Thanksgiving in Kosrae

Happy Thanksgiving! So, what’s Thanksgiving like in the tropics where turkeys and cranberries are about as rare as coconut trees in Massachusetts?

Ever since the arrival of American missionaries in the mid-1800s, Kosrae has always had a close relationship with the US. Although Kosrae has adopted many American traditions — including Thanksgiving — Kosraeans celebrate Thanksgiving in their own way. The day starts with everyone going to church.

Kosrae has four big villages which rotate the honor of hosting Thanksgiving. This year my village (Malem) was where everyone gathered to give thanks. The congregations of each of the other three big villages (Tafunsak, Lelu and Utwe) along with one small village (Walung) came to Malem on Thursday and brought their full choirs with them.

Although the service is in Kosraean, it’s a Congregational Christian service so I can guess which prayers are which and say “Amen” when appropriate. For me, the highlights are the choirs. They’re huge — with about 200 singers in each choir. Men wear white shirts. Women wear matching dresses. They sing a capella. There’s no choir director standing in front to keep them on tempo. The performances are well-rehearsed and quite moving.

This choir came from Tafunsak.
This is the choir from Malem.
Here is Lelu’s choir.

At the high school, I have students from both Lelu and Malem so I know a lot of the youth in these two photos.

Click the play button above to hear a 1-minute excerpt from the 1-hour Thanksgiving oral concert..

Food accompanies every activity in Kosrae. Thanksgiving is no exception. After the service, everyone gets a free meal in the courtyard outside the church. I was pleased to see lots of fruits on this occasion. Helpers piled my plate high with papayas, bananas, tangerines, rose apples and pandanus. This was my first time tasting Pandanus — an interesting and unusual fruit. Not bad.

Barbecuing chicken
Tables full of food
My favorite dishes

After church, there was time for a siesta before the evening feast to which I was invited (read adopted) by the Tilfas family in Lelu. Two of the young men in this family teach at the high school with me. Their uncle George is one of my connections with the College of Micronesia.

Kosraean families are huge and so are their feasts. Foods were prepared at several households. I was amazed by how many cars and pickups delivered dishes, plates, trays and troughs of food. Counting babies and toddlers, there were about 50 family members present for the feast — yet tables were loaded with enough food for 100. My host George apologized that not everyone in the family could join us for dinner. There was pig, chicken, fish, sushi, lobster, taro, breadfruit, rice, yams, coconuts, tangerines and bananas. There was even a turkey. I opted for extra helpings of two of my favorite foods: Coconut and lobster. I was sent home with enough leftovers to last me until Monday.

As the only outsider, I was treated like a guest of honor. With my family far away, I gave thanks for being able to celebrate Thanksgiving with the loving and happy Tilfas family.

Kosraeans have a lot to be thankful for. One reason to be thankful is that we’re still 100% virus free. From the photos above, it’s plain to see that no one wears masks here. There’s no need for social distancing. Life in Kosrae goes on as it always has. Our only limitation is that no one is allowed to come to Kosrae because of the travel ban that’s been in effect since March. In the past month, some of our neighbors have relaxed their travel bans. Now they have the virus. Micronesia is one of six nations that are still completely free of the virus.

Still, there are a few hundred Micronesians who’ve been stuck in Guam and Hawaii for several months. They urgently want to come home for Christmas Their appeals have convinced Micronesia’s government to start the repatriation of some of these Micronesians next month. On December 5th, a sanitized US military plane that’s part of Operation Christmas Drop will deliver about 40 Micronesians to the capital island of Pohnpei. Before leaving Guam, these Micronesians will have spent 14 days in isolation being tested daily for Covid-19. On arrival in Pohnpei, they’ll spend another 14 days in isolation, again with daily testing. If they still show no symptoms of Covid-19 and they still test negative, a few Kosraeans will be allowed to come to Kosrae in time for Christmas. We’re all crossing our fingers that they won’t bring the virus with them. Life in Kosrae would be very different if we all had to stay 6 feet apart.

Changing to a minor but curious topic, in the 8+ months that I’ve been on Kosrae, I’ve noticed that the $1 bills on Kosrae are all getting very dirty and worn. This is no surprise since there’s been no commerce between here and the rest of the world for almost nine months. Our two banks have no way to replace old currency with new bills. If this keeps up much longer, our American currency will start looking like the currency of Bangladesh. I got curious and decided to take a close look at the coins in my pocket. I was stunned that, of the six pennies in my pocket, three of them were “wheat” pennies from the 1930s. What would be the chance of this happening in the US? When Micronesia became a protectorate of the US. at the end of World War II, America brought currency to these islands. Although our paper money has been recycled, Kosrae has been circulating the same coins for 75 years. According to, these old pennies are worth 25¢.

Visitors here often ask how to pronounce Kosrae. It should be pronounced as if it were written Koshrae — with an “h” in the middle of the name. An easy way to get the accent and pronunciation right is to say “Kosher Rye” three times fast. The third time, you’ll be pronouncing my island’s name the way the locals do.