How Tonga Celebrates the New Year

Guest Post: Ruth Elayne Kongaika

One tradition I learned about when we lived in Tonga was their unique celebration of the New Year. The people of Tonga take New Year’s very seriously. When we lived in Tonga, precisely at 12:01 on New Year’s Eve locals start walking. They are hoping to be the first to greet their relatives and show their gratitude and love for them.

Tonga, until recently was the first country in the world to greet the New Year. That is because it lies very close to the 180th parallel (12 hours ahead of Greenwich). It sits directly on the International Dateline. These friendly islanders often send messages or food if they are unable to walk the long distances.

Free Wesleyan Church in TongaTongans also value their relationship with God. The whole first week of the New Year is called Uike Lotu (prayer week). Church congregations meet and pray both morning and evening, always feasting in between, during the first week of the New Year. Traditionally, bands from all over the island take their musical instruments, which include homemade banjos, bass and guitars, singing their way from home to home and hoping for some provisions in exchange for their music.

After midnight of the old year, you see people walking all over the paths and roads looking for their kin. When they meet, which may be halfway between their homes, they embrace and uma (kiss). Then they may sit down and have some cookies and Milo (chocolate drink) before leaving to find other relatives. The older people talk and reminisce about the old times and express their gratitude for being able to make it to the New Year. They reflect on people who have died and babies that were born. They also share their hopes for the future.

The young boys of Tonga construct fana pitu (bamboo cannons) and you can hear them all over the islands as their kerosene contents are lit. The boys will try hard to outdo each other in this cannon marathon. It sounds like a war is going on in the villages with all the cannons going off.

After greeting all the relatives, and a long nap, most everyone heads for the beach. January 1st is during the hottest time of the year in Tonga, unlike the white snowy Christmases some other countries are used to. The whole family will go to the beach and have a swim. Food for the New Year is usually baked in an umu (underground oven), and may include lu pulu (beef, onion and coconut milk wrapped in taro leaves), root crops like taro, kumala (sweet potato) manioke (tapioca), and seafood. Mostly, the men fix the umu, but everyone enjoys it. Women make desserts like faikakai (caramel dumplings), Tongan pudeni (pudding) with custard, trifle (adopted from England) and other sweets.New Year Feast Tonga

The Tongan royalty also have their own way of celebrating the New Year. On January 1, 2009 members of the royal family as well as cabinet ministers and distinguished guests received an audience with his Majesty King George Tupou V shortly after midnight. The monarch tries to strengthen his relationships during the New Year’s celebration.Bamboo Cannon, New Year Celebration, Tonga

Truly, the people of Tonga are proud that they are one of the first countries to greet the New Year. Their monarch, Taufa’ahau Tupou IV fought for them to have this distinction so they would be the first in the world to offer up their prayers in Thanksgiving. They even have a hotel called the International Dateline Hotel.

More recently, it has become popular in Tonga to be married the first week of the New Year.

Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the Polynesian islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:



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