When special events impresario Alan Smythe presented his idea of a free outdoor family Christmas concert to Coca-Cola New Zealand’s Annette Chillingworth 26 years ago, she loved the idea of a community event that brought family and friends together.

She never imagined that a quarter of a century later it would be referred to as “the nation’s favourite Christmas party” and would turn into a musical spectacular which has showcased thousands of talented young Kiwi performers, featured top local and international talent, has raised millions of dollars for charities and is broadcast to the nation on free to air television.

“Mother” of Coca-Cola Christmas In The Park, Annette Chillingworth.

The first Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park was held on 10th December 1994 at the beautiful Auckland Domain. The historic Cricket Pavilion was converted into a stage and the lineup included some of New Zealand’s most popular entertainers, backed by a gospel choir and a full orchestra.   

It was a massive success!” Annette said. “We were stunned by the attendance and delighted by the positive feedback we received.”

“Since that first concert, the show has grown to become New Zealand’s largest free annual Christmas community event. It’s in both Auckland and Christchurch and it’s our gift to New Zealand - bringing family and friends together at a special time of the year.  It’s been an absolute privilege to be part of it.”

Annette has been there for every single event over the past 25 years. Not only has she attended every performance but she’s also been at every dress rehearsal, making a total of nearly 100 performances over the last twenty-four years.

Fireworks are one of the highlights of the event.

In addition to the hundreds of talented newcomers discovered through the nationwide auditions, there have been countless highlights and memorable moments. Annette recalls when Santa arrived by flying fox.

“The wire ran from Auckland Hospital to the stage and for a heart-stopping moment Santa got stuck halfway. Fortunately, he started moving again and made it to the stage. The crowd loved it but we never tried that again!” she said.

Another unforgettable moment was when it “snowed” in Hagley Park. “It was a beautiful balmy Christchurch evening, and we had a helicopter fly over dropping potato flakes over the park. It was magical.”

The crowd settles in for the night in Christchurch.

And while the weather hasn’t always cooperated, the show has always gone on.

“I’ll never forget one year a weather bomb hit and the rain bucketed down for the entire time. We had over 40,000 hardy determined spectators who lasted the distance sheltering under umbrellas and tarpaulins,” Annette said.  

“The performers got saturated, but like true professionals they carried on. I remember being at the park the next day while the show was packing down and watching ducks swimming on the flooded area where our spectators had been sitting the night before!” she said.

Annette said the event has become an aspirational goal for young performers and has launched the careers of many Kiwi artists including Hayley Westenra, who first sang at the Christchurch event when she was just 13.    

“Every year Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park gives aspiring young stars a unique opportunity to learn from and perform alongside some of the nation’s most talented entertainers, in front of a massive live audience,” Annette said.  

Over the years headline acts have included Sir Howard Morrison, John Rowles, Neil Finn, Tim Finn, Dave Dobbyn, Elemeno P, Broods, Midnight Youth, Holly Smith, Anika Moa, The Koi Boys and Stan Walker.

Today the purpose-built stage is nearly four times its original size - the largest ever designed and built for a New Zealand production. Concertgoers now experience a global arena-style presentation and the 66 metre arc of LED screens offers one of the widest panoramic projections ever presented in New Zealand.  

Volunteers raise money for Youthline.

Annette said one of the very special things about Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park is the dedicated team who work tirelessly behind the scenes. Every year over 125 people are involved in the production - from sound and lighting to stage construction and management plus over 300 more are involved on the day including local police, road marshals, parking attendants, first aid workers and security guards.

“We’re like a family, we’ve been working on it together for so long that we have a special bond. Who would have thought that when we asked the Air Force Cadets of No 3 Squadron to man the road closures for the first event they would still be doing it now? And after more than 20 years, Morningside Playcentre is still running our Lost Kids tent at the Christchurch show. It’s amazing!”  

Central to the event is the fundraising. Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park is the key fundraiser for its nine-year charity partner Youthline, which has helped to support and develop over 50,000 young people every year.

This year Coca-Cola Christmas in the Park will be held in Christchurch on Saturday 24 November and in Auckland on Saturday 8 December.

Read more here: https://www.coke.co.nz/christmas-in-the-park/

CCCITP KEY FACTS

  • 250,000 attendees in 2017, with 200,000+ watching the TV broadcast

  • 1998 was the largest event ever with 300,000 people in Auckland

  • Since 1994 over 9,000 performers have performed on the big stage

  • The 22 metre Christmas tree and the spectacular fireworks finale are major highlights for many

  • Three key aspects of the original concept – to bring communities together, raise money for charity and provide an opportunity for aspiring performers – continue today.