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  • Michael Roman

An Island Christmas

Christmas on a tropical atoll was like nothing I ever experienced before. There were no crowded shopping malls, parking lots, Christmas lights on snow-covered roofs, or anything that normalized the season for me. All these were distant memories from my small village. The one thing that helped was the slight drop in temperature accompanied by several days of precipitation. Cooling winds and Christmas storms interrupted mail service. We received mail once a week—all cherished letters from home, like nothing else. Friends and family did not realize how much we needed to hear from them during those first few months. Not receiving mail because of the storms was hard.


Mail days were both the best and worst days. Elated to receive correspondence, all were secretly saddened when nothing arrived. Hearing our name called in the maneaba was euphoric, but as soon as we opened the letter, homesickness. Pictures were the first to be passed around. Everyone could at least count on seeing other peoples’ photographs on mail day. We started living through others in ways that placed the group over ourselves. We coped with the good and bad together. The mail drought impacted the group’s spirits.

To lift our spirits, we decided to go Christmas caroling through the villages. All of our host families celebrated the season, so it seemed natural. We began singing at sundown in Bubutei village and moved north across the island, stopping at each family’s house. Oten, the Peace Corps driver, followed us with the truck. He wanted to drive the southern village trainees home at the conclusion of the night.


On Christmas morning, rumors circulated that mail was being intercepted and stored on Tarawa. What we didn’t know was that Oten was the culprit. At the conclusion of the night, he thanked us for our carols. “I saw how happy your host families were.” Laughing, he added, “some told me they were impressed. Come.” He gathered all of us in the path behind his truck. “I am the Kiribati Santa Clause!” He opened the tailgate all to see. Like, little kids, we could not believe what we saw. Brown boxes on top of more brown boxes with international postage and our names on them. Keith! Nichole! Taia! Missy! Sugi! Ben! David!


Nearly falling, he moved away from us as we raided the truck. This mail call was not great — it was unbelievable! Hand over hand, arm over arm, the boxes circulated eventually finding their way to the rightful owner. It seemed like Christmas back home, except we were in Kiribati, and Santa’s sleigh was the Peace Corps truck.


After Oten dropped us off in the southern village, Keith, Emily, Ben, and I raced to Missy’s Kiakia. Boxes filled with letters from home, pictures, and comfort food we cherished brought everyone to tears. Missy’s host family must have thought we were crazy with all the screams of joy coming from her kiakia late at night.


We gathered in her family’s bwia to share our loot with everyone. Surprisingly, her family did not want to take any of our gifts. They did not wish to take these things that made us happy. Emily and Keith suggested I run home to get my guitar, and with my host siblings in toe, our evening went well into the early morning.


Dear Mom and Dad,

Merry Christmas!!! Thank you for the gifts, letters, pictures, and cassettes! I can’t wait to listen to them tomorrow! I miss all of you so much, but I am having a fantastic time in Bubutei, Maiana. I love you, and miss you so much!

Photo Credit: Raimon Kataotao

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©2020 by Michael Roman