'I knew the thing hit the fan' - Nelson parade organiser apologises for non-traditional Māori-inspired Santa

Nelson Christmas Parade organiser Mark Soper says the first time he realised the main attraction at yesterday's parade was deviating from the traditional image of the jolly old elf - eschewing the white hair, long beard and red jumpsuit for a korowai - was when he saw him on the parade route.

His first thought: "Holy cow."

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    Organisers say they were looking to introduce more art and culture into the event, and the council says staff have been absued over the issue. Source: 1 NEWS

    "I knew that the thing hit the fan," he acknowledged to 1 NEWS today, as the parade became the second in New Zealand in as many weeks to become embroiled in controversy over how Santa is supposed to look.

    Parade-goers in Nelson have complained that Santa was unrecognisable in the unique get up, inspired by Māori tradition more than North Pole tradition.

    "Santa just needs to wear the costume. Anyone can be Santa, just wear the costume," local resident Diane Chandler told RNZ. "Anyone can be Superman, wear the suit."

    The sentiment was echoed by hundreds of TVNZ viewers today after a poll was posted on Breakfast's Facebook page asking: Is it OK to have a non-traditional Santa in the parade?

    Although unscientific, the poll garnered more than 4000 responses. Almost 3000 of the votes, or about 75 per cent, voted for traditional Santa Clauses to lead holiday parades.

    "Pathetic, don't spoil it for the kids," Facebook user Sue Gredig commented, while Rebecca Weerasinghe suggested: "Saint Nicholas will be turning in his grave."

    Mr Soper told 1 NEWS he knew there was going to be some Māori interpretation of Santa Claus for the parade after the first choice, a more traditional version who played the role last year, dropped out and he went to Community Artworks for help.

    A traditional wood and bone carver there graciously stepped in at the last minute, he said.

    "We had a trust meeting two weeks before the parade," Mr Soper said. "The trust told me yeah, Māori Santa, as long as he's got a hat and beard and hair. But obviously that didn't happen and I'm responsible for that. I apologise for the fact it wasn't as I expected."

    Mr Soper said he's added a performance-art factor to spice up a parade that had been "a little dull" in previous years. He was also given the mandate to introduce Māori cultural groups to the parade, he said.

    But he personally believes "the hat should be part of the [Santa] kit" and isn't surprised at the backlash.

    "I didn't intend the controversy that came with it, unfortunately," he added.

    Nelson City Council also offered an apology today, while also emphasising that it had no oversight over the parade. 

    "While Nelson City Council appreciates what the Santa Parade organisers were trying to achieve, we hope that the feedback from the community will be taken into account for future events," the statement said, thanking all volunteers for generosity that was "a great example of the spirit of Christmas".

    Yesterday's controversy came as a similar debate in Auckland came to an end - with the Saint Nick who was fired from the Auckland Christmas Parade back in his role at the last minute.

    Neville Baker, who runs a company that provides other Santa's helpers like himself, was initially sacked after his statements about not hiring women to play Santa were deemed inappropriate by parade organisers.

    "They apply, and you say, 'have you misread the ad?'" Mr Baker told the Herald on Sunday. "Putting politically correct things to one side, there's a certain character people expect to find when they come to meet Santa.

    "We employ Santa's Little Helpers, and they wear a little skirt and top ... but I wouldn't put a guy in a skirt and top -- right?"

    Mr Baker's statements, and his temporary unemployment status, sparked a fierce debate about being inclusive in the #MeToo era versus sticking to traditional interpretations of the man in red.

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      Mark Soper said he did not realise Santa was intending to eschew the traditional beard, hat and jumpsuit this year for a korowai – until he saw it for himself during the parade. Source: 1 NEWS

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