18 December 2011

When Christmas is summertime

Our Christmas wreath at home- made from
a misprinted book and a scrap of red fabric
It's Christmastime, which in Tonga, means it's very, very hot. Anything of value happens very early in the morning, very late at night, or in blasting air-conditioning. Most offices do have air con, including mine, which makes moving in or out of the building somewhat like stepping into a totally different climate as I'm hit with a wall of humid hot air or a blast of arctic chill in the doorway.

Christmas in Tonga is also blissfully lacking in the commercialization that bombards residents in the US and many other countries, and while I would love to see the streets and shops decorated for Christmas, it's also nice to have less commercial pressure. Instead in Tonga, as one would expect, we have feasts. This year we'll miss the three-day Catholic feast we're invited to because we'll be visiting family and friends in the US for the first time in over two years, but we did get to celebrate a Christmas opening of the new Fua'amotu church with friends yesterday.

The Wesleyan church at Fua'amotu is especially important because the current king's late father, Tupou IV, considered it his church, and regularly visited it with Queen Mata'aho while he was the reigning monarch. In addition, the town of Fua'amotu is the property and residence of Prince Tungi, a title that was held by the same monarch during his life, and is now held by the current king's nephew.

Everything was set out at Sina's -
this was only one table of many
Considering the intense heat of the current season, we inexplicably decided to bike out to the town, which is about an hour's cycle to the Eastern end of the island. We arrived, hot and sweaty, to one of the family houses of our friends Sina and Monta, and greeted everyone rushing around preparing for the inclement feast. They graciously welcomed us, and chatted awkwardly for several minutes, until we realized we were at the wrong house and that Sina was actually in the house several hundred feet up the road - we'd arrived totally unannounced at her cousins' place! We laughed and thanked them, especially for a delicious sticky pudding they fed us, and walked up the road to the right house.

By the time everything got sorted out, the proper church opening ceremony was already half-over, and after having been to our share of ceremonies, we elected to stay and help Sina and her sister and various relatives prepare for the feast.

Everyone had been preparing and dishing up food long before we arrived
We always shamelessly love eating at her family's table at feasts because they're such excellent cooks, a fact that I was reminded of as I sliced perfectly tender and delectably seasoned slices of turkey off a juicy, golden-brown bird. When we ate at her table during the Wesleyan conference in July, we discovered with delight that she'd stuffed each suckling pig with the best stuffing we'd ever tasted. She used the same stuffing this time, which of course, I had to pre-taste for quality control.

The kids played checkers with rocks on an old board
Every dish had to be served out, plastic-wrapped, and stacked in huge plastic containers to take to the feast grounds, which were a few kilometres away in a big sports field. We all hopped in different cars at around noon, feeling like we needed our third shower of the day, and headed out to the field, which was already buzzing with cars and people, sweating at tables under black tarpaulin tents.

We listened to Justin Beiber, that song that repeats "like a G-6," and
other pop tunes on an ipod speaker set while we prepared
After everyone had piled their respective tables with food, we set to it, and were entertained by the long string of requisite gifts given to the church and to Prince Tungi, who was present with his grandmother, Queen Mata'aho at the celebration. The best part, by far, was seeing Prince Tungi, who is in his late teens, dancing in the middle of the field, surrounded by women- women dancing behind him, rolling around in front of him, and crawling around in laughing glee at his feet.

Prince Tungi in light green, surrounded by dancing women
Oh but it was hot. As I sat at the long benches under the tents, I felt sweat dripping down my legs, and watched as Mark and the other people at the table wilted in the midday heat, hands propping up heads, hair sticking to faces. I found an aluminum pot lid, which I used to stir a hot breeze onto myself and the people around me.
A lot of people came back from overseas for this church opening, many of them with matching outfits

After almost three hours, the gifts and dances were still coming steadily, and as we had friends to see off to the airport and practices for a performance I'm in this week, we made our apologies to Sina, who looked as if she'd rather be sitting under a fan herself, and caught a ride with her brother back to the house to pick up our bikes. Despite the heat, we'd had a great time, and were glad to have been a part of it.

We elected to bike back rather than tossing our bikes in the back of a truck, because, aside being desperate for the feel of wind on our faces, we remembered the last time we'd biked back from Fua'amotu being a pleasant, easy ride of less than an hour. This time, after more than an hour of biking into a strong headwind, the hot air giving barely any relief to the heat that had refused to subside even at 4pm, we thoroughly regretted the decision. We arrived back at home, and each of us took ten minutes of standing under a cold shower to cool down again, holding glasses of ice water to our faces, and saying our dizzy and out-of-breath goodbyes to our friend John, who was leaving for the States that afternoon.

Occasionally, the song "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas" comes on the radio among the repetitions of the re-mixed favourite "Mary's boy child." In this heat, we stick our heads in the freezer and dream.

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