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.

Kapi-Mana News - - NEWS FEATURE -

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.

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