Thursday, December 25, 2003

Christmas in Tonga

Ah, Christmas in Tonga. Perhaps some of you – our small but devoted legion of loyal website readers – find yourselves wondering what exactly the Advent season looks like here in the South Pacific. Well, allow me to paint a portrait, albeit a picture absent reindeer, lightly frosted windows, fireplaces, or any other Kincade-like characteristics of winter wonderlands.

You see, there aren’t really any reindeers in Tonga, but we did have an entire horse carcass hanging in our backyard last week. Our neighbors were hosting a wedding feast for a family member, so they slaughtered a horse, blowtorched numerous pigs, and generally reminded us why we didn’t live nearby Chicago’s stockyards. We’ve got a great photo of an able-bodied young Tongan male showing us the horse’s head, just in case anyone’s looking for Christmas card fodder.

In terms of frosted windows, most windows here seem to have forgotten their central duties of keeping out the elements or looking pretty. Nope, windows here pretty much just collect dust during the months of May to October and then allow buckets of rain indoors during the months of November to April. On Thanksgiving, I asked our neighbor when the rainy season would start, as we’d not yet had rains during November. He informed me, “Uha lahi i Tisema.” …which roughly translates to, “Just wait till December when it rains so much your pants start growing fungus and your outhouse looks like a swimming pool.” Sure enough, December 1st rolled around that week and we’re now sitting around attempting to describe the sun for young children who have forgotten what life looked like before the storms began. And rain here in Tonga doesn’t involve sprinkles or mists or dew-like beauty. You’ve got your torrential downpour, and you’ve got your slightly more torrential downpour. Those are your options, and the aforementioned windows consider themselves successful when only a few inches of rain are allowed to invade a home. Happy Birthday, Jesus!

And oddly enough, fireplaces are eerily absent here in Vava’u. It’s as though the 100 degree heat with 100 percent humidity has left the population with little need to roast chestnuts or warm mittens. When it’s not raining, people remain rather wet thanks in part to the rampant Christmas sweating. I’m sure there’s a Christmas fable about yuletide sweating, in the tradition of Frosty the Snowman or Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer. Perhaps something like Vito the Perspiring Workshop Elf? It could be a network television stop-motion animation hit as early as 2005.

The two familiar things Christmas clearly involves here are decorations and caroling. The decorations serve to remind Americans disoriented by tropical climate that tacky plastic lawn ornaments signal holiday cheer in every society. On Thanksgiving, the Peace Corps volunteers of Vava’u had a humongous potluck dinner featuring dishes miraculously prepared without any animal slaughtering or boiled root crops (and there was much rejoicing); after gorging ourselves on single male volunteers’ delectable contributions of recently picked fruit, steamed rice, and bags of chips many of us went swimming off a nearby pier. I’m guessing you can picture our stunned and perplexed faces when we emerged from the inviting blue waters of the South Pacific on a beautiful Tongan day to find Santa Claus hanging from numerous store-front windows and Christmas lights on multiple family homes. And after expatriates have forgotten about Christmas lights or plastic Santas or glowing elves, church choirs remind them that the holidays have arrived. At any given moment in December, one can hear a Tongan choir somewhere singing choruses in a strange language locals call English. Their selections include “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “Joy to the World,” and Handel’s “Messiah.” Just to clarify regarding Handel’s masterwork, Tongan choirs typically follow American choirs’ lead by simply singing Hallelujah repeatedly for a couple minutes and then giving up. Amber and I have occasionally been tempted to offer hot cider to local choirs, but I’m afraid that would be akin to offering cold glasses of ice water to carolers braving the cold of Midwest America. Lest scalding beverage be tossed in our general direction, we will continue quietly singing along from our living rooms while choirs rehearse next door.

Before closing this portrait of Christmas celebrations and Tongan winters (you’ll notice the glaring absence of Hanukkah or Kwanza in my narrative…that’s because Tongans’ idea of holiday diversity is attending a different Christian church on the 25th), I’d like to sing the praises of Tonga’s greatest contribution to celebrating Advent: the mandatory week off from work. In case you’re wondering what happens between December 24th and January 1st here in Tonga, the answer is: ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. Everybody takes a week off at Christmas time, so it’s no wonder everybody gets so excited about decorating and singing songs and generally rejoicing in their impending vacation. Amber and I will most certainly appreciate the rest; it will offer us the chance to open any gifts that actually manage to arrive on time and of course prepare a traditional Christmas dinner of pineapple and Tuna steak. Thankfully, no horse heads will be involved. Welcome to Christmas in Tonga, everybody.