Project Canterbury

John Steward's Memories

Papers Written by the Late Bishop Steward of Melanesia

Edited with an Introduction by M. R. Newbolt

Chester: Phillipson and Golder Ltd., 1939.


The greatest day of all the year at Maravovo as I knew it years ago was Christmas Day. Christmas Eve was spent in decorating the Church and Village. All the paths were swept and weeded, the houses were decorated with branches of greenery, the Missionary's house being always included in the scheme, but the main effort, the most ambitious undertaking of all, was reserved for the Church. The nave was left to the natives,--this they might decorate to their own taste and to any extent that time and energy allowed. Branches of every sort of palm lined the walls and clustered round each pillar, the young fronds of the coco-nut palm were beaten open, and formed a fringe of a delicate lemon yellow, from three to five feet deep, lining the walls and hanging as a semi-transparent curtain from the cross-beams. These young coco-nut sheets have a peculiar but not unpleasant smell which will always bring to the mind of any one who has lived in the Islands memories of festival, for it is a favourite decoration among all native inhabitants of the Solomons, and forms a great part of their dancing-dress.

Entering the West door of the Church one seemed to be in a cool grove, for hardly anything of the wooden fabric of the building was visible. There was every shade of foliage, from vivid emerald fading into palest yellow, and the light as it filtered through the leaves, shone cool and green. The Chancel, which was left to the Missionary, was white--white walls, white hangings, white candles shewing between masses of white frangipani blossom whose heavy scent filled all the Church with fragrance. Lights are a favourite native form of decoration; upon and around the Altar, wherever a candlestick could stand, were candles. The East [70/71] end glittered through the forest of decorations and added its note of cheerfulness and splendour to the first service of the Festival.

But all was not over with Evensong. From the earliest days Carol singing has been an invariable feature of our Christmas Eve. At about ten o'clock the singers met in the Church for a short prayer; a Carol, the first of a long series, was sung to God, and then, all in white, each with his or her lantern, the singers made their round of the village. Each house was visited in turn, the Missionary last of all, and then back to the Church again for the final carol and a farewell prayer. At last the night was quiet, unless some neighbouring village sent its singers, too . . . unhappy was the man who lived where there were a group of villages in close proximity. He might expect to be awakened twice or thrice, at any time between twelve and three on Christmas morning, by groups of tired but indefatigable carollers, each determined that the Missionary should have his full share of their Christmas greeting. To each party the sleepy host had to express his gratitude and try to make his thanks sound as sincere and heartfelt as he could.

When sleep came at long last, as it seemed, the next moment the alarm clock's strident tinkle woke him to greet the Holy Child at the great Christmas Eucharist.

In the Church, despite their carol-singing, the voices of the people were wonderfully true and sweet (except in the fortissimo parts) and the old well-known Christmas hymns would stir that slight feeling of homesickness that Christmas always seems to bring.

Almost as soon as breakfast was over came Morning Prayer, for the Melanesian is not sufficiently 'advanced' to believe that hearing Mass is enough for a Holy Day. Mattins must be said or they would feel that they had been done out of part of what makes Christmas day complete; but it must be said full early, for Christmas [71/72] is a holiday as well as a Holy. Day, and there was much to do before the Feast was over.

We used to try and make it a special children's day. Money went a great deal further then than it does now, and for a very few pounds we could buy presents for eighty or a hundred children assembled from the near by villages.

It took very little to make them pleased. A coloured cotton handkerchief, costing about twopence, a pocket knife, which could be got for fourpence, if one bought enough (this was a special treat reserved for the very best), a dozen fish-hooks, a fishing line, a small looking-glass, a pencil or two or any little trifle was enough to mark the day. All the genuine school-going children had a new malo each (price in those days anything up to ninepence), and after the distribution of the presents, the village presented a very bright appearance, for every one had 'something new', but not necessarily 'something blue', for red was the favourite colour. A dozen threepenny mouth-organs helped to make the noise more ear-piercing than ever as their owners' attempts at a tune mingled with the squeals of delight and amusement.

The next event was generally a cricket match, all against all, each against each. Very little science! The bowler was quite unhindered by any 'no-ball' restrictions, the batsman hit everything that come near, there were no 'overs,' the ball was bowled from whichever wicket was nearest, the fielders sheltering behind the trees and running after the ball if the tree failed to stop it and, when they had overtaken it, throwing it wildly in the direction of either wicket. 'Caught' or 'bowled' were the only possible ways of dismissing the batsman, there was no L.B.W., very seldom even a 'run out.' Innings were short and frequent; in fact it was a game which everyone enjoyed and it served well to pass the time till the next great event.

For days everybody had been collecting yams, bananas, and pannas, scraping coconuts and mixing [72/73] puddings, and all through Christmas eve the smell and smoke of cooking fires had pervaded the village. Now came the feast. Any number might be there; there was plenty for all; indeed as one watched the little ones 'swelling visibly' one only wondered when the limit of their capacity would be reached.

However everything must come to an end, and in what was really an astonishingly short time everyone was replete and glistening with food.

Each dropped a stone into a basket that was passed round that a record might be made of the number of guests to compare with former feasts or with the feasts of rival villages.

Sometimes, of course, the rivalry of Missions had its sad side, but in the matter of Feasts and Festivals, the rivalry, though keen, very seldom led to any trouble. On one occasion, when two rival denominations selected the same day for a feast, the heathen sympathisers of each party were busily engaged in making rain for the others and fine weather for themselves. I say "the heathen sympathisers," but I am afraid that some nominal Christians were accessories to the crime, even if they did not actually participate in making charms for this nefarious purpose.

It was not easy even for the Missionary to look properly shocked when his people told him with high glee that "We had won," meaning that while we had had good weather, our rivals' festivities were spoilt by deluges of rain.

Once, on some Feast day more honoured by the "French Church" than by the "English," the French Fathers killed a horse to give their people the treat of fresh meat. Great was their triumph over the poor "English" people, who only supplied rice or an occasional tin of "Bully-ma-cow," until they rashly boasted before some sophisticated "English" boy who had been to Norfolk Island. He very soon reduced them to a proper state of humility. "Eat horse? My dear [73/74] fellow, it simply isn't done. Didn't you know?", or words to that effect in his native tongue. Bitterly disillusioned, the unhappy horse-eaters went away, their glory turned to shame, and another 'victory' was scored up to the '`English Church.'

But on the actual Feast day, these internal jealousies were, if not quite forgotten, at any rate kept well in the back ground.

Everybody was welcome, Catechumens, Christians, English Church, French Church (Roman Catholic) 'Scots Church' (members of any other mission) if not 'Christmasing' elsewhere, and Heathen, whoever liked to come was welcome and 'no questions asked.' We generally got a good number of heathen; they were glad to come, partly for the feast no doubt, but chiefly out of friendliness--for except in a very few cases there was no real ill-feeling between them and us. Unless there was a definite quarrel on foot no native could be said to be the enemy of another.

But certain definite rules had to be observed. The heathen always had their food in a separate place from the others--not because the Christians would not eat with them, but because we said certain mysterious words and made mystic signs over our food before we ate it; and they were not going to run any risks by eating food which had been 'tabooed.' So they sat a little apart but none the less joined in our festivities and were not forgotten when the counting of heads took place, nor when pipes and tobacco were distributed all round.

When this was done, we were free for a little time to snatch a mouthful for ourselves, and even our guests were quiet for a bit. They sat or lay around, and inumerable dogs came to see what they could pick up, while their owners smoked and talked or listened to the Band.

On one occasion this was the band of the paramount chief's Household Troops, in other words a band of pipers from his village. Some ten or a dozen men, with [74/75] pan-pipes of every size and shape, from large single bamboos with a deep bass note, through tenor pipes, double pipes, treble pipes, up to little pipes of eight or ten reeds which played the air.

It was a weird but not unattractive kind of music, a fitful 'motif' seemed to run through it,--evasive to a degree, for just as you fancied that you had caught the air, it changed in some hardly perceptible yet quite decided way, while the larger instruments wailed, grunted and groaned in harmony.

Then perhaps some visitors would volunteer a song, always composed, I fancy, for the occasion. I never succeeded in catching more than the name of a place or person here and there, but these topical allusions were always greeted with a roar of laughter, and occasionally with amused glances in my direction, probably when I myself featured in the song.

The soloists chanted their words in a high weird falsetto to a simple refrain, while at the end of what I took to be each verse, the chorus groaned a final chord.

Although, to my untutored ear, these native tunes closely resemble plain-song, the natives seldom sing plain-song successfully in Church. The Anglican chant and hymn-tune is much more popular, and when, as so often they do, they spend an evening singing in their houses it is almost always the modern hymns, tunes and chants that one hears. Their own melodies seem to be reserved for dance and song on an occasion of a feast or the visits of a dancing party, and, in my experience, their songs were always of the some type, personal, topical and, so far as I could understand them, humorous.

After this interval for rest and music, cricket might be resumed for a time, but not with so much energy and keenness as before, and with an even greater disregard of rules.

At about three o'clock came Evensong, for the cool of the evening must be kept free for yet more games.

[76] If there were a moon, these would be kept up till any hour of the night, or even till next morning; at times like these the natives do not seem to need any more sleep than an occasional cat nap between "events." If the moon were full, long after the programme of official sports was over occasional shrill squeals would tell the missionary, who did want sleep and was trying to get it, that the children were playing hide and seek in the delightfully black shadows thrown by the ornamental shrubs which he had planted round his house for quite a different purpose.

The great event of the evening, with which the organised sports generally ended, was the Tug-of-war. If one had a real rope, so much the better, if not, a length of thick cane out of the bush did quite as well.

At first there was some pretence at regular competitions, village versus village, or married versus single; but generally the excitement proved too great for the spectators and everybody must take a hand lest his chosen side should be beaten.

Then the orderly tug-of-war degenerated into a confused melee--a mass of wildly excited and yelling humanity, of hopelessly entangled legs, of arms and bodies, which finally dissolved when one party or the other claimed in the loudest and shrillest tones that they had won--a verdict disputed with even greater vigour by the losers.

It was all part of the game, nobody minded, the fun and the noise were the chief thing, it did not matter in the least who had really pulled the others over the mark, especially as the struggle was a very 'moving' one, and all marks were trodden out long before the end, which might be a hundred yards from the place where they began.

One Christmas, things looked for a time a little dangerous. Some genius had proposed a tug between Church and Heathen. The idea was loudly welcomed, eight stalwarts from each party were lined up along the [76/77] rope and the word was given. Amidst yells of encouragement from the onlookers the tug began and for a long time it was desperately equal. Then one party began to pull the other, gradually but surely, towards the mark. This was more than their supporters could endure. First one and then another ran out from the crowd of onlookers to lend a hand, the tables were turned, and those who seemed to be on the point of victory began to be pulled over towards their opponents ground.

This was unendurable, fresh recruits ran out to help their side; then the other side called for reinforcements, until some forty men were struggling with as much rope as they could secure, each side surrounded by a horde of yelling and dancing supporters urging them on to fresh efforts. Others took upon themselves to ward off the continual stream of would-be participants from either camp. Party spirit ran high, and tempers were getting short.

In vain the Missionary pushed his way through the struggling natives, trying to shout above the uproar, "It's only a game, it's only a game". Even if his voice was audible, nearly everyone was too excited to listen, and the help he got from a few of his more level-headed teachers was not enough to stop what seemed likely to develop into a very pretty row, for in spite of the truce of a Feast-time, there was no lack of bitter enmity between the heathen and our people.

Blood had been shed in the not distant past, and the native memory for wrongs done to him and his is very long. The Christians remembered these killings, and the heathen hated the followers of the New Custom, as traitors and renegades.

For a few moments things looked very nasty indeed, until, at last the strain proved too great for the rope.

A sudden snap and all the competitors were rolling on the soft sand, an equal part of the rope in the triumphant possession of each party.

[78] Both sides claimed the victory with shouts and dances of triumph, and at any rate, if neither had won, neither could be said to have lost. Luckily the native sense of humour aroused by anything in the way of a practical joke is as potent as his anger. Roars of laughter arose, first from the spectators, and then from the rival teams, and the Missionary went off to bed with a sense of enormous relief for escape from a very real danger. I trust he remembered it in his prayers before he slept.

At about ten or eleven at night, after the Carols of Christmas Eve, a very early start on Christmas Day, and a long and strenuous day of 'fun' I was tempted to say with a sigh of relief, as bed came at last, "Well, Christmas comes but once a year."

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