The year before I moved to New Zealand, we spent Christmas with my family in Texas. We drove through the world’s greatest outdoor Christmas light display at the Belton Lake Outdoor Recreation Area as my family does every year. Part of this fantastic light display is a section focused on all of the scenes of the song — Twelve Days of Christmas. We tend to sing along in this section and try to remember all the words of the song.
As we drove through that year, we got to the part that goes “and a partridge in a pear tree” and my partner drowned out our singing with “and a pukeko in a pohutukawa tree”. And we all looked at him and laughed out loud and then proceeded to try to sing it over and over again – laughing harder and harder each time we did so as it sounded crazier the more we sang it and singing pohutukawa is craziness. Try it, you’ll see what I mean.
At the time, he said that was how NZ sang the song and he tried to remember more verses. I’ve since consulted Google and Google says that the Kiwi version of Twelve Days of Christmas has the words as “and a pukeko in a ponga tree”. If you want to hear the full thing check out this site here.
A pukeko is one of the most recognizable native birds in New Zealand – you see it in fields and roadsides all along the islands. It has a blue body, somewhat darker wings and a distinctive red beak. Pukeko is the NZ name for the bird – its more common name is Australasian Swamphen. It arrived in New Zealand about 1,000 years ago but how it got here is up for debate – some say the Maori brought it over and some say it introduced itself by flying over. They are known for scheming and determination – I haven’t heard this term used but apparently if you say someone has “pukeko ears” then they are being stubborn and annoying.
The pohutukawa tree is often referred to as New Zealand’s Christmas tree – not because it looks like the standard Christmas tree but because of its brilliant red flowers that are usually seen in summer at Christmas time. The tree grows really really large and tends to have lots of flowers so it is easily recognizable. It holds a prominent place in Maori mythology as legend tells of a young warrior named Tawhaki who tried to find help in heaven to avenge his father’s death. He fell to the earth and the pohutukawa flowers are said to represent his blood.
The ponga tree is what many people think of when they think of New Zealand. Also called the silver tree-fern, the earliest use of the silver fern as a symbol of NZ was during the Second Boer War. You will see the silver fern symbol everywhere in the country and the ponga tree is commonly found as well. Ponga forests are beautiful – driving or walking through them gives you the feeling that you’re walking through the land of dinosaurs.
But, back to the song. The pukeko is not a flightless bird but it is clumsy in flight. They are hens and are usually seen on the ground – not roosting in pohutukawa or ponga trees! The Pohutukawa tree is a beautiful tree and flowers at the right time of year – but it looks nothing like a traditional Christmas tree and it totally doesn’t sound right in the song. The Ponga tree is truly part of the Kiwi identify and while it also looks nothing like a traditional Christmas tree, it sounds better in the song. But if you want to get non-stop laughter in the car while driving around looking at Christmas lights, I’d go with the Pohutukawa version.
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