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9. Christmas in the South Sea Islands

missionaries

When the missionaries of the London Missionary Society first arrived in Tahiti on the Duff in 1797, they were struck by the seemingly stark differences between their own comportment and that of South Sea islanders, who they perceived to be immoral and indolent. Tropes playing on these differences became well-established, and were reproduced over and over again until well into the nineteenth century, for example in this image by Francesco Bartalozzi of an early L.M.S. encounter.

In particular, missionaries believed that Polynesians lacked appropriate concern for time, which was of the utmost importance to the evangelical mind – one’s time on earth represented a fleeting chance to prepare oneself for the transition to an eternal state, and there was no time to be wasted. As such, a key element of mission work in the islands was in instilling a new regime of time, revolving around regular working weeks which also maintained the sanctity of the Sabbath day, as well as annual commemorations and celebrations.

Christmas, however, presented something of a problem within this new order. Missionaries were not the only Europeans in the South Sea islands in the early-nineteenth century, and it seems that traders, explorers, and beachcombers, had some ideas about how Christmas should be celebrated which were at odds with the simple, pious commemoration of Christ’s birth advocated by evangelicals. As such, stationed in Samoa on Christmas Day 1835, L.M.S. worker George Platt was moved to comment in his journal that Christmas was “a day much abused in Christendom. As so many strange notions have been set afloat by seamen and others about Christmas, we think it best to hold divine worship in the Chapel… I give them an account, in Tahitian for the teachers, of the reasons for keeping or not keeping of Christmas, that they might meet any who cavilled against them for not keeping it.” [1] Clearly the oft-repeated accusation that we might have forgotten ‘the reason for the season’ is nothing new!

 

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[1] George Platt’s journal, 28 July 1835 to 22 August 1836 (No. 110), CWM/LMS/South Seas/Journals/Box 8/1834-1837, Council for World Mission Archives, School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Image: ‘The Cession of the District of Matavai in the Island of Otaheite to Captain James Wilson for the Use of the Missionaries Sent Thither by that Society in the Ship Duff, 1801’ by Francesco Bartalozzi (1727-1815), National Library of Australia (public domain: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Cession_of_the_District_of_Matavai_in_the_Island_of_Otaheite_to_Captain_James_Wilson_for_the_Use_of_the_Missionaries_Sent_Thither_by_that_Society_in_the_Ship_Duff,_1801.jpg)

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