Christmas in Tonga

"’Twas the night before Christmas, and..." no, I’m not about to breach copyright. Firstly, where’s Tonga, and why, twenty five years ago, was I there?


Tonga is a South Pacific kingdom, about two thousand miles east of Australia, a thousand north of New Zealand. It comprises around a hundred and fifty islands, fewer than thirty inhabited. The largest, Tongatapu, is of similar area the Isle of Wight… no, I’m not about to give a geography lesson.

Why was I there? Because I’d been there before. My first Christmas in Tonga was in 1969, at the end of a year as a volunteer teacher. I was eighteen, and lived with a Tongan family in a village of around two hundred inhabitants, some ten miles from the capital, Nuku’alofa (sorry, I said this wasn’t a geography lesson, didn’t I?)

What about that "night before Christmas" of the opening line?

A Pacific Island Christmas isn’t snowy scenes or dreams of it - more hot, dusty days and warm, starry nights with a perfume of frangipani, the sounds of people drinking kava, laughing and singing, children shouting, dogs barking, radio programmes and conversations drifting from house and roadside in the clear air. At night, the village was awash with darkness and shadows, small groups of people walking the dusty roads, visiting relatives and friends, alongside outlines of coconut palms and mango trees lit by the moon, stars and tiny lights inside scattered houses. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? Yet it was a microcosm of human life anywhere, with rich and poor, happy and miserable, conformists and misfits. Living in such a small society is to live in public, as under a microscope, and if you stay there, your options are few. No, I’m not about to give a sociology lesson...

What about Christmas? To understand Christmas in Tonga, you must know a bit of history, so I shall give a brief history lesson.


Christian missionaries first came to Tonga in the late eighteenth century - in 1797 the London Missionary Society sent ten men, including George Vason, a bricklayer from South Muskham, who lived for several years with a chief, and married one of his daughters. This first wave gained no converts. In 1801, after the death of his chief and protector, Vason escaped probable death in a civil war and returned to England, becoming governor of Nottingham jail, and a member of the Park Street Chapel.

The next missionaries came in 1826, two Methodist missionary couples, the Reverends Thomas and Hutchinson and their wives, with Roman Catholics (French Marists) in the 1830s. Until post World War II growth of the Mormon Church and other denominations, Methodism and Roman Catholicism dominated Tongan church membership.

Whole villages followed their chief’s example and converted, so even today almost everyone in Tonga belongs to a Christian church and attends regularly. Villages, such as the one where I lived, have Catholic, Mormon, Free Wesleyan and Church of Tonga congregations (the Methodists split into several groups during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century), and some have Seventh Day Adventists and others.


In the early 1970s most churches were small wooden buildings, with mats on the floor and large doors, opened to admit a cooling breeze during services. All through Sundays and religious festivals, the sound of single church bells, or the traditional wooden drum or lali, are heard across the villages and towns of Tonga, calling people to worship, and followed by intoning of prayers and hymn singing, often in harmony. On Christmas Eve, the Catholics had a Mass around five o’clock, and the Methodists a service late in the evening.

After evening meal, some villagers went to kava clubs, for a few hours of conversation over the drink, kava, made from the root of the piper methysticum pounded into powder and mixed with water. Kava looks like brown washing up water, and is a mild soporific with a gingery taste and slight numbing effect on the mouth, and in those days it was cheap and plentiful. It is the focus of informal socialising and formal ceremony, from the gathering of a few friends, mainly men, in a house or ‘club’, up to the rare and massive ritual of the royal kava ceremony.

Leaving the men at kava club, one might join small groups of villagers from the Wesleyan Church, walking from house to house, pausing with kerosene lamps and hymn sheets, to sing Christmas carols at the roadside and outside huts and houses. The adults sing earnestly, loudly and generally in tune, the younger ones, children and those in their late teens, giggle, whisper jokes nudge one another and sometimes deliberately sing out of key, but all enjoy the occasion, anticipating celebration of Christ’s birth. ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ never sounded so sweet. The wandering carol singers continue until late evening, dispersing home, or to drink kava, or attend midnight services.

Christmas morning dawns with the sound of a raucous, cheerful band on the roadside - washboard, one string bass, banjo, mouth organ, the first church bells, more singing, eating of pork, chicken, yam, sweet potato, and an afternoon lazing on mats under the shady mango trees, out of the blazing sun. Happy Christmas!

Roger Cowell
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th November 1998