Rest ye merry gentleman

Has Santa lost his head?

THERE IS A SANTA HEAD THE SIZE OF A BUILDING MOUNTED OUTSIDE A HANGAR AT WĀNAKA AIRPORT. I PASS HIM ON MY MORNING COMMUTE. DEPENDING ON THE WEATHER AND/OR MY STATE OF MIND, ON ANY GIVEN DAY HE’S A CHEERY REMINDER OF CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS PAST OR AN UNHAPPY METAPHOR FOR THE HUMAN CONDITION.

The Christmas season, or Christmastide, was once associated in Western tradition with the 12 days from December 25 to January 5. As in that song. Now it starts somewhere around mid-September with a small niggle of worry, which by mid-November has turned into full-blown panic fuelled by missed postal cut-off dates and the impending feedback of judgmental relatives. Shop, panic, shop, repeat. Run around like a headless, you know.

Nothing says ho, ho, ho like a disembodied face.
PHOTO: Laura Williamson

​As for the Wānaka Airport head, it’s 20% of what was one of Aotearoa’s, if not the world’s, most famous Christmas decorations. It was 1960 when an 18-metre tall, five-tonne fibreglass and steel Father Christmas was first erected on the Farmers building at the corner of Auckland’s Hobson and Wyndham Streets. It originally had a winking eye and an animatronic finger that beckoned people to come inside and shop. Or that’s what the finger was supposed to be implying. A lot of people didn’t quite read it that way. (Fun fact: according to The Aucklander, it beckoned 25,920 times per day.)

Santa returned to the corner each holiday season for 30 years. In 1990, however, the Hobson Street Farmers was put up for sale, so Kris Kringle and his twitchy finger were relocated to the Farmers at the Manukau City Shopping Centre, where he appeared each Christmas from 1991 through to 1995. He was a bit worse for wear by then (think Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa), so Santa took a break while his fate was decided.

An events consultant stepped in and bought him for $1 and oversaw a $40,00 restoration project. Papa Noël had a structural upgrade, got a new lick of paint, and his moving parts were swapped out for static alternatives. No one seems to know what happened to the finger, but according to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, someone bought the winking eye on Trade Me for 790 bucks.

Santa was reinstalled on Queen Street, this time on the Whitcoulls building, where he rang in the festive season every year until 2019. It was during this time that Auckland’s Saint Nick was named on Cracked magazine’s list of “The 11 Most Unintentionally Creepy Christmas Ornaments”. They called him the “Giant Disfigured Santa” and compared his face to that of a stroke victim. He beat out a blue Christmas bauble with demon bird legs and an ornament that depicted Father Xmas stuffing a child into his sack. Now, now, Cracked. The Auckland Santa may have been controversial, but he is ours.

The good news is he’s been acquired by the team at Wānaka Airport’s National Transport & Toy Museum, which lovingly houses, preserves and displays more than 60,000 items, including every toy you ever had, or dreamed of having, as a kid. Oh, the Star Wars section alone. Museum curator Jason Rhodes has promised to take good care of Aotearoa’s largest Saint Nick, and his head will eventually be reunited with his torso. For now, he looks happy enough, and I will accept his tidings as good ones. As the saying goes, “every gift is a little piece of Santa.”

LAURA WILLIAMSON

Top image: A truck convoy carries Santa over the Lindis Pass en route to Wanaka. PHOTO: Stephen Jaquiery, Otago Daily Times