A Culture-Clashing Christmas Party

Everything was almost ready. For the past two weeks I had passed out over 40 little slips of paper to island women in three different cities. On each was a beautifully worded invitation to come to my house at 4:00pm on December 21st for a “fête de Noël” or Christmas party. I’d taken taxis from one city to the next in search of the women I wanted to invite. In some cases, invitations happened on accident. In one situation I was trying to buy stamps to send Christmas cards home to America and I ended up inviting the woman selling me the stamps (she came too!). I’d given multiple invitations to teammates and close island friends so they could also invite their friends and neighbors.

The day before, I woke up early and went shopping as soon as I thought stores would be open. I first stopped at a store that I’d been told about by a teammate. It was on a hill with no other stores nearby. There I found Christmas decorations: ornaments, lights, a fake Christmas tree. On a small Muslim island where maybe 30 people on the entire island celebrate Christmas…maybe…this was amazing! From there I walked to an import store and bought paper plates, plasticware and plastic cups. It started to rain and while islanders quickly hid under awnings and inside street stores, I bravely trudged on. When it rains heavily here, with nowhere to go but back into the ocean, the rainwater quickly floods the streets. I’ve heard numerous horror stories of small children being swept out to sea in these flash floods. Undaunted, I continued. Dirty water, up to mid-shin, swept angrily by me. Plastic water bottles and discarded flip-flops slapped my legs as they made their way to the ocean. Plastic bags wrapped themselves around my calves and I had to gingerly shake them off as I heroically continued on my mission. Well, I thought I was heroic. Islanders thought I was insane. But I finally made it to the covered open-air market. Soggy and dripping, I wove through vendors buying ingredients to make sandwiches for tomorrow’s party. I had no idea how many guests would actually come, so I decided to purchase enough food for 50 people. Or should I say, what I thought was enough food for 50 people. I got 2 kilograms of carrots, 3 kilos of cucumbers, 5 kilos of chicken thighs, a giant bottle of mustard dressing, 30 eggs, 2 kilos of tomatoes, and a giant bag of lollipops. I’d commissioned teammates to bring 25 baguettes, hot sauce, brownies and cookies.

Once I returned home, dragging myself into my room like a drowned rat, I peeled off my wet clothing and once clothed in something dry and semi-comfortable I got to work. I prepared games, nametags, decorations and food. I boiled the chicken legs for over an hour and spent another two hours pulling meat off the bones. I drew and colored a Christmas tree and cut out stars for the tree. I strategically placed items throughout the house for easy access for when we would play games. I stuffed 15 bags with Coke cans, brownies and lollipops for the winning team.

Like I said, I was almost ready. At 3:15, on the day of the party, my Brazilian teammate, Rafaela arrived with two of her teenage neighbor girls in tow, ready to help with any last minute preparations. Abby, my housemate was already in the kitchen, peeling the 30 eggs that I had hardboiled. I gave them tomatoes to slice, carrots to grate and cucumbers to chop. I began slicing bread. Soon afterwards, a Swiss friend arrived with three island ladies. I turned on my Christmas playlist and the party officially began. At 4:00pm, the time I’d invited ladies to arrive, there were six island women. Oh man, I thought, I bought way too much food.

On the wall, I’d hung four flipchart papers. Each one represented a team. The team names were written in English, French and local language: Christmas presents, Christmas trees, Santa Claus and Stars. As women arrived, they selected which team they’d like to be a part of and I wrote their names on the paper. Then I gave them a small “nametag”, a piece of paper with a design on it to represent their team so that throughout the night they could identify who was on their team.

At 4:30pm, there were nine women, at least one on each team. With Abby, Rafaela and her guests still in the kitchen, I decided to play a game with those who’d arrived on time. Each team (of 2) selected a player and they stood front and center. I gave them each a cookie that they placed on their forehead. The first to get it into their mouth without using their hands was the winner. Most of you reading this have at least seen this game played, if not played it yourself. But for islanders, this was new and hysterical. Grown women do not play games. They do not put cookies on their foreheads. But these ladies, with a true competitive spirit, and their teammates cheering them on, moved those cookies from forehead to cheek to mouth. Team Christmas presents won first place, earning four points, with Christmas trees coming in second, Stars in third and Santa Claus last with one point.

About the time the game finished more women began to arrive. At first slowly so that by 4:45pm there were about 20 women and by 5:00pm there were over 50 women, teenage girls and small children.

Many of the women brought carefully wrapped presents with them. That was a surprise! I later learned that handing out a printed invitation, as I did, is a cultural queue to bring presents. How nice!

Christmas presents and homemade Christmas tree

Christmas presents and homemade Christmas tree

One of my presents. I wore it Christmas Eve.

One of my presents. I wore it Christmas Eve.

As each woman walked through the door, they unwrapped themselves. Shawls and traditional toga-esque coverings were folded and put away for the evening. Leggings and skinny jeans were a common sight, as women felt comfortable in a house full of other women. High heels, flip-flops and strappy sandals piled on the porch in front of the door.

While Abby and Rafaela continued to occupy themselves with food prep, I ensured everyone was assigned to a team. Amalia, who I’d bounced ideas off of for this event, decided that introductions were in order. We paired up with someone we did not know, introduced ourselves and once everyone had quieted and found a seat or a good standing spot, we introduced our partner to the group. Immediately following the introductions, I selected five women from each team to participate in the relay race. Another completely foreign concept, I was surprised at how quickly and enthusiastically these ladies participated in this new game. In case you are ever on a tropical island and need to put together a relay race, here is an idea:

  1. Mangoes: The first four ladies were each given a mango, which they had to peel and eat as quickly as possible.
  2. Eggs: Once their teammate finished their mango, the next set of ladies put a hardboiled egg on the end of a spoon and walked with it in their mouths to the porch where they tagged the next teammate.
  3. Water: There a lady waited with a bottle of water in hand. Once her egg-carrying teammate tagged her, she chugged her bottle of water and ran to the roof.
  4. Coconut: On the roof, four ladies waited for their water-chugging teammate with a coconut in hand. They had to split the coconut and grate out the inside using a local contraption that one sits on.
  5. Bottle: Once all the coconut meat was scraped out, the final lady filled the empty water bottle with coconut and ran downstairs to tag my hand.

It was complete mayhem with women screaming and running, children underfoot, cheating and accusing. I think they had fun but it’s hard to tell with at least 20 different women yelling at me about who should have won, and how Santa Claus cheated but the Stars refused to cheat which is why they lost, blah blah blah.

Next came the food. This was where it really started to get overwhelming. I explained above, all the work that went into the preparation so that guests could make their own sandwiches. It’s amazing how so many hours of work can disappear within minutes.

After 14 months on Clove Island I’ve been to a few events. Rarely does an event have buffet-style food selection. Food is carefully portioned out onto however many plates there are guests. In this way, everyone gets an equal amount of food. Any food left over is hidden in the kitchen for the hosts. Since I had no earthly idea how many people might show up, I couldn’t make pre-arranged and carefully proportioned plates. Instead I trusted in the common sense of grown women. There was my first mistake. Within minutes, the chicken and eggs, piled high on the first women’s’ plates, were gone. The dozens of women waiting in line had to do with vegetable sandwiches. Then the requests/demands started to come.

“More water!”

“Isn’t there any more chicken?”

“Show me the bathroom!”

“I need a fork.”

“It’s too hot in here!”

On and on and on and on, geese cackling in my ear. When I finally made it up to the table to get a bite to eat, there was no food left. None. Every slice of cucumber and carrot scrap had been gobbled up by these geese. The table was a deserted

The littered table.

The littered table.

wasteland with knocked over cups and spilled water. What it lacked in food, it more than made up for in trash. Napkins were scattered and used plastic plates lay littered across it. I walked Charlie Brown-style to the kitchen to tell Abby and Rafaela that there was no food left for us. On my way, Amalia grabbed me and let me know that she had hid some meat pockets in the kitchen for us. Excitedly, I skipped to the kitchen anxious to fill my aching belly. Oma, one of Rafaela’s teenage neighbors, was greedily stuffing her face with my meat pockets! She’d already eaten a sandwich. I told her those were for us since we hadn’t eaten and she starred at me blankly while she continued to shovel the precious food into her mouth. Rude! I grabbed the bowl and with her protesting and following me out of the kitchen, I locked the food in Abby’s room for later consumption.

The night continued in much the same fashion. The power didn’t come on so we played more games by the light of flashlights and candles. Rafaela slaved in the kitchen making popcorn for the evening movie. But when she brought it out, she was told it was much too salty for human consumption. Abby raced around, trying to ensure that everyone stayed hydrated. At one point, she had to run to the store to buy some more bottles of drinking water. We were harried. We were overwhelmed.

One of the games. Fill in the blank to "The First Noel"

One of the games. Fill in the blank to “The First Noel”

To make myself heard, I spent a majority of the night yelling. My voice was raw.

Me...yelling...to be heard during a game.

Me…yelling…to be heard during a game.

I felt pulled in 15 different directions with all the complaints and needs and wants. And by the end of the night, when both projector batteries died, the YouTube movie wouldn’t load and so I had to call off the movie; when I had been rubbed on the back and told everything was ok; when we had listened to the Christmas story told in local language and discussed the miracle of the virgin birth; when I had passed out the winning team’s gifts and we’d taken our goodbyes, I lay on the litter-strewn mat exhausted and overwhelmed. I felt like a train had run over me. Yes, I was hungry. Yes, I was very thirsty. I was sweaty and tired. But mostly, I was thinking, how could I be treated like a servant in my own home? Why did my guests think they had the right to criticize everything from the food to the weather to my lack of foresight? How am I responsible for the heat! I finished the night broken and wearied.

It’s been a week now. And my perspective has changed somewhat. I certainly see God’s hand at work in the way the movie didn’t play and how we were forced to read the story and discuss in local language. But beyond that, I think I got a glimpse into island culture- an inside pass. I wasn’t treated as a foreigner. These women felt comfortable enough with Abby, Rafaela and I to be rude, or what we Westerners would consider rude, but in their minds, I think it was different. I think it was friendship. Feeling comfortable enough to demand certain things and criticize- it’s what they do to each other.

Once everyone had left.

Once everyone had left.

And throughout the week, I have received compliment after compliment on the smashing Christmas party I threw. I’ve been regaled with stories, reliving the games that we played. Word has spread and even those who weren’t at the party have learned about the games.

Despite my discomfort, I think the Clove Island Christmas party was actually a success. Island women enjoyed it and I learned many valuable cultural lessons.

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