Christmas came and went. No one seemed to care. It seems like Christmas is barely celebrated here, or at least certainly not with all the hubbub as in the United States. But New Year’s Eve—that’s something different.
New Year’s Eve is a Kiwi holiday. First, the sun stays up until almost 9 PM. Think about it—for us here at Mount Maunganui, people hanging out at the beach all day, swimming and playing in the ocean, hanging out with friends and family, buying ice cream cones and walking around the small town, or dining at the small cafes that line the streets, all while a palpable energy and excitement builds as the day approaches its inevitable climax.
In Pilot Bay, the bay side of Mount Maunganui, an enormous, white cruise ship is docked. Catamarans, jetskis and kayaks scurry across the bay waters somehow all magically avoiding hitting each other. People picnic under the trees, while kids splash around in inner tubes in the more tranquil waters of the bay. The holiday park (campground) at the end of the street is packed solid with rows and rows of tents and caravans (trailers). It is a sprawling tent city, looking more like some sort of festive refugee camp than a campground. Many people have settled in for the long term there; they will spend their entire Christmas holidays there. They have tables, barbeques and virtually everything they would have at home. Despite the congestion, everyone gets along.
On the ocean-side, Mount Maunganui beach itself is one of the primo beaches in all New Zealand and a hotspot for New Year’s Eve. People come from all over to be here.
The day before New Year’s Eve, they close off the main street fronting the beach. It becomes pedestrian only. Then on New Year’s Eve itself, in the early afternoon, they close off all the surrounding streets leading up to the beach. Without cars, at first everything seems eerily quiet. But it is like the calm before the storm—by tonight, over 50,000 people will descend on this small seaside town to welcome the New Year.
Two large stages have been set up for entertainment. Barriers have been erected at the ends of the streets and later security guards will be checking backpacks and purses for alcohol. No alcohol is allowed in the main beach area.
Last year, they held the Miss Mount Maunganui Beauty Contest on a stage on the beach during the day. This year when we asked an official when it would be held, she answered, “The Council has decided not to have it this year.” Council—it’s such a British phrase. The Council is what we would refer to as the city or county government, but it still always sounds so much like “1984” to me. As it turns out, they are still having the Miss Maunganui Beauty Contest, except now it is an online competition. As an aside, a previous Miss Mount Maunganui, Lorraine Downes, went on to become Miss Universe in 1983.
Outside our house throughout the long afternoon, our neighbor’s twenty-something-year-old son, who has returned for the holidays, is partying with his friends. Actually, they’ve been partying for the past few days, but it seems to be reaching some sort of crescendo. For the past days, a table has been set up in the alley fronting our house, and they play beer pong and other drinking games. Their girlfriends sit lazily by in chairs smoking, drinking, and watching the games. In the mornings, they will all sleep late and then start it up all over again in the early afternoon.
A few days earlier, when I went for my afternoon walk, they corralled me and forced me to have a few shots. Later that night, we played spoof, another drinking game, with them. When you win a round, you’re required to say with absolutely no emotion, “Ladies and gentlemen, it has been a pleasure spoofing with you.” If you express any emotion, you lose and are back in the game.
From about six to eight, there is a brief hiatus in the New Year’s Eve action. Everyone seems to have retired to eat, rest, and prepare for the big night. Rebecca and I walk up the Mount itself, the large hill that dominates the landscape and gives the town its name. Usually throngs of people scale it at all times of the day. Today it is strangely deserted.
When we return, the energy has begun to build. Over the past weeks, beach houses that had remained empty and forlorn all winter had become occupied. Now throngs of people fill every yard and gaggle and hang off every porch. There is a feeling of giddy excitement.
Back home, the single girls who live next to us are up on their balcony drinking wine. Later, we’ll see them dressed up and going out. Then, still later, they will return looking happy and a bit disheveled. In the little alley in which we live, people will come and go all night long.
Behind us, “where the surfers live”—that’s what we call the row of small rental flats behind us that are invariably rented to what seem to be a steady stream of itinerant surfers—another party is in full swing.
A tent has been set up in the yard for their guests. “Sure, come on over, there’s plenty of room to stay,” I imagine them saying. An RV is also parked a few feet from our back bedroom window. It’s all part of New Year’s at the Mount. Everyone just accepts it.
Despite all the other vehicles parked behind our house—it looks like a small parking lot—there is still plenty of room to party. The music and the clanking of beer bottles will go on long into the night, every night, for about a week.
As it begins to grow dark, a van selling pizza materializes on the street two houses down from us. People queue up to buy pizza.
The various, loud discordant music, the laughter, the chatter, and the yelling, which now comes from all sides and grows steadily louder, somehow melds together. Intermittently, some premature fireworks are set off. Back at the main strip, the crowd—mostly a younger crowd—has been building. Girls seem to dress up more. Guys seem to just wear whatever. People yell and screech hugging and embracing friends it seems they haven’t seen in millennia. We can see thousands more people moving mob-like toward the central part of the beach area. The two stages are in full swing now: loud rock music blares as strobe lights blanch the crowd.
As it approaches midnight, we join our neighbors on their balcony and drink rum and Coke.
We’ve been here long enough to make friends, to understand the culture, to feel part of things. At first, I tended to look and see differences between the United States and things here. Now I don’t look at things that way anymore.
Our neighbors seem to particularly like us. Living in a row of flats, what would be called townhouses in the US, you get to know people more. They like us and we like them. They are our friends.
I feel like I’ve become a part of things here. The bright-red pohutukawa blossums on the trees that surround the area and mark the holiday season didn’t last very long this year. The wind seems to have blown them away before their time. And after a little more than a year here, I already feel fiercely protective of the Mount from the onslaught of visitors. I don’t like it when they leave trash around. I don’t like it when, instead of using the pathways, they walk directly through the dunes. Sometimes I feel they don’t understand things here.
There is always something bittersweet about New Year’s. Yes, something new is beginning. It’s full of hope and promise and excitement. But something is ending too. Something is coming to a close.
Are we celebrating something coming or something going?
For me, my son, who had been here for a year in New Zealand, left to go back to the United States on Christmas Eve. It’s sad but it was time for him to go and get on with his own life. Our house seems strangely empty without him. I haven’t really had time to think about it yet. Life moves on.
For us, living here in New Zealand for the last year and half, this New Year’s is particularly poignant. We know we have to leave soon. These will be our last holidays here. Our visas are expiring and Rebecca wants to get back to the US to be close to her parents. So our days here are numbered.
We stand on our neighbor’s porch and watch the fireworks go off over Mount Drury, a mere several hundreds yards from our house.
The partying continues for several more hours.
Long into the night we sing Auld Lang Syne, that strange Scottish song that seems somehow more meaningful and appropriate here—
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.