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Saturday, 23 December, 2000, 12:33 GMT
A Polynesian Christmas
Christmas Polynesian-style
By Eugene Fraser

It was an hour before dawn and there was quite a chill. Six figures appeared out of the darkness, one of them whistling softly, two carrying on their shoulders something on a pole, which they dropped with a heavy dull thud at my feet.

Greetings were exchanged in Tongan, Samoan, Fijian and Maori: Malo, talofa, bula, kia ora. "Okay boys what you got for us?" my brother asked.

Their leader - a huge man called Tipeni - replied, nudging the object on the ground with his foot: "We got this wild pig and heaps of kai moana in the truck." Kai moana is sea food.


Christmas dinner got under way, accompanied by the sound of guitars and girls, flowers in their hair, laughing as they danced the hula

"And the women and kids will bring more meat and vegetables after sun up."

"Right," my brother said. "I've got the banana leaves, as well as shovels and spades, so as soon as we've had a drink we'll get started."

"Good idea. You got any beer?" Everybody smiled.

Pig for lunch

It was Christmas day and this was the start of preparations for the feast, or umu.

pacific
Guests arrived from all over the Pacific islands
It was my Tongan sister-in-law who had extended the invitation.

I was in the south island working with the Natural History unit of Television New Zealand when she telephoned me from Auckland and suggested that I might like to join her family and friends there for a Christmas umu.

A few days later, very early on Christmas morning, I found myself in Clairlene and Albert's backyard helping to dig a large pit, into which we heaped nearly a lorry load of firewood.

Ritual

We piled large stones, some the size of footballs, on to the wood and set it alight about six or seven hours before everyone ate.

When the stones were white hot, we placed the food - fish, lobsters, octopus, chicken, meat, vegetables and fruit - on them wrapped up in small parcels of banana leaves and fastened with strips of palms.

More banana leaves were used to cover everything and, finally, we buried the whole lot with soil.

That just left the pig. There it was lying on a sheet of canvas on the lawn, cleaned, and prepared ready to be cooked - but how? It was very big.

By now, it was mid-morning and already very hot. The men, some in shorts and singlets, others bare-chested, wearing just lava lavas, or sarongs, around the waist stood inspecting the carcass, drinking beer and that popular native concoction, kava.

Pacific islanders love pork, and its painstaking preparation is always preceded by ritual discussion.

Hoisted over the fire

One chop, two chops, three chops and a branch as thick as an arm and as long as my body came crashing down. No sign of the neighbour thank heaven.

It was trimmed, inserted in the rear aperture - a good tight fit - out through the mouth, and the pig was hoisted over another fire.

Not long afterwards its skin crackled beautifully in the heat.

Strewn with herbs and basted in its own fat, the smell was heavenly. Later, served with taro - a popular native tuber - green bananas and polusami - a type of vegetable and coconut paste - it tasted even better.

About mid-afternoon, the food parcels were dug up, unwrapped and placed with succulent slices of pork on mats on the ground.

There was a brief prayer and words of welcome from the host to about 100 guests, from many of the Pacific Islands.

Then Christmas dinner - Polynesian style - got under way, accompanied by the sound of guitars and the laughter of girls, flowers in their hair, dancing the hula, the siva and the tamoure.

I am expected back this year, but business in Britain prevents my accepting the invitation.

On Christmas Day, I shall be eating turkey and mince pies, and drinking bubbly somewhere in Hampshire. But as I peer out through double-glazed windows at the bleak landscape, I shall try very hard not to think of what they might be doing back in the islands.

It would not be good for the digestion.

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