Celebrating Christmas, Island style
Christmas in the Pacific is like no other. But despite the differences in traditions and rituals, the focus on religion, family and food is universal. Esther Lauaki compares a typical Samoan Christmas with two other Polynesian families’ festivities.
Like most Pacific families, mine is large, loud and hungry – and Christmas Day is when these attributes show the most. Sitting down last week with Fijian immigrant Samantha Nacewa and Tokelauan brothers Patolo and Lawrence Patelesio to talk about their family traditions during the festive season, I found comfort in the fact I’m not alone.
The Patelesios are proud Tokelauans and when you’re welcomed into their home, you leave feeling like part of the family.
‘‘I guess it’s just the Tokelauan way. Those are the values we extend to all our friends and family. You welcome them in to your home. Sit down and have a laugh, sing songs and include everyone, no matter who they are,’’ says Patolo.
Although their family of six is reasonably small, as far as Pacific ones go, Christmas lunch will probably see them sharing a table with at least 30 close family members.
Ms Nacewa flats in Wellington but will travel to Fiji to spend the holidays with her family in Suva this year where she expects to catch up with more than 50 of her close family members over Christmas lunch.
I’m sure to be met with the same sort of numbers when I return to be with my everexpanding family in West Auckland.
Across the Pacific you would be hardpressed to find a celebration that wasn’t centred on three key events: The church service, the main meal and a unique cultural event.
The church service The Patelesios house has been the hub of many celebrations over the years – including Christmas. The wall-sized collage of family photos is a prominent reminder when you enter the heart of their home in Ascot Park.
Now, as adults, they make their own decisions about what they believe in and how often they attend church, but the religious values instilled in them as children remain, Lawrence says.
‘‘Christmas would start with midnight mass most years. If we didn’t make it to Holy Family Church for the night service, we’d definitely go for the morning.’’
Ms Nacewa, an active Catholic, attends a mass with her family in Fiji every Christmas morning.
‘‘ Church is a very big part of Christmas because it is a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ so we all go together to remember that . . . Later in the afternoon we do another prayer before everyone eats.’’
One of my favourite parts of the Samoan church programme is the Manu Ao (morning song). It’s an age-old tradition which begins from midnight on Christmas Eve in the Islands. Church choirs walk through the villages, all dressed in white, singing carols by candlelight, and waking villagers with music.
They travel by bus in New Zealand but churches still carry on the tradition now – much to my European neighbours’ delight.
When growing up, my father would greet the choirs with gifts of money or a warm drink as a show of appreciation.
The feed Waking up early on Christmas Day to prepare food before church is a common exercise for all the Island households I know.
For centuries Tokelauans have used the stars to navigate the water around the atoll and are renowned fishermen.
Seafood is the staple food group at the Patelesios’ Christmas lunch with a selection of fried fish, raw fish salad, shellfish and ‘‘plenty of taro to go with it’’, Patolo says.
A traditional Fijian lovo is similar to the Samoan umu and will be on the menu for Ms Nacewa’s family as well as my own. The lovo is an underground oven in which pork, lamb, chicken, fish, and palusami (coconut cream and onion wrapped in taro leaves) is cooked.
Side dishes include curry, shellfish, chop suey and a traditional Fijian seaweed dish.
‘‘On special occasions, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to eat turtle. It’s a delicacy over there,’’ she says.
As the sun sets At the end of a long day of indulgence, different cultures choose to close the celebrations in their own way.
Tokelauans end it on a high with a hatele, or action song, which is performed in large groups at special occasions, and gets faster and faster to rouse the audience.
‘‘ It’s a traditional Tokelauan dance. When we were younger we used to do one for our grandparents every Christmas as a way of thanking them for having us,’’ says Lawrence.
In Fiji, the adults perform a traditional kava ceremony.
A sevusevu (person who serves the kava) will mix the potent powder with water and and serve it in a coconut shell. The host will receive the drink and clap once before and three times after drinking, to give thanks for the offering.
While the sun sets on a Samoan Christmas, families play kilikiti (Samoan cricket) and volleyball in competitions run by the village chiefs or the church.
Games are also a feature of Tokelauan and Fijian celebrations.
‘‘It’s all about family and inclusion in Pacific cultures. That’s what sets us apart from other [nations]. It’s not where you’re from or what you do, it’s about how you treat others and use your time on this earth,’’ Patolo says.
One love: About 60 members of the ‘‘Pamu’’ family, a group of related Tokelauan families, together at Queen Elizabeth Park for a pre-Christmas bash on December 4. This is the regular crowd but some couldn’t make it.
Happy days: I remember, as a 10-year-old, waiting up till midnight on Christmas Eve for Samoan carollers to arrive and sing outside the family home.