The Reluctant Travel Writer - Christmas in Fiji

Leonard Lea Frazer

Introduction: On my first trip to the Fiji Islands my wife and I discovered a unique South Seas culture that has been drawing us back ever since. At the

Lenati Levu (Big Leonard) on his birthday, with one of the village dancers.
Lenati Levu (Big Leonard) on his birthday, with one of the village dancers.
close of 1979 we spent four months enjoying the hospitality of my father and step-mother, Leagh and Norah Frazer, at their Fijian home.
In recent years I published a book about the first five years of the Frazer’s 35-year adventure in Fiji. Their knowledge of Fijian customs, history and language was passed onto me, all of which I absorbed like a sponge.

Traditions: The indigenous people have retained their original language (Fijian) as well as many of the traditions they followed some 200 years ago. Although the practice of witchcraft and cannibalism has been replaced with Christianity, the drinking of kava (Yagona), having clan groups representing territory, the presentation of whales’ teeth, cooking in a earth-oven (lovo), fishing techniques, and more, still exist today for the modern Fijian to participate in.

Any special occasion, such as the arrival of a chief or dignitary to a village, a wedding, a funeral, or Christmas time will involve Fijians traveling to a feast (with a lovo) and some kind of entertainment or activity. Young Fijian children may perform their village songs and dances (mekes) and if the occasion is to commemorate the completion of a village project, gifts, including Yagona, mats and perhaps a whale’s tooth will be exchanged. To receive a whale’s tooth is the highest honour that one can receive in Fiji. Whales’ teeth are given and later re-given. The export or import of whales’ teeth is forbidden throughout the Fiji Islands. During my father’s 35 years in Fiji he received a whale’s tooth on three occasions.

When my dad moved to the island of Ovalau from Little Yanuca (Yanuca Lailai) he hired the village of Nukutacia to come and clear away over 100 coconut trees, help build a traditional Fijian grass hut (bure) and assist my father and step-mom to create their own little village paradise one mile away from Nukutacia. My dad took one of the traditional names from the track of land that he had leased for a 15-year period. The name of “Sunny Sunny Village” (Korosigasiga) was given to his new compound. On the completion of the building project my father presented $500 plus a new lawn mower to the Chief of the Nukutocia Village. He received a whale’s tooth in return.

The 1979 clan contestants and their escorts.
The 1979 clan contestants and their escorts.
Mixing yagona in a giant kava bowl.
Mixing yagona in a giant kava bowl.

When somebody needs a giant whale’s tooth to present to a person, they obtain one from someone that already owns one. The whales’ teeth in Fiji continue to be recycled over and over again.

Christmas 1979: On Christmas Day my parents, my wife, one guest and I were invited to the nearby Nukutocia. We walked to the village where we were treated as guests of honour and given a tour of the village. Many young adults that had moved away due to work or through marriage had returned to help celebrate the Christmas holidays with their families.

There was an interesting competition that took place on the day of our visit. Four young girls were chosen to represent each of the four clan groups. During Christmas Day the girls sat at a long table with a donation box on the table in front of each of them. Visitors to the village could support the clan group of their choice by donating money and placing the donation in one of the boxes. At the end of the day the cash in each box was counted and the largest amount in a given box made the corresponding representative the winner and she was declared the Queen or Princess of the village for the year. Each of the four girls was dressed in traditional tapa cloth and was accompanied by an escort, also dressed in formal wear. The money from the four boxes was then pooled together and the grand total ($2,528) was announced. All proceeds went towards building material for a church building that was under construction in Nukutocia.

Well-behaved children at Nukutocia.
Well-behaved children at Nukutocia.
 Boys on bamboo rafts at Nukutocia Christmas Day.
Boys on bamboo rafts at Nukutocia Christmas Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our visit to the village included feasting, entertainment (mekes) and a new modern addition, introduced on a previous Christmas, the playing of a “Bingo” game. This was my step-mother’s idea and, I might add, a real crowd-pleaser. She had brought small useful prizes and acted as bingo number “caller.” There were no bingo dabbers, bingo bags or “9-ups” multi-card sheets at that Bingo; only homemade bingo cards and little shells or stones as markers. Everyone enjoyed this gift of entertainment from Norah; the visit to that Fijian village was a memorable one. That was how I spent my first Christmas in Fiji.

Christmas 2002:  Fast-forward 22 years to the occasion of my father’s death (my step-mom had passed away a few years earlier). My father’s funeral was held on Christmas Eve with a church service in Levuka, the main town on Ovalau, followed by a burial service at the cemetery near Levuka. Many of my father’s long time friends attended both the church service and burial. I arrived in Fiji on December 31st to perform my duties as Executor of my father’s estate.

At the time of his death he was living at Onivero, two miles north of Levuka, in a home he had built out of a boat building shed. Besides the large house there was a small guest cottage on the property. My job, as Executor, involved dispersing all my father’s personal belongings. As I was familiar with my father’s friends, I made a list of items and matched them with a list of names. Then, I made arrangements to give away the belongings. I found the last of my father’s whales’ teeth and kept it temporarily for myself.

A week after my arrival I had all my father’s affairs in order and decided to hold a gathering at his Fijian home at Onivero and invite his remaining friends on Ovalau including a large truck-load from the Village of Nukutocia, close to where my parents had originally settled in their second home-made paradise

Pounding the “grog”. Making yagona into powder.
Pounding the “grog”. Making yagona into powder.

village. I made arrangements for my father’s gardener to build an “underground oven” to help cook much of the food for the guests. There would be an exchange of gifts (this day was also my birthday) at the gathering. I presented a friend of mine two out-board boat motors and in exchange he presented me with a large bouquet of yagona roots (the most powerful part of the plant). I was dressed in traditional Fijian tapa cloth and was also presented with my father’s last whale’s tooth. This was a very serious and emotional moment where I was required to give a short speech to the crowd (the next day I donated the whale’s tooth to the museum in Levuka). Later I was also presented with a big birthday cake and the young village dance group from Nukutocia provided dancing entertainment. Everyone was invited to dance in a three-person dance; two guys and a gal or two gals and a guy. There was lots of hip-swinging and butt-bumping during that one. Also included on the program was a Bingo Game with prizes. I acted as the Caller and because there were a limited number of bingo cards, everyone shared. Again, small stones were used to mark the cards when numbers were called.

Also introduced (I believe for the first time in the history of the Fiji Islands) was a game of “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” with the paper donkey fastened to a soft board and attached to a tree, and participants blindfolded. Everyone attempted to accurately “Pin the Tail.” Each new attempt was met with hilarious laughter from the crowd who had never seen anything as funny before! That was how I spent my second Christmas in Fiji.

Most of the original traditions continue in the islands today. I usually send Christmas cards to my friends in Fiji each year. And I always include a greeting that reads, “Vinaka Vaka Levu” (A Big Thank You).

Fijian boys on the bridge at Nukutocia.
Fijian boys on the bridge at Nukutocia.
A cooked cray fish at Christmas time.
A cooked cray fish at Christmas time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nukutcia dancers performing at Onivero.
Nukutcia dancers performing at Onivero.
Village dancers perform a fan-dance.
Village dancers perform a fan-dance.
The whale’s tooth on its braded necklace.
The whale’s tooth on its braded necklace.
Leonard’s whale’s tooth up close.
Leonard’s whale’s tooth up close.
Two village dancers take a rest.
Two village dancers take a rest.
Dancer from Nukutocia decked out with Frangipane flowers.
Dancer from Nukutocia decked out with Frangipane flowers.