Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the

Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the

The Marshall Islands are located in the Pacific Ocean, about 3,000 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The Marshallese adopted Christianity with the coming of European colonists and Christian missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The people of this 34-island nation have created a celebration of Christmas that is all their own, by blending Christian beliefs with their own cultural traditions and values. On Christmas Day huge baskets of food are exchanged and the entire day is spent watching various local groups, called jeptas, perform original songs, dances, and skits. Preparations for the great day begin months in advance. In fact, the Marshallese enjoy a holiday season that stretches from September through December. The activities of this long season of preparation, as well as those of the Christmas festivities that crown it, illustrate Marshallese concepts of well-being, abundance, love, generosity, prestige, beauty, and play. The following description of the Christmas season in the Marshall Islands summarizes the celebrations that take place on Ujeland and Enewetak atolls.

The Christmas Season

People begin to think about Christmas shortly after Easter, and start to set aside food and other resources during the summer. What's more, composers and choreographers begin dreaming up new Christmas ditties and dances during the summer months, basing them on bits and pieces of the tunes and dance movements used in past holiday performances, Western church hymns, and Pacific Islands songs and dances. The real work begins in the fall, however. Indeed, Kurijmoj, the word for Christmas, is used to refer not only to December 25, but also to the several months that precede it, when preparation for Christmas becomes a part of one's daily occupation.


When Christmas is still a few months away, the islanders divide themselves into jeptas, which may be thought of as teams. These teams begin practicing the new songs and dances that will be performed from memory on Christmas Day. Each group may perform as many as fifteen to twenty songs. Before Christmas Day, the jeptas visit one another, engaging in competitive songfests in order to show off their skills and assess the competition. In these "surprise attacks" one jepta drops in on another bearing gifts of food and other small items, such as bars of soap and books of matches. The generosity, musical polish, and skill of each group's chosen orators will be judged and the prestige of each jepta will rise or fall accordingly.

The women also take part in another form of playful competition between the jeptas, known as karate. The preparations made by the jeptas include stockpiling gifts of food that will be distributed to other islanders on Christmas Day. When the women of one jepta spy some men from a rival jepta coming back from a food-collecting mission, the women surround them and steal their food. Nevertheless, the women always leave the men with a meal of some kind. These encounters have become an occasion for much good-natured banter between the sexes and islanders find them extremely amusing.

During Advent, the jeptas perform their songs in front of the church. Each jepta also builds a piñata-like construction, called a wojke, which serves as a kind of Christmas tree. It may take on many shapes, including that of a ship, plane, or bomb. It contains numerous little presents "for God," such as bars of soap, matches, and money. The teams explode the piñatas at the end of their Christmas Day performances. The gifts are usually collected by the local pastor.

Last-Minute Preparations

During the last few days before Christmas, the islanders prepare by giving their homes, streets, and church a thorough cleaning. They also prepare gifts for the performers who will sing and dance on Christmas Day, including bottles of coconut oil, bags of copra (coconut), and various handmade items. Men slaughter pigs, prepare Marshall Islands, Christmas in the Republic of the

fish, and gather coconuts. Women make rice, doughnuts, bread, and put the final touches on their breadfruit paste and other foods. In addition, they sew costumes for the jeptas and weave mats and food baskets. Young boys take special responsibility for cleaning pathways and disposing of trash. Young girls help the older women with their cooking and weaving and provide childcare. At last, after months of preparation, the Christmas foods are packed into baskets which will be given away - to members of another family, cookhouse, or jepta - on Christmas Day.

In the last few days before Christmas the jeptas make special visits to the minister's home. They sing for him and his family and give them food and presents. The minister often responds with a polite speech and gifts of coffee or tea.

Christmas Day

Christmas Day celebrations begin with an early morning church service. Then the baskets of food are exchanged. These hefty gifts, which weigh 25-40 pounds, elicit hearty thanks. People eat some of the choicest foods on the spot and take the rest home for later. At around 10:00 a.m. the people return to the church to watch the performances of the jeptas, which last the rest of the day. When a particular song, dance, or speech especially pleases members of the audience, they may run up to the stage area and grab the performer's headdress, flower necklace, watch, or clothing. The performer lets them take everything but necessary pieces of clothing; modesty dictates that these be delivered later that evening. Rushing the stage to douse the performers with sweet-smelling substances such as baby powder, cologne, or pomade is another spontaneous tribute paid to thrilling acts. The performances end with a short skit at the conclusion of which the wojke explodes, scattering money and other party favors among the crowd. The festivities end with prayers and the singing of a hymn.

The day's performances are talked about for months. The singing, dancing, speeches, costumes, skits, and gift giving will be exhaustively analyzed, and the members of the jepta that made the best display will gain status in the community. Some United Church of Christ Christmas services include a treelighting ceremony that links the Christmas tree with the traditional Christian symbol of the cross. A Christmas tree is concealed inside a large, hollow cross. While the congregation sings Christmas carols, the tree rises out of the cross. The congregation greets this sight with exploding firecrackers. Then the tree descends back into the cross, while the singers hush their voices. After the singing, the cross splits open down the middle, revealing the tree standing inside.

New Year Celebrations

Feasting and gift giving also take place on New Year's Eve, but to a much lesser degree. Children stay up late on New Year's Eve. At midnight they go door to door, singing songs and receiving in exchange treats and trinkets. Islanders make every attempt to attend early morning church services on New Year's Day, as good behavior on the first of the year is thought to honor the new year and to steer it in a good direction. Hotly contested softball matches take place later on New Year's Day.

Further Reading

Carucci, Laurence Marshall. Nuclear Nativity: Rituals of Renewal and Em-powerment in the Marshall Islands. Dekalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, andCelebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1997.
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