Sat, Dec 23, 2023 7:00 AM
For 50 years, the Awatere Valley’s Upper Marama Road party has brought local families together every Christmas. Paula Hulburt finds out more about the celebration at the heart of this close-knit community.
The fairy lights shine, little orbs of colour splashing brightly against the approaching twilight. Red napkins lay scrunched on wooden table tops next to glasses frequently filled and ketchup bottles adorned with greasy fingerprints.
Gathered around the tables sit friends and neighbours from Awatere Valley’s Marama Road area, enjoying a tradition started half a century ago. It is the beginning of December, and the Christmas party is well underway.
It all started 51 years ago when Carolyn and Joe Ferraby opened their home and beautiful country garden, Barewood, to neighbours for Christmas drinks. The afternoon was a resounding success and so started a custom which has become as much a part of the time of year as Christmas trees and tinsel.
“Fifty years ago, women didn’t work except on the farm, and it could be quite an isolated existence,” Carolyn explains. “Neighbours were really important, if you ever went to town, you automatically called your neighbour to see if they wanted to come too.”
While times have changed since the very first party, the essence remains the same. The chance to gather and strengthen community bonds is something people look forward to Carolyn says.
“It really is all about community. Now of course, it’s a different way of life, everyone is much more mobile but that connection, that sense of community is still
there. It’s about togetherness.”
Neighbour Robyn Dick from Upton Downs Road has been at every gathering. As memories gather, she chuckles as glimpses of yesteryear’s festivities bring easy smiles.
“Everyone brings their own meat and drinks. The rest of the work is divided up really well like who brings a salad, who will bring dessert. It’s been a lot of fun and wonderful that we’ve kept it going. Most year’s we’d have a Father Christmas and the kids loved getting together, they just loved it.”
Robyn recalls how one year a bright pink convertible, nicknamed the Barbie car, arrived with Santa at the wheel. His red suit clashing with the fuchsia façade of his unusual sleigh, Santa waved as dust plumes billowed behind the car, small feet frantically thudding alongside. Slightly sticky lollies in shiny papers were flung towards the children and gifts were duly handed out. But when it came to leave, Santa’s car wouldn’t start, explains Robyn. “It was hilarious, with all the kids pushing the car down the drive, you wouldn’t get away with that now days.
Another time Santa arrived on a bike which was quite funny as when he was trying to get away the kids chased him.”
The informal gatherings are focused on fun and reconnecting, harking back to a time when neighbours routinely knew each other. The tradition was only missed once, a decade ago, when Robyn's husband, David, passed away.
“I usually start organising and ringing people saying, ‘it’s probably your turn to have it,’” Robyn says. “David had been crook, and I just didn’t feel up to it.”
Keeping the tradition going helps make more memories, she explains. “We had a bouncy castle one year which the kids loved. People would stay for a long time or leave earlier after having a good yarn.
“It’s just a shame we never really took more photos as it’d be nice to have them now. We just enjoyed the moment.”
This year’s hosts, Heather and Ty Yianakis, have lived on Marama Road for ten years, it is their second time hosting. “We’re quite new really having only been here ten years. We all take turns hosting it. It’s quite unique and such an amazing thing to do. We are a very close-knit community, though having said that, we live quite spread apart.”
The smell of barbecue lingers amid the jokes and good-natured teasing. Christmas music makes a festive backdrop as someone stretches for the last, somewhat shrivelled, sausage.
“We’re a tight wee community as that’s what rural people are like but often, we don’t see each other except to wave as we pass on the road,” Heather says.
“This gives us a chance to catch up, to reflect. It’s just so lovely to actually sit down and find out what’s going on in each other’s lives.”