What!...No Gravy? (or ham, prawns, pudding etc) (Carmen and Rich)
Carmen sent an email recently describing the weeks leading up to Christmas here as ‘catatonic’. While largely true at the time of writing, it quickly changed and the days before Christmas became ridiculously busy. In a trend that seems to cross cultures, people on Ambrym leave their Christmas shopping until the very last minute. The two stores were stuffed full of new toys, clothes and food and it seemed that almost the entire population of our area made a visit on the 23rd or 24th, to the point where it was so busy that Carmen even needed to help out at my Papa’s store. Everyone, including us, was also busily wrapping presents, cleaning their houses and yards and generally getting ready. By the time Christmas Eve arrived we were all pretty knackered.
But the program for Christmas Eve was already in place. The community was to gather for a dramatisation of Jesus’ birth, with the inevitable church service to follow. However, unfortunately for everyone involved, the Christmas Eve celebrations turned into something of a disaster. In an inauspicious beginning, most people including the pastor didn’t turn up till 7:30pm – an hour and half late. Keep in mind that 7:30pm is getting close to our bedtime and there was plenty of talking to go. The dramatisation of Jesus’ birth, preformed by the youth of the community, started in true Vanuatu style – unnecessarily long-winded. Rather than starting with Mary and Joseph, our story started with the history of the family of King David, 40 (or whatever) generations before Mary and Joseph. Performances here are typically under-rehearsed and badly acted and so we laughed (to ourselves) as they muffed their lives and got confused about who was doing what. As we went on, however, it became increasingly clear that they just didn’t have a clue what they were doing and after a few failed attempts by the organising adults to save it, the whole thing was prematurely aborted and we went straight to the singing, skipping the birth of Jesus entirely! After all that the pastor droned on until 10:30am while half the hall fell asleep in their seats. The whole thing was unfortunate to say the least.
Christmas morning started at the merry time of 4:45am. By 5am we were up at Rich’s family’s house organising Christmas breakfast. All the papas had organised to swap families for breakfast so at 5:30am Rich’s Papa went off to have breakfast on the other side of our village. We put the final touches on breakfast, hot tea, bread with butter, peanut butter and our addition of Nutella and waited for our guest papa to arrive. An hour later we finally hear footsteps coming up the path, it was Rich’s Papa returning from his breakfast. Finally acknowledging that we had been well and truly stood-up we all tucked into breakfast. Not the most encouraging start to Christmas.
The rest of Christmas day would be celebrated together as a community so Rich’s Mama and sisters hurried off to prepare laplap and Rich and I had been put in charge of Christmas cake. While Rich went next door to fire-up the wood oven, I set about making a banana cake for over 150 people. The cake mix was poured into the first tin when one of the kids from the village turned up with a badly cut finger (the clinic shuts over Christmas). Rich set about mashing the next lot of bananas while I cleaned and dressed the wound. By 9am the cake was baked, chocolate icing made and we were dressed and ready for the Christmas church service.
Lucky for us Rich’s Papa was taking the service which guaranteed less talking and more singing. Each church group performed rehearsed songs and even though not one Christmas carol was sung, it was starting to feel more like Christmas.
Christmas wouldn’t be the same without lots and lots of food and no one does lots of food like Islanders. Our plates were piled high with rice, laplap, chicken, cucumber, lettuce, watermelon and pineapple. As Rich and I sat down we contemplated how best to attack the mountain of food without triggering a food avalanche. With Dingo hungrily eating our leftovers Chief Byongkon announced that it was time to cut the cake. Cake wasn’t the last of the sweets for the kids. While I was cutting the cake the Ambrym version of Santa was getting dressed. Papa Noël did in fact have a beard and a track suit but that was where the similarities ended. Papa Noël sported an Adidas style track suit, filled of course with a pillow, a New Orleans style mask and a tinsel hair wig. Papa Noël danced his way to the hall and begun throwing lollies to the kids. All the kids were laughing, screaming and jumping to catch the lollies. But just like at home when Papa Noël got too close to the little kids they burst into tears…Rich isn’t the only one that can make the kids cry!
It was after lunch and no presents had been seen, all were still hidden away. We were waiting for the Chief to announce that it was time. Present giving is a public affair in Ambrym and all the parents line up to take their turn in calling their children up to receive their Christmas present. Toy guns that screamed ‘fire, fire, bang, bang’, was a particularly popular gift - hopefully the batteries will run out soon.
The Christmas festivities had only just begun. The afternoon and evening had a packed program of comedy sketches preformed by the local boys, singing performances by the mamas and Sunday school choirs and choreographed dances. The DJ got into gear and played the popular string bands and we danced till 11pm. Rich and I happily fell into bed after a jam-packed day.
New Years Eve (Rich)
Our days between Christmas and New Years were filled, oddly enough, with photography. We had volunteered ourselves to take family photos for some people in Magam, but when word got around, we ended up doing almost every family in Magam and the two villages on either side. It made us incredibly busy, but it was fun.
New Years Eve celebrations are a big deal on Ambrym. New Years is one of perhaps 3 or 4 times a year that people get to dance, laugh and really have a great time. Entertainment options are so limited that this is pretty much the highlight of the year.
The evening of the 31st started with the community meal, more mountains of food, but this time including pig - very special. After came the service, followed by speeches. Fortunately, the speeches, which in Vanuatu are not generally brief affairs, were broken up by skits and dances by the young people. This continued until 11:45pm, when we switched to singing songs until nearly 12 o’clock. We then counted down to the New Year (just like at home) and welcomed the new year with a vigorous ‘Hip Hip Hooray’, followed by some traditional Ambrym language New Years songs.
And then the party started. The generator-powered sound system kicked into gear and started pumping out the tunes. Unfortunately the same 10 or 15 tunes were played over and over, but nonetheless people managed to keep going throughout the morning. At 4 o’clock when we decided to snatch a little sleep, the party was still in full swing.
The other major tradition of New Year is to do what’s called ‘running punani’. This is where the village gets together as a big group and visit every house, stopping to sing and dance on the way. We were the first house on the list, and at 5 o’clock we woke to the sounds of chanting in the distance, as the whole village marched towards our house. The chanting intensified, and as they reached our house they were in full swing. It was like a mosh pit, people chanted, stamped their feet and jumped around. Mamas circulated, spraying the crowd with talcum powder and we were eventually presented with small gifts and were very enthusiastically wished ‘Happy New Year’.
After a couple more hours sleep we joined the rest of Magam village to run punani in the next village. The spectacle was much the same as we visited the houses of the elderly and respected members of the community. I think punani, and Christmas and New Years in general, is embraced so enthusiastically by the community because it really is their only chance to ‘let go’ and have fun. There isn’t that much else going on, so everyone, from kids to grandparents, really gets into the spirit. Although tiring, the Christmas / New Year period was way more fun then we expected and we definitely made the right decision to celebrate it on Ambrym. Nonetheless, on the 2nd of January we headed off for a break on Santo Island.