Christmas in Kosrae

I’ve spent Christmas in some wonderful and memorable places like Brooklyn, Bethlehem, Barcelona, and Bondi Beach Australia. I’ve been told that The Vatican in Rome, Santa Claus Village in Finland and Dublin, Ireland are also exciting Christmas destinations. This year, I think the best place in the world to spend Christmas was Kosrae. This humble little island — with only 6000 residents — pulls out all the stops for Christmas. You might want to put Kosrae on your travel list for December 25, 2021.

In 1852, American missionaries brought new music and a new religion to Korsae. Over time, a vibrant blend of island culture and Christianity has evolved that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard.

Christmas in Kosrae lasts for a week. Each of the five villages holds an all-day festival of marching while singing carols. On Christmas Day, everyone in Kosrae gathers at one church to sing and march together. In normal years, friends and families from Guam, Hawaii and mainland US fly in for this event. This year, only a few dozen Kosraeans who were hardy enough to stomach the 3-day sail from Pohnpei were able to attend.

In all, I counted 12 main choirs with about 250 adults per choir. Every village also has children’s choirs, youth choirs and senior choirs. Thus, more than half of Kosrae’s population sings carols and marches at Christmastime. The only people who don’t sing or march are folks too young or too old to walk, plus a few spectators like me. If I’m still here next Christmas, I’ve been invited to join at least two of the choirs.

Kosrae’s Christmas carols are sung entirely a capella — without even a pitch pipe to get started. The songs are a blend of 19th century gospel with traditional island harmonies and rhythms. If you listen closely, you’ll hear English phrases like King of Kings, Alpha and Omega, Emanuel, Glory Glory and Hosanna. My friends translated the Kosrean lyrics for me which include frequent repetitions of The Lord most high, Raise our voices in joyful songs, Our Savior and Redeemer, Ring the bells, Bring gifts and glad tidings, Give thanks unto Him and The Messiah has come.

To show you what Micronesian Gospel singing is like, I’ve uploaded three videos. The first two are about 4 minutes long. The third lasts 20 minutes. Together, these are a synthesis of a week’s worth of fabulous music. I hope you enjoy them all. Feel free to share them with friends and family. The first video ends with Jingle Bells sung in Kosraean. The second video shows how much fun grandmothers can have in church. During and at the end of each performance, the choirs throw Christmas presents to/at the congregation. The kids love jumping and grabbing for treats. No surprise there. I ended up with a new shirt, kitchen utensils and a box of macadamia nuts. Nice!

This year, the main event happened in Lelu. The twelve biggest choirs came together to perform. They sang and marched from breakfast until dinner time. Naturally, there was lots food outside to sustain the hungry performers and congregation.

In past years, Kosrae’s Christmas festival attracted a few hundred international visitors. This year, because of the pandemic, Kosrae had only one international visitor: Yours truly. Consequently, I was treated to full VIP treatment, seated front and center next to the Honorable Yosiwo Palikkun George, Vice President of the Federated States of Micronesia. Mr. George was born in Kosrae but now lives in Micronesia’s capital 350 miles away. Mr. George and his wife told me of their rough 3-day cruise to Kosrae.

One of the things that makes Kosrae’s Christmas festival special is that it only happens in Kosrae. The other 606 islands of Micronesia have nothing equivalent. This is why Kosraeans who live elsewhere fly home to Kosrae for Christmas, if they can. In my last travelogue, I mentioned that there was a flight planned and quarantine facilities arranged for a few dozen Kosraeans to return home in time for Christmas. At the last minute, this flight was cancelled. Micronesia’s government has decided to extend our 100% travel ban through February … or until we begin to receive the Moderna vaccine.

With its firm stand on no international inbound travel, Micronesia is still 100% virus free. No one wears masks. We don’t need to socially distance ourselves. We can have Christmas gatherings as we always have. The photos below are of my students, co-workers, friends and their children. Although I’m far from family, I feel incredibly blessed and lucky to be able to celebrate with such wonderful people at this time of year.

P.S. It’s now the start of the rainy season in Kosrae, one of the rainiest places on Earth. Rain falls an average of 233 days per year and collects up to 3180mm (125″) of precipitation. Here’s the view outside my window right now as I post this blog. Click the audio link below to hear the deafening roar of a heavy tropical rainstorm. Although it rains every day now, it doesn’t rain all day. May there be lots of sunshine in your 2021!