A Queenstown Carol

Strapped in to the parasail, Michelle looks over her shoulder from far above the landscape of Queensland.

Paragliding over Queensland. Photo © Michelle Waitzman.

I began my first Christmas in New Zealand by jumping off a mountain.

Years before I moved to New Zealand, I was a tourist making the rounds of the South Island, bungee jumping, and staring in awe at the scenery. On Christmas Day, I happened to be in Queenstown, a bustling little mountain community that’s a top ski destination in the winter and an adventure tourism hotspot in the summer. Most visitors only scratch the surface of what life is all about there.

Gliding through the air above Queenstown was a magical experience—not adrenaline-pumping like a bungee jump or a skydive, but a completely different way to experience my surroundings.For those (like me) from the northern hemisphere, it’s a bit surreal to experience your first Christmas “down under.” People are out swimming and having family picnics and barbecues while Christmas music dominates the airwaves and Santa looks decidedly uncomfortable in his thick red suit and sandals.

So I decided to celebrate Christmas with the equally surreal experience of jumping off a mountain. I was, thankfully, strapped onto a qualified paraglider pilot. Despite the ambulance at the bottom of the mountain departing with one of the earlier paragliding customers, I was feeling calm and confident. After all, what were the odds of two accidents happening on the same day?

Viewed from a distance, Michelle paraglides over the mountainous terrain of New Zealand.

Photo © Michelle Waitzman.

I expect paragliding is the closest I will ever come to flying. Gliding through the air above Queenstown was a magical experience—not adrenaline-pumping like a bungee jump or a skydive, but a completely different way to experience my surroundings. Quiet, peaceful, and free.

But all good things must come to an end, and fifteen minutes after running off the mountain, I was back on solid ground with the rest of the day ahead of me and no plans. As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a couple of fellow backpackers who told me about a free Christmas dinner at the community hall. It was like music to a budget traveler’s ears—free dinner! My expectations were low, but I decided to accompany my new friends to the event.

The dinner at the community hall simply blew me away. Tables for about 200 guests were set up and the hall was decorated with balloons, candles, and Christmas crackers. They provided an expansive buffet meal that included turkey with all the trimmings, lamb (of course, it’s New Zealand), potatoes, gravy, veggies, and even festive desserts like plum pudding, trifle, and a traditional Kiwi pavlova. The guests were a mixture of travelers and locals who had no family in Queenstown.

As a resort town, Queenstown attract a large number of workers from around the country and overseas to work for its hotels, restaurants, shops, and adventure companies. The cost of living in Queenstown is enormous, as it is a millionaires’ playground, which means the service industry workers have a very tough time making ends meet. Combined with being far from family, this makes the holiday season difficult for many.

Some years ago, a local couple decided to make it a Christmas tradition to provide a special celebration for those who had nowhere to go for Christmas, and the tradition grew. Once paid for completely out of their own pockets, the event gathered local sponsorship and donations over the years. There was a wonderful community atmosphere, with people from around the world joining together for companionship and celebration.

This was my first experience of the Kiwi community spirit, which brings out the generosity in people and expects nothing in return. After moving to New Zealand, it was a spirit I continued to encounter in things like local beach clean-ups, volunteer-maintained hiking trails and backcountry huts, and response to natural disasters like flooding and earthquakes—and also in a thousand small, unexpected acts of kindness.

While I can’t definitively say that everyone in New Zealand is so kind and generous, the fact that the country has so many people willing to set a positive example was enough to make me want to be a part of that community myself. My Queenstown Christmas took place in 1998. Seven years later, I became a resident of New Zealand.

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