Maori Santa one of many versions

The Nelson Santa parade on Sunday, in which Santa Claus was played by Robert Herewini wearing a red korowai. Photo: Facebook
The Nelson Santa parade on Sunday, in which Santa Claus was played by Robert Herewini wearing a red korowai. Photo: Facebook
Despite being 11,660 miles away from sunny Nelson, New Zealand, the ''Maori Santa Claus'' debacle has reached the frozen wastelands of Oxford, England.

The bickering is inescapable - from long and heated Facebook comment threads to casual conversations overheard in coffee shops.

On Sunday, the Nelson Santa Parade organisers dared to replace the traditional fat, red-suited, bearded Santa with Robert Herewini, an un-bearded Maori man wearing a short-sleeved shirt and red korowai. All hell has broken loose, apparently.

The usual suspects - Don Brash, Duncan Garner and countless keyboard warriors are up in arms, petulantly crying that ''Maori don't have to own everything''.

The organisers of Nelson's Santa Parade have been accused of being overly ''PC'', and to my disappointment, the event director Mark Soper has apologised for the fact that ''the parade did not live up to expectations''.

Honestly, I don't see what all the fuss is about. The kids are all right. Trust me, any child who attended that parade will get over it.

When I was a child, I was incredibly disappointed that Christmas in New Zealand wasn't the ''traditional'' white winter Christmas that Enid Blyton's books had conjured up. Where was the blanket of snow covering our little town, or the frosty holly berries? Where were the rugged-up carol singers, the Yule log, the mulled wine or hot chocolate clasped by shivering hands next to an open fireplace?

But over time, I came to love and cherish the uniquely Kiwi Christmases we celebrate down here in our little corner of the world. Cricket on the beach, chicken salad, hangis, Christmas carols sung by eager voices in

te reo Maori, the glorious pohutukawa trees, strawberry pavlova instead of warm Christmas pudding, and afternoon naps in the sunshine; this is Christmas, or Kirihimete, in Aotearoa.

It seems to me as if the adults upset over Hana Koko care more about this issue than the children do. Perhaps there's another, more insidious reason, why they feel uncomfortable about a Maori man in a beautiful korowai, and it's not because their precious darlings are ''missing out'' on the traditional St Nick. After all, there are as many different iterations of Santa Clauses and Christmas visitors as there are countries and cultures the world over.

Excluding the ''traditional'' image of a fat, bearded, jolly man in a red suit popularised by early 20th century Coca-Cola advertisements, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, Kris Kringle, or whatever you call him, originally appeared in Western cultures as a merry man in green robes who refrained from giving gifts, but instead delivered good tidings.

In Iceland, they have the Jolasveinarnir, or Yule Lads, a group of 13 mysterious troll-like creatures who in some legends bear gifts, and in others, eat children.

In Italy, an ugly yet friendly old witch named La Befana visits children in the place of Santa.

New Zealand is a multicultural nation. The palaver over a Maori Santa Claus completely disregards the fact that for thousands of children across the nation, Santa is Maori. He's their father, their uncle, or older brother (or mother, aunt and sister, to broach a different argument) dressed up for their entertainment.

Instead of complaining about Hana Koko, perhaps parents could use this opportunity to educate their children about the beauty and depth of Maori culture, from the intricately woven korowai worn by Herewini, to the finely carved fish-hook sceptre in his hand.

It strikes me as rather telling that such an uproar is occasioned over the possibility of a few small children being briefly disappointed by Santa Claus on a sunny Sunday morning, when 290,000 children the country over live below the income poverty line every day. What will Christmas be like for these children? Do you think their harried parents, struggling to make ends meet, care about whether Santa has a white beard or not?

Perhaps Brash, Garner and all the others upset about Hana Koko should focus their attention on the fact that a deplorable number of Kiwi kids are homeless, go to school hungry, sleep in a cold, damp house and lack access to healthy food.

I'll conclude with a few wise words from the occasionally eloquent, but ever-expressive Patrick Gower: ''This is not what Santa's about. Santa is not about angst and Santa is not about Santa hate. Santa is about hope, Santa is about dreams. Santa can come down the chimney even when you don't have a chimney. Santa can come in the ranch slider, Santa can drink craft beer. Santa can drink strawberry-flavoured Lindauer for all I care.''

Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago, and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University.


The usual suspects are permanently getting ready to go ballistic.