"The Holidays" - South Pacific Style

Male Nurse distributes presents at the Norsup Hospital Staff Christmas Party. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.

In his recent article ("The Holidays: month-long U.S. tribute to excess", Globe & Mail 16/12/96), Graham Fraser reported his observations of the Americans' month-long observation of the Thanksgiving-Christmas Holidays, with their attendant celebratory excesses and loss of productivity. He ain't seen nothing. In the young South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, the year-end is celebrated with true gusto combined with an unique South Pacific take on European customs.

Vanuatu's Christmas celebrations are influenced by a combination of customary attitudes to celebration and recently-acquired attitudes towards money. The four-fifths of the population who are subsistence gardeners in their ancestral villages have limited contact with the money economy, while the urban minority who work for wages often don't quite perceive the connection between their employers' (often the government) obligation to provide them with regular pay cheques and their responsibility to provide value to the employer.

Although their sustenance is provided by their gardens and the surrounding forest, villagers do have a strong desire for cash to use for celebratory purposes, especially Christmas. After all, unlike custom rites, which require elaborate costumes, head dresses, drums, and other objects that are hand-made with bush materials, the whitemen who introduced Christmas have demonstrated that this celebration requires the purchase of decorations, gifts, drink, and food. The distinction between purchased goods and those obtained without cash outlay is clearly drawn and keenly appreciated by all.

In the village, money is available from only two sources. The preferred source, hitting on an urban relative, is not sure enough. Communications, via mail carried by a passer-by to a post office and thence by Twin Otter to town (if the postmaster isn't occupied by duties more pressing than his employment) are slow. Return transfer of funds, by cash in an envelope returning over the same route, is just as slow and insecure to boot. In any case, it is easy for the far-away relative to claim non-delivery of the request or point out his own unfortunate poverty due to the holiday season. So in November, Vanuatu's entire rural population turns to their only sure source of cash: cutting copra for sale to an inter-island trading vessel. Coconut groves, many of which were planted by European colonists who were expelled at independence, cover almost every square metre of flat sea-level ground. Unlike the few remaining European planters who extract every bit of cash flow from their coconut trees, villagers use their plantings like banks. When they need cash, they harvest copra; the rest of the time, the nuts fall to the ground and sprout or rot.

During the months of November and December, expatriates working on development projects will not find anyone to extract information from when they travel to a village. They will find the coconut groves along the road or path to the villages uncharacteristically full of life, though, as entire families split nuts with axes, scoop out the meat, and pack green copra in large burlap bags. Men carry the heavy bags to copra driers, where air heated by burning coconut husks or wood dries the coconut meat and turns it into copra. Eighty-kilo bags are carried down to the beach and stacked, while a lookout is kept for a passing ship that can be signaled with a smoky fire. Copra export statistics show a large spike during December, and not much else gets done outside of town.

The same ships that buy the copra bring wholesale goods to the village cooperative and locally-owned stores. Money laboriously earned over weeks is exchanged for garlands, hibiscus-print cloth for new dresses, cheap plastic toys from Southeast Asia, white rice and tinned fish (both at the same time convenience and prestige foods), candy, soft drinks for the women and kids, and beer for the men. The village business cycle continues as some store owners become insolvent satisfying requests from relatives from inventory or cash from the till. Their stores will open again when enough cash is earned from copra production to finance new inventory.

Meanwhile, as December advances, productivity in town declines as everyone makes similar preparations and purchases, with the exception that those with especially good-paying jobs purchase tickets to fly by Islander and Twin Otter back to their villages. In the pre-Christmas week, they board the planes laden with gifts, food, and drink and are discharged on grass airstrips throughout the archipelago. The following four weeks are spent sleeping under thatch roofs, eating traditional root crops, visiting and conferring with relatives, and generally recharging cultural batteries after eleven months of forcing their spirits into the urban system imported by Europeans.

Christmas Day itself, urban and rural, is a day of church, feasting, gift-giving, and festivities. This is just the beginning of the unproductive season, however. Both villagers and their urban cousins throw themselves enthusiastically into the "Bonane" season (bone-AN-nay, after the French "Bonne Année"). Groups wander through the night from house to house, singing until the inhabitants waken, come outside, listen, and donate small gifts of cash or food. For weeks, those not officially on vacation come into the office bleary-eyed and doze most of the day away. Expatriate workers who restrict their own behavior of this type to December 27 and/or January 2 find that they can't make contact with anyone from senior civil servant to clerk; they give in and take their own home leaves or busy themselves for the month of January on tasks that require no local input.

Lakatoro, Malekula Bonane Celebrants. Photo ©H. Morgan, 1989.

By the end of January "the holidays", Christmas and New Year's in this case, begin to wind down. Most of the Bonane food and drink gifts have been consumed in their own round of parties. Silver garland has been taken down from woven bamboo walls and put to use as headbands, and all the toys have been transformed into shards of plastic. The official end of the season is heralded by a multitude of service messages broadcast over Radio Vanuatu advising civil servants and teachers that their vacations expired two weeks ago and they will be assumed to have abandoned their jobs if they do not return to work within a week.

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©Stan Combs 1996