“Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” ants, cockroaches, mosquitoes, geckos and roof dwelling rats perhaps, but certainly no mice, so that’s good.
Despite only have one more sleep until Noddy Holder can legitimately screech “It’s Christmas!” (although I expect he has been doing it since the beginning of November on most UK radio stations), here in Tuvalu I am struggling to get into the Christmas spirit. I have my tinsel up, I have my Christmas lights up, and I have been obediently opening my advent calendar every day, but there is still something preventing me from getting excited, despite having the honour of being in one of the first countries in the world to welcome in Christmas day.
Maybe it is the distinct lack of Christmas trees at this latitude, if you’ve ever tried to put a star on top of a palm tree you’ll realise how ridiculous it looks. Perhaps it is the overwhelming improbability of a white Christmas in the 35°C heat, maybe it’s because I haven’t watched Home Alone, Die Hard, The Great Escape, or Love Actually yet, or been subject to the barrage of Christmas songs and corporate messages – hell I haven’t even seen the coca-cola advert this year! All these things do in some way contribute to the feeling of Christmas, but the more likely reason for my current lack of Christmas-ness, is the knowledge that this year I will missing out on those little Christmas rituals which make it so unique.
What I love about Christmas in the UK is the little traditions which are unique to specific households all over the country; yes most of us will partake in the Christmas classics like turkey, mince pies, and crackers with silly hats and bad jokes, but it is the little individual quirks that really make the Christmas traditions. A particular Christmas breakfast for example, where you go to celebrate and with who, the order things are done in (are you a before or after dinner present opener?) one of my traditions is the solidarity I share with my uncle in our joint disdain of Christmas pudding, seeing us annually try and outdo each other with increasingly more indulgent alternative desserts.
As you can probably imagine, things are a little different in Tuvalu (not least because there are woefully limited indulgent dessert options), so keen to embrace another Christmas culture, and maybe pick up a few new Christmas traditions for myself, I have spent the week trying to better understand the little traditions which makes a typical Tuvaluan Christmas.
As Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, there will be no celebrations on Christmas Day in Tuvalu. Sunday here is church day, regardless of any other celebrations it might coincide with, religious or otherwise, and so people will be spending Christmas Day quietly praying with their families, the same as every Sunday. For the last few weeks there have been Christmas parties up and down the island with revellers travelling to their venues in the back of decorated pick-up trucks, singing and laughing all the way: ho ho ho! We have noticed more Santa hat wearing youths riding round on their bikes, most houses have now got some intensely neon lights blinking away, and the last plane of the year has been and gone delivering all the seafarers and students from overseas who were able to make it back in time for the holidays.
The real Tuvaluan Christmas party will start here on Boxing Day, and continue onto the 27th and beyond - no one is really expected to be back at work until the new year. With back to back national holidays the various island communities which represent each of the Tuvaluan islands have been busy making plans and mountains of food. There have been singing practices, dancing practices, frantic decorating, a suspicious increase in feeding up the family pigs, and queues of happy looking women at the shop buying frozen chicken by the actual bucket load.
Most island communities will celebrate with two days of singing, dancing, and feasting on pork, fish, chicken and of course rice. Each island has their own meeting hall or manepa here in Funafuti, and although their celebrations will be broadly similar, just like in the UK each island has their own little ‘family’ traditions which make Christmas unique to them. The people of Vaitupu for example, are renowned for their energetic dancing, with competing groups battling for supremacy over the dance floor for hours at a time. Over at the Niutao manepa, you won’t find any of the men dancing, instead you’ll see them leading the singing and drumming from the middle of the floor whilst the women slowly execute perfectly synchronised dance moves around them in colourful concentric circles. Next head down to the Nanumea manepa and see men and women dressed in matching brightly coloured shirts and dresses, sat making head dresses and necklaces from the local plants. Take a stroll over to the Nukalaelae manepa (it’s really not far) and you won’t find much going on at all, that's because this year the whole community are taking their boats over to the uninhabited islets across the lagoon for two days of camping, fishing, dancing and feasting! Fortunately we have some very good friends from Nukalaelae and they have invited us along – I think I could get used to fishing on uninhabited tropical islands as a Christmas tradition!
So with our Tuvaluan Christmas sorted what to do on Christmas Day itself, in case we get bored of going to church and praying of course. Well in homage to all you back in the UK (who probably won’t be going fishing on tropical islands), Jay and I have set ourselves the almost impossible task of trying to create as close to a traditional Christmas dinner as possible with the limited resources available to us. First problem, we don’t have an oven, and goodness knows how far away our nearest turkey is, but not to worry, we are nothing if not creative, so we went hunting in the various small shops in Funafuti to see what we could come up with.
After several sweaty walks up and down the island carefully perusing the dusty, dimly lit shelves and trying to ignore the rusty tins of tuna and coconut milk, we have managed to source the ingredients for a plethora of passable festive treats. First up is our festive fry-up, with horrendously expensive imported sausages and square bacon. We also have eggs, fried bread, beans, and a tomato (and I mean only one). Onto lunch we are planning on some fried turkey bits; we are assuming it's turkey anyway, as it's hard to be sure what animal our two frozen wings of dubious origin and frozen-ness actually came from. With our probably-turkey we are having potato and pumpkin mash (thank you vegetable garden) a side of frozen mixed vegetables, and a carrot (what a find!) last but certainly not least, is a creation I am taking full responsibility (and subsequent credit) for, I call it Andy’s Tuvaluan Trifle, and in the absence of jelly, it is a crude mix of sponge cake, sugar, tinned fruit, and condensed milk, with your choice of ice-cream or custard, oh and of course rum – now how’s that for an alternative Christmas dessert? Let’s see if my uncle can top that!
As well as Christmas dinner we will probably go for a stroll up the runway to join the kids setting off fireworks, go for a swim, maybe do a spot of snorkelling or fishing, you know all those timeless, traditional Christmas activities. We might even try and use the complicated international phone at the telecom building to stick two fingers up at the time difference, and wake some of you friendly people up to wish you an early Merry Christmas.
So all that remains is to leave out some food for Father Christmas (he’ll have to fight the ants/cockroaches/rats for it if he’s not quick), hang my stocking up (a rugby sock will do), and finally say Merry Christmas to all you wonderful people. I hope whatever your traditions are you have a Christmas full of fun, family and most importantly food. Thanks for reading my ramblings so far; hopefully there will be lots more in 2012 as the adventure continues. We’re now off for a celebratory Christmas Eve drink – seems like some traditions are universal.
A traditional Christmas song with a Tuvaluan theme to play us out…
12 days of Tuvaluan Christmas
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…
An ant covered, fruitless palm tree.
On the second day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Two planes a week…
On the third day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Three hairy rats…
On the fourth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Four sunburnt limbs…
On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
FIVE KILO TUNA!!!
On the sixth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Six mosquitoes biting…
On the seventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Seven…oh wait…nothing because it’s a Sunday and you can’t get anything…
On the eighth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Eight dollars for bacon…
On the ninth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Nine tiny islands…
On the tenth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
10 local churches
On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Eleven dogs a roaming…
On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me
Twelve hours of sunshine…