Christmas at Malalia, 1934: Jean Brawn – UV Dec 2014

Submitted by George  and Edna Oakes

“I am afraid we will not have very much Christmas this year.” “No, I am afraid not.” It was the Missionary and his wife who had spoken. They stood on the hillside near the Mission House, scanning the horizon, vainly straining for the faintest, tiniest dot, which would mean a ship coming towards their station.

“Our Christmas mail came late last year, the cakes and sweets from home were mildewed and spoilt. The last mail I received from home was three months old, the boat must come soon.” The Missionary comforted his wife, but each knew that no law or rule governed the movements of the copra schooners which, dodging in and out of island plantations are often the only links our outstation folk have with civilization. Their only means of obtaining food supplies and mail are by these schooners.

Home management, and the care of children, is an entirely different proposition in these places where the amenities of life to be had in town or city are not procurable. But Christmas is Christmas wherever we may be. The Missionary and his wife were looking forward to introducing something of its carefree happiness to the people among whom, in the name of the Methodist Church, they found themselves labouring.

The days passed by, days of watching and waiting. Many “Maramas” (minister’s wives) now settled in the homeland, looking back through the years, remember such occasions as this. Times when they watched and waited for ships that seemed never to come.

All hope had been given up, it was too near Christmas. The skipper would not want to be away from his home port for the festive season. They must settle down to a lonely Xmas and make the best of what was at hand.  But no. It was a brilliant moonlight night, the sweet soft voices of the school boys filled the air with Christmas carols: dear and more comforting as they came to us in a strange tongue. Their words—our music. The music ended; a hush fell on the station, then lusty shouts of “Sail-ho!”, “Sail-ho!”.

Incredible. A sail at night was unbelievable. No ships sail these waters at night. No skipper would risk his schooner in these reef strewn waters after dark; but there was the distant “put, put, put” of the engine, and in the distance could be seen the masthead lights heading straight for us. The excitement of everybody, the fun which filled the air!

Short of time, the skipper had left his last port of call before dark, and going right out to sea until clear of the reef, turned, and by a compass course, came straight across the bay to us. The brilliant moon only waited for him to drop anchor, then she slipped behind a bank of clouds and went to sleep.

The village natives and school boys, eager for the news which they receive from the native crews of such schooners, hurried down to the beach. The first dinghy ashore brought the mail. A school boy, knowing how well he would be received at the Mission House, shouldered it and hurried off. Lights on the verandas of the Mission House gave it a festive appearance. Lanterns here and there along the track told of boys carrying cargo from the beach to the house. Very soon boxes of newspapers and parcels, mail bags, boxes of food stuffs, so many dozen tins of butter, milk, assorted meats, carrots, spinach, etc., were being placed on the verandas. Many strange things come out of tins in an island kitchen.

By midnight, the last box of personal matter had been bumped with an extra hard bang on the Mission House veranda. The remainder of the cargo was safely stowed in the shelter of the boathouse on the beach. The little old schooner would slip away with the dawn and play Santa Claus to the Government folk on their station further down the coast at Talasea.

Mail read and parcels inspected, the Missionary and his wife were too excited to sleep the remaining hours till dawn. Would their little son like his train and wheelbarrow? The new little twins who had joined the family since last Xmas—what would they think  of all the brightly coloured toys the loved ones in Australia had sent to fill the pillowslip of the little one they had never seen, dear to them  because of the ties of kinship?

Next day was a busy one. All school and other work put aside. The boxes came up from the beach and were opened up, their contents being put away. Boxes of clean old linen, for hospital work, and gifts of medicine and school supplies, from our ever-thoughtful southern friends.

There was a Christmas cake, beautifully fresh this year. The fruit for a pudding, cordials, and oh, didn’t the school boys chuckle when they espied two large tins of boiled lollies! There were presents for canoe races, the fire lighting with sticks, the tug-of-war, the foot races, the coconut husking, and many other competitions which would follow the Christmas Church service. Already nearby villages had sent out messages to their friends of the promised fun and good things at the Mission Station on Christmas Day.

On Christmas Eve, taking the big Benzene lantern, the schoolboys set out Xmas Carolling. Again, the old familiar tunes filled the night air. Now clearly, as they sang to the hospital folk, and later faintly in the distance as the village folk were sung to. Then silence reigned over the station.

The pillowslips at the foot of each white cot in the Mission House had been filled. Santa had not forgotten these little exiles. The mother, ever mindful of her little ones, had flashed her torch carefully around, lest some wily mosquito had slipped past the protective wire doors. Any mosquito is regarded with suspicion, particularly the Anopheles, for he brings malaria. Sickness among children is a great anxiety at any time, but when one is several days’ journey from a doctor …

But one must not linger. There were parcels to make up. The schoolboys, cook boys, launch boys all were to be visited that night. As busy fingers tie up parcels, the Missionary and his wife chatted together of the lads who were their special care; of the questions they had asked of the white man’s customs at Xmas time.

His parcels completed, the Missionary set off from the Mission House on his journey to the single boys’ compound, which nestles in at the foot of the hill. But oh, the disappointment! Every door was locked and even barred, and in every possibility a huge spear would be placed near the door inside. He called again, and yet again, the names of the older boys. There was no reply. Fear, deadly and black, held these lads in its grip. “It may be a spirit,” they reasoned, calling to us in the voice of our Missionary, endeavouring to entice outside, and then will break our spirits and we will die.” Sadly the Missionary laid his parcels on the verandas of their native built houses, and found his way wearily and somewhat sad back to the Mission House.

The pity of it, the sadness of the thought. Here were peoples of several different tribes; all drawn together, as one lad had said a few days previously, “That he might learn about God and Jesus,” but deep in their hearts was the old fear which still held them in its grip.

We can only do the hoe work now. Many years of patient guiding, many years of loneliness on the part of Missionaries, years of sacrificial giving by the friends at the home base, are necessary ere these people will come to realize the fullness and safety of a life lived by faith in His name.

(This article was originally published in a Methodist Church paper in 1935. Jean Brawn is the mother of Edna Oakes and her twin sister, Nancy, who were born at Malalia Methodist Mission, near Cape Hoskins and Kimbe in West New Britain in 1934.) 

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