Jim Reeves had been singing his guts out on national radio 2AP for a week straight and just as I felt like I had grown tired of his relentless humdrum, sleepy voice, something that morning changed and I couldn’t get enough of that slow, steady drawl.
There was a familiar meekness in our tones as we prepared for the evening, a time that held special significance, not just for us, but the whole of Samoa. People on the streets of Apia seemed especially kind, humble, helpful and sweet as last minute preparations were put in place for Christmas Eve. All around me the country had taken on a feeling of reverence.
As the cicadas chirped and kerosene lamps were lit, we waited for the requisite village ‘sa’ (a time set aside by village councils for the observance of peace for evening prayers) to pass before we strolled to the farthest end of my mother’s village of Sa’aga, on the way to Falealili, and began our slow procession towards the other end of the village that butted up against the main village of Siumu. We sang one Christmas Carol after another, smiles on our faces as we wished everyone we passed a Merry Christmas.
I can’t recall what we had for dinner that particular night. It is an irrelevant side-note that I mention only to point out that on Christmas Eve that year, just as all other years before and since, the menu calls for something light to get you through until midnight. When we were kids, midnight on Christmas Eve meant sweet desserts, piping hot koko Samoa and other delectable treats laid out for our consumption. As I grew older, the treats were secondary to what mattered most to my parents and the other adults in our extended family – midnight prayers.
At that delicate hour when the evening folds into the darkest hour of night and the world crosses the threshold into Christmas Day, we kneel with all who are present in prayer to give thanks for abundance, protection, family and the bonds that are formed with loved ones. In faith we thank our Father in Heaven for the birth and life of Jesus. It is simple. It’s never extravagant. It’s never chaotic. It’s never elaborate. It is a night that is centered on the true meaning of the holiday.
Though I can hardly recall all of the details of that night I do remember quite vividly why it left a bookmark on my mind as one of my favorite Christmases to date. To prepare for the evening each member had drawn the name of another member of the family a few weeks in advance. The gift was to be under five tala (the Samoan equivalent of US currency in dollars). It could be a ‘gag gift’ or something that had special significance but we were strictly forbidden from offending or hurting the recipients’ feelings.
We sat in a circle, the flames from our kerosene lamps dancing on across our faces and throwing eerie shadows throughout the spacious open-air fale (a traditional Samoan house). We bundled up under blankets to stave off the cool tropical breeze that stole through the fale as we giggled merrily at funny gifts received by the boys followed intermittently by ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ahh’s ‘ whenever the younger kids and girls opened their bright little packages and found something meaningful inside.
The memory of thoughtful things and gifts offered in the true spirit of giving outlast it’s earthly life in our minds as happy memories. My gift that night was a sports magazine and a roll of toilet paper, courtesy of my younger sister. It was both humorous and practical at the same time. I held on to that magazine for years after that until I left Samoa until it was swept away in one of the major hurricanes that hit Samoa in the early 1990’s. The toilet paper didn’t last as long.
I don’t remember what everyone else got that night, but I do remember as clear as if it were just hours ago, the look of gratitude, happiness and humility as well as the smiles on every face and the laughter that rolled from every tongue as we enjoyed the warmth and the overpowering sentiment of love shared by all in that circle that night.
It was not my first Christmas in Samoa, but every Christmas we spent there as a family was just as powerful and every bit as memorable.
When we moved to Samoa, away from the harsh cold winters of Utah we settled into a very tropical lifestyle. Everything seemed out of the ordinary for us especially on Christmas. But the biggest surprise was not waking up on Christmas morning with eighty-degree temperatures and a whole lot of humidity. It was not the fake Christmas tree which seemed wholly out of place among the hibiscus, frangipani, banana trees and coconut palms. It wasn’t even the lack of presents under the tree. No, the biggest surprise was in the way that Christmas was celebrated. Simply put, it is a time for all to set aside what is most important to the individual and consider what is most relevant to the whole. Christmas in Samoa truly taught me the significance of the holiday, not the crazy shopping days and laughable spending and arguments over who gets what and what time we need to be at grandma’s house for toys and trinkets before leaving for the other grandma’s house for more of the same.
Of course, it made it easy not to spend when you factor in the fact that we were dirt poor. But I am so grateful that I spent those moments that I now cherish with family, friends and dear ones whom I love even more because of the holiday experiences we shared together giving love, not just gifts.
These are the things I think about all these Christmases later – happy times, good food, lot’s of laughs and a cheap role of toilet paper.