It was Christmas Eve day in Micronesia, and we were on our way to fish another expanse of Christmas Island’s variegated shallows when Moana, our bonefishing guide, stopped in a village of small tin-roofed houses and thatched huts to drop off a quart can of cowrie shells and some pandanus leaves he’d collected. My wife, Sheila, and I followed him inside the mwaneaba, the central village gathering place, where groups of women were sitting on the floor weaving traditional dance costumes: pandanus bras and headdresses, palm-frond skirts and nuotas (men’s belts made of cowrie shells and plaited female human hair) for the impending island-wide celebration. It includes Christian and Micronesian cultural elements and stretches into days of dance and choir performances.
In honor of the holiday, I asked if they decorated trees. They spoke among themselves in I-Kiribati, one of the oldest languages of the Pacific, then one of them asked me in English if I would help them with a project. Before I knew it, I was wrapped in a pandanus kilt, adorned with flowery armbands and a lei and crowned with a colorful wreath. “Sometimes we just decorate fishermen,” teased one as they all broke into laughter.
To escape the winter’s darkness engulfing our Alaska home, Sheila and I had given ourselves the present of Christmas on Christmas Island. We had traveled to the world’s largest coral atoll, about 145 miles north of the equator between Hawaii and Tonga, not only for its bonefishing, diving and bird-watching, but also to exchange our white Christmas for one Gauguin could have painted. Each day, we faithfully sang “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” substituting frigate birds and fairy terns for French hens and partridges in pear trees.
After dinner on Christmas Eve, Sheila and I were at the seaside bar of our small hotel when the dance group we’d visited earlier stopped by to perform a last-minute rehearsal. Chanting men pounded a large, square drum box. The tempo intensified as the dancers extended their arms like wings, their feet, heads and eyes moving swiftly in unison. The audience – two fishermen and a Canadian couple on an odyssey to revisit all of the South Pacific islands they had visited as a pilot and nurse during World War II – was entranced.
After they left, we all reminisced about Christmas eves past. Then the nurse began decorating a staghorn coral she’d found washed up on the beach. Colorful tinsel-wrapped fishing flies served as ornaments, stacks of shells and sun-bleached sea urchins as presents. While the others scoured for a starfish to top the tree, I went into the kitchen and made “eggnog” from condensed milk and a sprinkling of curry powder that I mistook for cinnamon. We coughed through a few carols before I tentatively attempted “Christmas Island,” a song made popular by both Leon Redbone and Jimmy Buffett. Surprisingly, the older Canadians knew the lyrics by heart, explaining that the humorous ditty about stockings hung on coconut trees and Santa in a canoe was originally an Andrews Sisters recording from the 1940s. The key verse asks, “How’d ja like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?” As soft waves murmured against the starlit shore and the Southern Cross rose on the horizon, no one felt it was actually necessary to answer that question.