Christmas, East Cape, Papua, circa 1947: Valerie Allan (Grant)

(Published Una Voce, September 2002, page 24.)

Valerie, one of three daughters of Rev. R V Grant, spent her early childhood in the Milne Bay District of Papua (Dobu, Fergusson and Normanby Islands). At boarding school after the war Valerie used to go home to East Cape for Christmas holidays. This delightful little story recounts a Christmas ‘at home’.

I have just been sitting during my ‘quiet time’, remembering.

My life in Papua began as a baby at Bwaruada in 1937. My parents had first arrived there in 1930 as their initial posting to Papua for the then Methodist Overseas Mission. With the imminent arrival of the Japanese during WWII, my mother and my two sisters Rosemary and Pamela and myself were loaded on board the Neptuna via the ship’s cargo nets in mid-stream in Samarai ‘harbour’. My father stayed behind and eventually made his way via a small launch to Thursday Island then on to Australia where he rejoined the family. My parents returned to Papua in early 1947 whilst my sister Rosemary and I were left behind at MLC Burwood, Sydney.

For the first few years we only saw Mum and Dad when we returned home to East Cape for the Christmas break. Our travel to and from Australia was by Burns Philp vessels such as the Malaita and Bulolo with other children such as Bob Rich, Margaret Gavin and the Cowley children. These were fun voyages particularly when we were going home for Christmas. Poor Captain (Coconut Bill) Wilding, however did he put up with all these rampaging children!!

This story is about a Christmas Eve and Day spent at East Cape in an era which has long gone and will never be repeated. We were the only Europeans on the Station, but this did not matter at all as we made our own fun and had many Papuan girl friends to go swimming and walking with as well as talking and giggling with. As I cast my mind back I realise now that those Christmases were very special times in my life, for it was a time to leave the strictures and at times loneliness of boarding school and have time as a family, even if only for a few weeks. It was a very happy time, simple in that we had to make our own fun, play together, talk together, go for a swim together and every afternoon go for a walk with Mum and a couple of the Station girls.

We would invariably sit on the ‘beach’ (if one could call the foreshore composed of coral a beach), or wander round to the point (the most easterly point of Milne Bay) looking for shells, whistle hermit crabs to come out from hiding in their shells, gather little red berry type seeds, touch a sensitive plant and watch it close up, or watch a native canoe glide past. Such simple pleasures but oh, so wonderful! There were no outside influences to spoil the peace and tranquillity – just us, magical.

The days before Christmas were exciting … the house had to be decorated with coloured streamers comprising, in the main, of yards and yards of paper daisy chains and big paper bells that opened up. We all believed, or said we did, in Santa Claus – never mind that we looked in every cupboard to try and find presents! Late afternoon on Christmas Eve saw us hang up our pillow cases at the end of our beds. I recall trying hard to stay awake to see Santa … a couple of times I did see ‘him’ but in a funny way I still believed – I guess I didn’t want to break the spell.

Late Christmas Eve the student boys and girls would stand on the coral path and serenade us with Christmas carols until Mum would call out, ‘That’s enough, thank you’. A few hours sleep interrupted by the occasional feel of the pillow case to see what Santa had left for me … sometimes being told it was too early and to go back to sleep.

Morning would eventually arrive and after an initial inspection of the contents of my pillow case, we would all take our goodies to show Mum and Dad what Santa had brought us. Beautiful moments and memories. Every year the bottom of the pillow case would have a two shilling piece, some nuts, dried fruit and best of all a block of chocolate. Other goodies included slate pencils, a torch and clothes (mostly ones Mum had made for us to take back to school). Most times the clothes fitted – how she knew what our sizes would be when we returned home after eleven months at boarding school was always a mystery to me.

Following the initial excitement the next event was to get dressed in our good clothes and go to Church. Cane chairs that Dad had made would be carried from the house to the big oval-shaped church constructed of native materials. Mats would be placed on the crushed coral floor and the native men and boys would sit on one side of the church and the women and children on the other. The men and boys mainly wore lap laps, the Station girls crisp white dresses that they had made themselves. Mum had taught them how to use patterns and how to sew which they did sitting on the floor using a hand-operated sewing machine. The village women and girls wore beautiful grass skirts that swished as they walked.

We sat at the front of the congregation on the cane chairs while Dad preached the ‘good word’ in the local dialect. During the service, Isobel, our head kitchen girl would disappear in order to check on the progress of our Christmas lunch, which was always a roast. I used to wonder how Mum provided such wonderful meals, as one could not always rely on the delivery of supplies from Samarai.

A Christmas pudding was the order of the day – how DID all those threepenny pieces get into the pudding! A jug of freshly picked and squeezed mango or orange juice always graced the table. The ice cream, made from Sunshine Powdered Milk, was always a special treat, but even better was the tin of condensed milk that had been boiled until it turned into caramel … Yum!

Very early in the morning the Station girls decorated the house, downstairs, beautifully – big branches of what we called Christmas Tree were tied to the concrete pillars. Beautiful sprays of orchids and frangipani were threaded on dry ribs of coconut fronds, along with hibiscus. It was a happy day. Presents, wrapped in newspaper and tied with string, were given to the student girls, boys and their teachers. The presents included such items as cakes of soap, laces, cottons, ribbons, pencils, exercise books, a dress or a lap lap length of material. Our job was to help wrap all these parcels and then hand them out to everyone. I loved doing this.

Once the excitement of the morning, Church and Christmas dinner was over it was time for the customary midday siesta, followed by ‘shower time’. The bucket shower was almost over before you knew it had begun. One had to be undressed and ready under the shower before turning the rose on, as a bucketful did not go very far. Hot water was supplied from the big black cast iron cauldron that was a permanent fixture on top of the wood stove, along with large kettles and pots – this was our hot water system.

Afternoon tea was served sitting at the table – beautiful home-made cakes, biscuits, etc. Mum, a very good cook, provided almost instant meals for scheduled and unscheduled callers who stopped off at East Cape. Afternoon tea over, we were given some boiled lollies from a big tin in the pantry supplied by Hobart Spiller from Baniara. Christmas night would see us sitting around the dining table listening to Christmas music coming from our battery operated Philips radio. Lighting came from a Tilly pressure lamp suspended above the dining table.

Upstairs the mosquito nets had been drawn over the beds, the water jugs filled, the personal hurricane lanterns lit and most importantly, the chamber pots placed under the beds (necessary as it was a long walk down to the toilets constructed out over the sea).

I hope that those who read this and who grew up in Papua in the pre-war and early postwar days will reflect on how they spent their Christmas Days and, as I have, enjoy many happy memories.


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