The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that the Prime Minister soon would be there...Forgive the slightly creative rendition of The Night Before Christmas, but in a 2020 plot twist, the first time the New Zealand Woman's Weekly team set up our festive photoshoot, it was suddenly cancelled just before a 1pm briefing announced the new community transmission case in Auckland. Definitely the least-festive news you can hear, although in a year foll of COVID-19 interruptions, it was pretty much par for the course. But following a week of very good contact tracing, we were back on again.
A very chatty and enthusiastic Jacinda Ardern turns up, resplendent in a bright red pantsuit, with an energy level that absolutely belies the fact that she's already been up for around four hours and it's just 9am. Such is the job, and such is this year. But there is - with an appropriate level of cautious optimisim - some light at the end of the tunnel and Jacinda's Christmas plans are already very much laid-out.
"This year we will be in Morrinsville with my parents and my sister and her husband and the kids, my grandfather and my uncle...and the diplomatic protection squad," Jacinda, 40, smiles. "Who we always include in our head count for Christmas dinner!"
Yes, even on Christmas Day, the PM is still very much on duty - as are those around her. And that's in a normal year - which thanks to the pandemic, this very much isn't.
"That's one of the things that, as a nation, we've really had to acclimatise to," she says. "How do we integrate all of that COVID management into our daily lives, but in a way that doesn't have a harsh psychological impact on everyone. So yes, we want everyone to be vigilant and scanning - and when we do have to move through alert levels, do it quickly, but do it confidently as well, without it constantly taking a toll on people.
"Something that has stood out for me - and I'm constantly reminded of it - is the flexibility of New Zealanders and their willingness to make things work, and to look after each other. Every time I see it, I'm just so grateful for it. That's what gives me that 'team' sense, that the team is just doing what we need to do to get through."
Jacinda's little team of Clarke, 44, and two-and-a-half year old Neve, have been able to spend more time together this year, an unexpected silver lining of COVID-19.
"I saw my family more, just because I was in one city constantly - like everyone else - and yet the thing is, the more time I spent with my family, the more I craved being with my family," she recalls. "So I wonder how many other people will feel like that, that this Christmas will have this extra-special element.
"I do know that there will be family members who won't be able to spend their time together, because they might be separated across New Zealand and Australia or other parts of the world, and I know how hard that will be. But I also know it won't be that way forever."
One of the Christmas traditions Clarke and Jacinda like to include is to pick a festive outfit for Neve each year - and Jacinda is still musing on what dress-up idea to go for.
There have been few costume opportunities for the toddler, Jacinda says. "The only dress-up this year was going to be Halloween, but then it didn't happen because we ended up having to be in Wellington.
"I had a hand-me-down pumpkin outfit, so in the end she just wore it to a kid's birthday party, where" - she laughs - "the theme was 'Unicorns' and she went as a pumpkin because that was all she had."
Whn it comes to the big day itself, Jacinda, her family and, of course, the diplomatic protection squad, will be having the classic Kiwi Christmas barbeque. "When I'm with Mum, I like to do a lot of the cooking because I don't get to do much during the year, and I really like to cook. Barbeques, salads, just normal things."
Dessert is "always a pavlova", with the option of a trifle as well. Jacinda and her older sister Louise have their own sibling tradition of marshmallow balls. She explains, "It's malt biscuits, butter and condensed milk, mashed up together, with cocoa and coconut, and then you take the biscuity mix and roll in marshmallow. Look, I might have to show you a photo, I'm not selling it that well," she laughs.
High on Jacinda's list for the break is to make a dent in her reading pile - she likes to get a stack of the winners and finalists from the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and make that her starting point for summer reading.
As an active relaxer, she also likes to potter around in the kitchen when she can. "Cooking, baking, pickling, preserving, bread-making - think most people's lockdown activities, and that's what I'm aiming to do this summer," she smiles. "I like to make relishes. I try to do my own plum sauce, but it was too acidic last time. I did some peaches, but most often they don't get preserved, they just get eaten! My parents were big preservers because I grew up on an orchard."
There's also vague discussions to get some sort of wedding planning going. "Now that we don't have an election, I think we have a little more capacity to think about other things, but I don't want to get too ahead of myself... and I guess I also don't want to jinx it," she says, in an attitude you can imagine is shared by most brides trying to lock in a date in a world where lockdowns loom.
Neve is at the stage of asking a million questions - a phase Jacinda is really enjoying, even if, she says, she is becoming very aware of her own short-comings when it comes to New Zealand botany. "Neve wants to know every species of tree," Jacinda says, then re-enacts a recent conversation between her and her daughter. "What's that?" "A tree!" "What kind of tree?" "A really big one!"
Jacinda and Clarke have tried to keep the lead-up to Christmas Day as low-key as possible - "so we don't have huge expectations on us as parents!" Jacinda tells. "Neve notices Christmas decorations, mostly because she likes to play with them. The other day. she was driving with Clarke and she asked him how he made the car stop, so he found himself trying to explain the physics of brakes. Thankfully, those are the kind of questions we get, rather than 'Is Santa coming?'"
When it comes to the Christmas period, Jacinda has a very simple message for New Zealand at the end of a very hard year.
"Hang in there," she says.
"I don't think anyone is taking anything for granted; 2020 has had a really profound effect on gratitude, I think. Because if you think of all the things you could ever be deprived of, the idea that we would be so grateful for just being around one another, having company and workmates and family and friends, in amongst a year that's been so hard for everyone, we have that gratitude for one another. I think that's something this year has taught us."
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