The tradition goes back a long way as Bavarian mercenaries stationed in Howick in 1863 put up a Christmas tree on the iconic hill.
According to the diary of Charles Lush, son of Reverend Vicesimus Lush, the tree “twinkled with lights and gay decorations”.
The tradition of decorating an evergreen coniferous tree – real or artificial — started in Livonia (present-day Estonia and Latvia) in the fifteenth century and northern Germany in the sixteenth century. Stories of the monk St Boniface inventing the Christmas tree in the seventh century are regarded as legend or myth.
The custom spread to towns of the upper Rhineland in the early eighteenth century, but remained confined there for a long time as it was regarded as a Protestant custom by the Roman Catholic majority along the lower Rhine. It eventually spread south in 1815.
The tradition was introduced to Canada in 1781 by Brunswick soldiers garrisoning the Quebec colony against American attack.
In the nineteenth century the custom spread across Austria, France and Denmark and eventually reached Britain. A decorated tree was placed in the young Queen Victoria’s room every Christmas.
After Victoria’s marriage to her German cousin Prince Albert, the custom had, by 1841, become widespread throughout Britain. By the 1870s putting up a Christmas tree was common in America.
The United States National Christmas Tree is lit each year on the South Lawn of the White House. President Jimmy Carter lit only the crowning star on top of the tree in 1979 in honour of the Americans being held hostage in Iran.
In 1980 the tree was fully lit for 417 seconds, one second for each day the hostages had been in captivity.
In New Zealand the pohutukawa tree has become known as the New Zealand Christmas tree because its red flowers bloom at Christmas time.
However, the fir tree is most commonly used in the northern hemisphere and in New Zealand the well-established Pinus radiata fits the bill for domestic living rooms.
An angel or star placed at the top of the tree represents the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity.
The first artificial Christmas trees were developed in Germany in the nineteenth century, made of goose feathers dyed green.
Most modern artificial Christmas trees are made from 100 per cent recycled plastics from used packaging materials. More recently, Christmas trees donned with fibre optic lights have been developed.
Rather than featuring snow and sleigh bells, Christmas in New Zealand is more about sun, sand and barbecues in the backyard, according to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage “Kiwi Christmas” web site.
• In 1642 Abel Tasman’s crew celebrated the first Christmas dinner in New Zealand. It was freshly killed pork from the ship’s menagerie, washed down with extra rations of wine. In 1769 James Cook’s crew feasted on “goose pye”, made with gannet.
• The first Christmas Day service was given by Samuel Marsden at Oihi Bay, Bay of Islands, in 1841. But question marks remain over whether a French priest beat him to it in 1769.
• Santa parades started in the main centres in the early 1900s, established by department stores to promote the arrival of in-store Santas.
• Santa Claus made his commercial debut in 1894 at the DIC store in Lambton Quay, Wellington.
• Farmers Trading Company erected a giant Santa on its Hobson Street department store in central Auckland in 1960 and he appeared above the store each Christmas for close to 30 years.
• A day off on Christmas Day has not always been a legal entitlement. The day became a formal public holiday in 1910.
In a 2006 survey, Readers Digest asked a sample of 259 Kiwis what Christmas meant to them.
Dinner with the family was still important, but the Queen’s message was losing its relevance.
Most preferred to eat Christmas dinner at home with close family, extended family or family and friends.
While the religious importance of Christmas is respected, the focus has shifted to a family day in New Zealand which, unlike many other cultures, doesn’t have a day set aside for family celebration.
Increasingly Christmas dinner has switched to being a barbecue or picnic, but many people continue to prefer a northern hemisphere-style roast dinner.