Every year an 18 metre tall Santa is pieced together and bolted to the front of the Farmers Building on Queen Street. Aucklanders seem to love him, outsiders not so much. José Barbosa argues from his heart why this Santa belongs in everyone else’s.
I’m not an Auckland native. I grew up in the Bay of Plenty, in Rotorua and Katikati. For me, culturally speaking, Christmas was watching Scrooged on TV and that was it. From reports on TV news I had a vague idea that Aucklanders worshipped a gigantic Santa strapped to a building. But that was Auckland; it was far away and seemed like a different country. I might as well have been watching reports about Lilliput or Toytown.
It’s been almost 20 years since I moved to Auckland and it’s been a slow education in all things Santa. I used to live off Queen Street so suddenly Santa was on my doorstep, so to speak, festive joy emanating from his huge face like the Ark of the Covenant. And it took me along time to understand that the giant Santa is Auckland’s Ark; a symbol of a higher power rolled out every year to thousands and thousands of believers.
But there are plenty of non-believers. There’s always someone questioning the why of Santa. When I was shooting Get It To Te Papa, and its related free-to-stream Christmas Special about the giant Santa, I discovered the actress Sonia Gray (formerly from Wellington) was a Kris Kringle naysayer. “As a Wellingtonian,” she told us, “I just looked at that and thought ‘what a piece of shit’.”
She was adamant that Aucklanders were under some kind of magical yuletide spell, not only about Santa but about everything we cherished about Auckland. “Anyone out of Auckland can see how bad it is, but you guys don’t get far enough away to actually go ‘why have we got that Sky Tower?’”
Since wrapping Get It To Te Papa her arguments have, admittedly, got under my skin. Are my fellow Aucklanders and I like moths to Santa’s flame, I asked myself? Is Santa our wicker man within which our grasp on reality burns to a crisp every Christmas?
The answer is no. Auckland’s giant Santa is an icon of human unity and here are a number of reasons why.
It’s whimsical AF when he goes up every year
Santa’s a big old boy weighing some 5 tonnes, so every Christmas it’s a mission to get him strapped onto the exterior of the Farmers building. That part of Queen St is swarming with gruff people in hard hats and high-viz vests as bits of Santa arrive on flatbed trucks and are then lifted into position by two cranes. For the love of God, look at this picture of tiny little workmen sitting inside Santa’s boots and tell me your heart doesn’t get little burpy butterflies.
His back story is a twisty-turny tale of fraud and civic pride
Those mad, wonderful loons at Farmers first decided to erect a massive Santa on their building in 1960. The department store was, at that point in time, situated on the corner of Hobson and Wyndham Streets. Framers sold the building in the early 1990s and Santa moved to the Manukau Farmers store. But by 1996 Farmers were over spending buckets of cash on maintenance. They made it known they were going to drop Santa, probably somewhere on the Desert Road with a fiver and a packet of chips.
Fortunately a marketing consultant, Stephen Hanford, stepped up. He bought Santa out right for $1 ($1.51 correcting for 2018 inflation), organised a gaggle of businesses and business people to restore the old fella and found a new yearly perch: this time on what was then the Whitcoulls Building in Queen Street.
Santa was given another facelift in 2009 (more on that below) after a campaign lead by Heart of the City boss Alex Swney. Six years later in 2015 Swney was jailed after pleading guilty to allegations he stole more than $4 million dollars from the inner city business association.
Santa is currently maintained and erected every year by Mansons, a construction company. But it’s a costly business and there is always whispers that Santa’s days may be sadly numbered.
He’s world famous
The overseas rags can’t get enough of him. Particularly before his last facelift when his right eye winked and his left index finger move in and out, presumably to entice children into the Farmers department store.
Old grubber Alex Swney famously called Santa “creepy” and “a sad old man”. And cracked.com once voted Auckland’s Santa the king of “unintentionally creepy Christmas ornaments”. The website stated that “They literally performed plastic surgery to make this thing look human again.”
Giant Santa beat Demon Santa and a Terrified Infant Ornament. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it, haters.
The big red cheese brings out the best in everyone
Private individuals seem to always have Santa’s back. As noted above, Mansons came to the party in 2014 agreeing to house, maintain and erect the big beautiful boy. The man who saved Santa in the 1990s, Stephen Hanford, spent thousands and thousands of his own money on Santa.
Why? Stephen told us on Get it To Te Papa that for him “it all comes back to the spirit of what it represents. It represents joy, it represents giving.” People just seem to get a kick out of seeing year after year Santa bolted to the front of the Farmers Building on Queen Street and they’ll move heaven and earth to make sure they always will.
He’s looking the best he has in years
Putting aside the winking eye and the curling finger, Santa used to look cooked as. Compare the two images below – it’s basically a before and after meth addiction photo.
The old Santa looked like Santa’s death mask; like he’d had all his skin burnt off and someone had caked him in baking paper. There’s also something about his old mouth. It’s more like a blister you’d find on the back of your heel after breaking in new shoes than the kisser on a jolly old gent.
No comparison, the new Santa is fit for purpose and looking sharp. Anyone who disagrees can GTFO.
So he’s up again for another year. People still stop and take pictures. Tourists, or at least the ones I saw early in the morning on Queen Street this weekend, can’t quite believe what they’re seeing. I watched one American couple exclaim loudly to each other and to their phones “SANTA’S COMING. YOU BETTER WATCH OUT!” Workers on their way to the office stopped to watch a crane slowly lift Santa’s head into place, mouths agape, their daily grind momentarily forgotten.
Sonia and the others who mock Aucklanders and their Santa don’t know what I know: it’s a cold, old heart that doesn’t look forward to the arrival of Giant Santa.
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The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.