Russell Clark's reconstruction of Samuel Marsden's Christmas Day service at Oihi Bay in the Bay of Islands in 1814 is how many New Zealanders have visualised the first Christmas service in this country.
Clark’s work commemorated the 150th anniversary of the event and shows Marsden at a makeshift pulpit preaching to a large group of Maori and Europeans. Ruatara, the Nga Puhi leader Marsden had met in Port Jackson (Sydney), translated the service and can be seen to Marsden’s right. This service marked the beginnings of the Christian mission to New Zealand, but was it the first Christmas service or, indeed, the first preaching of the gospel in New Zealand?
On Christmas Day 1769 the French explorer Jean François Marie de Surville and his crew were in Doubtless Bay in the Far North. On board the Saint Jean Baptiste was a Dominican priest, Paul-Antoine de Villefeix. While no records survive, it seems highly likely that such an important Catholic festival would have been marked with a mass. In the absence of hard evidence, New Zealand’s English colonial traditions have favoured Marsden’s claim to fame.