The chaotic history of the lolly scramble in New Zealand

It’s a Kiwi tradition fraught with outrage, red tape and injury. It’s also really bloody fun. Alex Casey takes a look back at the evolution of the lolly scramble in New Zealand. 

Legend tells of an impromptu lolly scramble that rocked the Wellington art scene in a matter of seconds. The year was 2003, and the week-long installation at an unnamed gallery had attracted a decent opening night crowd. The free sauvignon blanc was flowing, the live band was grooving and the room was abuzz with conversation. Bags of lollies were discreetly handed out to a choice few patrons. The crowd didn’t know what was, literally, about to hit them. From every angle. At speed.

“I thought a lolly scramble might be a good way to enliven the space that night,” the unnamed artist recalled. “Unfortunately it backfired.” As the first rock-hard wrapped lollies careened through the air without warning, they appeared to activate a primal fight or flight response from the people in the room. “It didn’t really turn out to be the scenario I had imagined… people grabbed more bags of sweets and really pelted them out hard so that they bounced off walls and into the crowd. It got out of control I think.”

The room quickly emptied, leaving only unwanted Fruit Bursts and Milkshakes scattered across the floor. 

Children having a lolly scramble in a field, Hawke’s Bay District. Whitehead, Henry Norford, 1870-1965: Negatives of Napier, Hastings and district. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Lolly scrambles have a rich social history here in New Zealand. Since the late 1800s, birthday parties, A&P shows, fairs, prize-givings, fundraisers, sports events and Christmas parades have all featured the chaotic ritual as a highlight. The premise is simple: an adult releases a large amount of lollies into the air and a group of children go absolutely feral trying to pick up as many as they can. It’s a piñata without the admin. A treasure hunt without much of a hunt. 

According to historian David Green, the earliest recorded New Zealand lolly scramble features in an 1870 article recapping a picnic in the Taieri Plains held by the Ancient Order of Foresters. “A ‘lolly scramble’ was entered into with great zest by the youngsters,” the article reads, “who were lavish in their praises to the Foresters and hoped that the pic-nic would come oftener.” Green notes the quote marks around ‘lolly scramble’ – a clue that the term was unfamiliar at the time.

But where did that early impulse to scramble come from? And why lollies? Green says it was most likely cultivated here, rather than imported from the UK. “Sweets were a luxury until the 19th century, when new technology made it possible to mass-produce. Before then, they would have been too expensive to chuck about in large numbers.” There are records of nut scrambles also taking place here in the 1880s, which likely stemmed from the British tradition of giving fruit or nuts to children on special occasions. 

AUCKLAND STAR, VOLUME LXIV, ISSUE 251, 24 OCTOBER 1933, VIA NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

Scrambling also served a crucial social function. The second half of the 19th century saw children’s lives become much more regimented, says Green, as society looked for new ways to control their unruly young. That dry-buzz structure came in the form of compulsory education, Sunday school and organised sports, leaving anarchic moments like a lolly scramble as what Green calls the ‘carrot’ dangling at the end of a life of ‘stick’. 

By the 1930s, scrambling had exploded. The tradition moved beyond smaller picnics and parties to galas, cinemas and skating rinks, culminating in the pièce de résistance – the mighty Santa parade. People also began experimenting with avant-garde scrambling methods. “In one early variant, the scrambling was done by a local dignitary who attached sweets to his suit,” says Green. “He jogged around pretending to evade the children who were in hot pursuit.” 

Parents would be well within their rights to be upset about, say, a school principal covering his body in sweets and running through a bunch of kids, but one 1935 letter to the Northern Advocate raises different concerns. “As a parent, I wish to make a protest,” the letter begins. “A lolly scramble anywhere should be condemned in the interests of hygiene, but particularly so in Central Park, where the ground is often polluted by wanton spitting and the tramp of many feet.” 

Their pearls clutched tighter. “I have seen plants taken from a tray of earth with bare hands and, without washing, the same hands have immediately after served unwrapped sweets to a child. Surely the health and lives of our children are too precious to be thus ignored.” 

NORTHERN ADVOCATE, 11 FEBRUARY 1935, VIA NATIONAL LIBRARY OF NEW ZEALAND

All I have to say to you, J.M.C, if that is your real name, is that you ain’t seen nothing yet. Tech developments over the next 90 years would inject the lolly scramble with a whole new set of dangers beyond wanton spitting, and what began with a humble tin bucket of sweets became a showcase of daredevil prowess. “Sweets were thrown from horseback, standing in carts, traction engines, flatbed trucks, floats, railway wagons,” says Green. 

“Some were even dropped from aeroplanes.”

Ah yes, the aerial lolly scramble – the most spectacular and hazardous method of the genre. When I asked for people’s childhood stories, most were to do with a huge amount of lollies being dropped from a great height. One particularly botched drop was witnessed by Melanie Horrell in Ashburton, 1995. “My primary school had someone drop the lollies out of a plane at the school fair, but the guy stuffed up and all the lollies ended up on the roof in the school pool.” 

Even when the lollies do eventually make it to ground level in an aerial drop, they arrive at high speed. “Every year at the kids Christmas party at the Napier fire station, they’d get the truck with the cherry picker out and do a lolly scramble,” recalls Beck Woolhouse. “Trouble was that the cherry picker went so fucking high that the lollies essentially became bullets on their descent. I remember being cracked on the head many a time with uncaught Mackintosh’s.” 

Anecdotally, Minties appear to be the most perilous lolly. Jo Hawkins once got knocked out by a rogue Mintie in the early 90s. “It was a Santa who got me at a school fair. He was up a ladder. Right in the temple. Ironic, as it would have been great on one of those ‘moments like these you need Minties’ ads.” Fraser Thompson was never allowed to partake in lolly scrambles, but has fond memories of watching his peers getting “brained” by falling Minties. 

“When I was a child I was on a float during a Christmas parade, I threw a Mintie that hit a woman in the face,” says Anna Sheridan. “I think of that often.”

Increasing reported injuries in the 1990s led to a return of the moral panic that swept the letters section of the Northern Advocate in 1935. The tipping point is rumoured to have come after a spring parade injury in Warkworth in 1992. A kid is said to have dived under a float in the parade to retrieve a lolly and broken his arm. Alysha Fraser remembers hearing about the incident all the way down in Hamilton, her own local lolly scramble being cancelled as a result. 

As if that wasn’t enough to stop the scramble, a 2003 court case caused event organisers to put up more red tape than ever before. After a competitor was killed during the 2001 Christchurch to Akaroa cycle race, organiser Astrid Anderson was fined and charged with criminal nuisance. In the wake of the ruling, event organisers cracked down on health and safety. The Tauranga Christmas parade banned legs dangling from floats and, you guessed it, lolly scrambles. In Huntly, they did away with the Christmas parade altogether. 

Anderson later appealed and her conviction was quashed. 

Before we get into the previous decade, it is important to note some of the key scrambling tips amassed by the hive mind over our solid 90 years of scrambling. If you are involved in a “classic” scramble, be aware that the scrambler may well throw a handful or two behind them. If you’ve got a hat: use it as a scoop. One seasoned scrambler offered up the “starfish” technique, where you simply throw yourself on the ground and try to cover up as many lollies as you can with your body. 

Of course, those tips are useless if you are tightly wrapped in cotton wool by the PC-gone-mad brigade. In 2012, Auckland Council attempted to crack down on Christmas by enforcing a ban on water pistols, people doing handstands in horse turds and, you guessed it, lolly scrambles. Council event manager David Burt said at the time that “only clowns and pixies” would be allowed to walk alongside the floats and hand out lollies. Pixies and Clowns… P.C… makes you think.

A week and a bit of Reddit fury later, order was thankfully restored. “Mayor Len Brown has ruled out any bylaws banning lolly throwing, water pistols or participants under five, following reports last week that health and safety rules meant the festive staples couldn’t go ahead,” Stuff reported at the time. “Santa parades are fun events for the whole community,” said Brown. “It’s a shame if there has been any misunderstanding about council’s processes for putting on these events.” 

Tensions between Nanny State and Scramble State continued into the mid-2010s after Paula Bennett established the Rules Reduction Taskforce in 2014, encouraging the public to voice their concerns over outdated and frustrating regulations. The findings were published in “The Loopy Rules Report” in August 2015, and put any lolly scramble health and safety conspiracies to bed: “Being hit by a flying lolly would not be defined as a significant hazard.” 

The Department of Internal Affairs website similarly hammered the point home. “There are no government health and safety rules against lolly scrambles at things like Santa parades,” the myth-busting section reads. “There has been some concern that children could be injured running in front of floats, and while this is a valid concern, the most important thing is for event organisers, parents and caregivers to use common sense to keep kids safe.”

Despite the government’s chilled out attitude to assailing Kiwi youth with sugary treats, independent institutions have taken matters into their own hands. Meg Wahorn experienced a particularly underwhelming kindergarten lolly scramble just last year. “They brought in a five lolly limit. I was pleased my kid couldn’t gorge but also felt it lessened the cut-throat excitement somewhat… It’s not so much a lolly scramble as just picking up five lollies off the ground.”

That about brings us to today, where by all accounts the lolly scramble is still alive and thriving in most parts of New Zealand and sometimes even a blow-up doll is there. Who knows where the tradition will go next? Who knows what the impact of drone technology, AI and virtual reality will have on the humble scramble? All I can say for sure is this: there is a 2017 video on Youtube of a bloke who has built an at-home explosive lolly scramble device using an air bag, a plastic bucket, and a lot of Kiwi ingenuity. 

“Do not attempt this unless you know what you are doing” the caption reads. 

“And even then think twice about it :)”


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