Christmas is about coming home – even in Tonga

Christmas is about coming home – even in Tonga
Ella Mawdsley won't be home this Christmas. She lives in Tonga.Photo courtesy Ella Mawdsley.

I woke last week to a startling revelation. It was 10 days until Christmas.

Okay, it wasn’t that startling. I knew it was coming (I had sent my family’s Christmas presents three months earlier). But it just doesn’t feel like Christmas. There are the obvious reasons – the weather forecast says it feels like +40 instead of -40. Having no radio or TV, I’ve been spared the frequently repeated reggae versions of “Jingle Bells” and “O Holy Night” to put me in the mood.

I also have yet to see a single Christmas light or decoration on the entire island of Tonga.

Christmas in Tonga, though, is an important day. Being an exceptionally Christian country, Tonga celebrates the arrival of Jesus Christ, not Santa, on Dec. 25. On Christmas  day, Tongans will flood the churches and feast to mark the birth of Jesus Christ and while there will be a few gifts exchanged throughout the holiday season, it will be mainly about church, feasting and family.

Family above all. So, many Tongans will make the trek from Australia, New Zealand, even the United States to spend the holidays with their families. Even Tongans working on the main Island of Tongatapu will take a boat or plane to the outer islands of ‘Eua, Vava’u and Ha’aapai to be with their families for Christmas.

That’s one thing we have in common, Tonga and I. Christmas to me is about being in Fort Smith for the holidays. Like so many other Fort Smithers living across Canada and the globe I annually made the trek on that trusted Northwestern Air Lease flight in December, a flight packed with old school teachers, co-workers, friends and family. Heading to the departure lounge for the flight to Fort Smith was like heading on the bus to summer camp – you knew everyone and spent the duration of the flight catching up on the past year and reminiscing about days gone by. When I finally arrived in Fort Smith there was my dad, watching the plane land through the airport window, and I knew I was home. We’d drive back to the house and catch up on the local gossip. My sisters and I would bake (and eat) too many Christmas cookies, which we would promptly ski off doing laps chasing after Richard Zaidan or Bruce Chadwick on the ski trails. And after all of that, we’d curl up by our fireplace, eat some more cookies and make plans to catch up with the rest of the town.

I was watching the crowd at a bar on Friday. It seemed that every few minutes, someone new would arrive, and from their welcome it was clear this person had just arrived from overseas. Home for the holidays, there to catch up with friends. So maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel like Christmas to me. Not the weather, or the lack of decorations or Christmas-themed music or even the focus on the religious side of the holidays rather than the commercial. It’s the tradition of coming home that always put me in the Christmas spirit.

So, though I can’t be home to do this in person this Christmas, I wish my family – from my sisters and brother to the old school teachers, co-workers and friends – a Christmas filled with loved ones,  especially those you haven’t seen in awhile. I wish you nothing but opportunities to curl up by the fireplace and catch up on days gone by. And maybe a few too many Christmas cookies too!

Happy Holidays, Fort Smith!

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