123 Barr St, Kenmure, Dunedin. A serial Christmas lights festooner, Jan spent 10 days getting her decorations in place before the switch was thrown last weekend. She had to sort through six large plastic containers holding dozens of meters of electric cable and hundreds of multi-coloured lights, garden candy canes, home-made Christmas trees, a blow-up Santa and up to 18 multiboxes to plug it all in.

Jan would like others in her street and elsewhere to join her in using light to "spread joy".

There might be time to decorate your house, but if you have not made preparations to get your hair and nails done, forget it. For popular hair salons and beauticians, the cut-off point for pre-Christmas appointments was sometime in August.

Tanya Pulford, of Aart on St Andrew, in Dunedin, says the hair salon is fully booked until Christmas. Her stylists will be doing up to 10-hour days, six days a week, to get all the cuts and colours done in time.

With gift-giving and merry-making comes waste. Wastebusters, based in Wanaka and Alexandra, recycles four times as much glass, and three times its usual amount of paper and plastics, in the days after Christmas.

Dunedin’s Green Island Landfill is 20% busier at Christmas. Before Christmas and after New Year the landfill receives about 1200 tonnes of waste each week.

Who can possibly be ready for all the money they will inevitably spend at Christmas?

Last Christmas, I gave you my heart ... more than that, New Zealanders collectively gave retailers more than $6 billion during December last year, according to figures from Paymark, which processes about 80% of New Zealand's debit and credit card transactions.

In Otago, on the 22nd and 23rd of December, last year, non-fuel spending totalled $25.5 million.

It is not surprising then, that budget advisers have to get ready too. Andrew Henderson, of Dunedin Budget Advisory Service (DBAS), says his organisation gets "quite a jump" in people seeking budgeting help in the first weeks of the New Year. Many make it to February when school costs threaten to join forces with Christmas debt, forcing their hand. This past year, DBAS’ 26 volunteers helped 785 people and families sort their finances. They are bracing to do it all over again with a new crop of clients after this silly season.

Sometimes, the stresses and excesses of Christmas tragically boil over into family violence. New Zealand Police say they are ready, as always, to respond.

"Unfortunately, this time of the year is one of the busiest for police dealing with family violence, which remains a widespread problem in our communities," Police Family Harm National Manager Fiona Roberts says.

Not everyone is focused on Christmas. For Jim Fyfe, the Department of Conservation’s coastal biodiversity manager, this time of year is all about sea lions. The nationally vulnerable marine mammals like to give birth between the week before Christmas and mid-January. Attempting to find somewhere well away from male sea lions, the soon-to-be mothers can tend to "turn up in weird and wonderful places", Jim says. So, he and other Doc staff keep a lookout for seals and their pups, to ensure they are safe from traffic, dogs and people.

"A change is as good as a holiday," Jim says stoically of the many callouts he gets while others are relaxing and gorging themselves.

Whether people will do that at the beach or lake, or be forced indoors, is a moot question.

Niwa says summer temperatures in Otago are likely to be above average and rainfall about normal.

But there is no way to make firm Christmas Day plans when the word from MetService is that long range predictions have been "all over the show at the moment" and they would have "no confidence in anything we give you at this point". Ask again 10 days out, is MetService’s advice.

Of course, sun or rain does not interfere with the traditional heart of Christmas celebrations; Christmas Eve and Christmas Day church services.

A total of more than 600 people are expected to attend the 6pm Christmas Eve family service, the midnight candlelit service and the two Christmas morning services at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, in Dunedin.

The cathedral’s choir has been busy preparing.

About 500 candles, from tea lights and votive candles to 30cm altar candles, are all ready to go, the Right Rev Steven Benford says.

"They all point to the One true light," he says.

That’s all very well. But, what if we aren’t ready for Christmas?

What if our potatoes get rot, someone else snatches the last ham off the shelf and our budget doesn’t stretch to that new phone our pre-teen thinks they desperately need?

Can we still have Christmas?

Apparently, yes.

Christmas is about family and about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, Bishop Benford says.

It is a time to remember the mystery of God becoming human and entering into human life, Father Mark Chamberlain, of Holy Name, says.

And that, presumably, is something you can do with or without a stand-in Joseph.


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