Samoan Christmas
Rose Mitchell, Jason Savea, Lesa Tagaloa and Annie Seuseu pose for a picture on Dec. 12, 2022, at the Samoan Community Development Center. (Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz)

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No matter that the temperatures are in the 80s; with 98 percent of American Samoa’s population being Christian, Christmas is a spectacular time of year. 

In two weeks of programming, everyone in American Samoa, from youth groups to the Department of Treasury, sings carols on national television. Meanwhile, residents go all-hands-on-deck to set up Christmas trees, lights and other decorations throughout every village.

“You know how Union Square is during the Christmas time, and how there’s a big Christmas tree?” asked Jason Savea, a Samoan-Filipino who lives in Bayview-Hunters Point. “Samoa is like that, times 10, everywhere on the island.”

In comparison, Christmas here is less festive, but Samoan residents in the Bay Area make it a special period, a time of prayer and celebration and commitment to Christian values, with gratitude front and center.

“It’s the time of the year where you just have to be thankful for the life we are given, from family members to food to the good times, to reflect on everything that I’ve been going through, and the lost loved ones this year,” said Annie Seuseu, a 24-year-old Samoa native who lives in Bayview-Hunters Point. “I think that’s what Christmas is for: to be present.”

Of course, no two households celebrate Christmas precisely the same, even if they’re of the same culture. Still, Seuseu’s experiences resembled those of half a dozen other Bay Area Samoan residents who spoke to Mission Local about how they celebrate Christmas. (Some 1,000 Samoans live in San Francisco, according to a disputed survey.)

There’s church service, commonly at one of the San Francisco Congregational Churches of American Samoa. There’s a family gathering, often with more than a dozen relatives. There’s home-cooked traditional fare, such as Samoan chop suey and taro with coconut. There’s music — sometimes, American; usually, Christmas carols; and most often, Samoan. 

There’s prayer, commonly with a period of reflection. And there’s gift-giving; not the most important element, but another common way of sharing and giving to one another.

Christian values and prayer

After I reported on an evening meeting at the Samoan Cultural Development Center, several Samoan residents refused to leave my side.  Instead, they kept me company to make sure I was safe as I waited for my ride to pick me up at the Sunnydale housing projects.

Samoan people are known to be hospitable and giving, said The Rev. Gethsemane Tagaloa, who has been in the ministry for 36 years.

He added that such Christian values have been practiced by Samoans thousands of years before Christianity reached Samoa’s shores in 1830 — and so, in many ways, Samoans were culturally and spiritually inclined to accept the gospel’s teachings. Meanwhile, Christianity merged the Samoans’ belief in multiple nature gods into a belief in one God of creation.  

“It was just part of our life; a way of living, and with hospitality, with humility, with grace, with caring and sharing with one another,” Tagaloa said of traditional Samoan values. “It has now become more meaningful, with having Christ as center.”

And so, for many Samoans, the Christmas holidays here are, first and foremost, a time of prayer and gratitude. Prayer and song are central to the celebration. Many reflect on the year with their families.

For Lesa Tagaloa, a 24-year-old Samoa native, some 35 family members will gather in her Bayview-Hunters Point home. They’ll sing a song, such as “Fa’afetai” or “Ua So’ona Olioli Nei.” And her grandfather, the high chief of the house, will lead in prayer.

The family then talks for hours, in what they call talosaga.

“That’s where we do sharing moments; what’s been happening so far within your life, or if you’re holding any grudges, or what are your plans for this year, or going into the next year,” she said.

Lesa Tagaloa, Rose Mitchell, Annie Seuseu and Jason Savea pose for a picture on Dec. 12, 2022, at the Samoan Community Development Center. (Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz).

Lexi Saelua, a 24-year-old Samoan San Mateo resident, and her relatives traditionally begin their Christmas day celebration with an opening hymn that leads into 30-to-60-minute prayer and ends with a Samoan hymn. 

Meanwhile, for Tina Kuresa, a Samoa native and Bayview-Hunters Point resident, and her family, an opening prayer is followed by a reflection, where each family member is given a chance to talk about the best part of their year and why Christmas is special to them.

“Each family has their own traditions so, usually, for the prayer, it’s one of our Samoan traditions,” said Kuresa, a singer and youth leader at the Assemblies of God church in Hayward. “Growing up, we say a prayer before we eat, before we start a service, or before we have a family meeting or family gathering,” she continued. “And that’s because it’s part of our culture that we always have to start with God and then we end with God.” 

Samoan feast

For Saelua’s family, an essential part of the Christmas feast is the opportunity to have deep conversations about their strengths, growth and other aspects of the family.

“We call it talanoa, to ‘talk with one another,’” Saelua said. “We break bread, and we continue to build bridges with one another.”

Among the interviewees, the celebration sometimes includes some food from the States, such as stuffed turkey or ham off the bone, but the majority of their Christmas feasts are composed of Samoan fare. Often, the elders are served first. Some families, such as Lesa Tagaloa’s, traditionally sit in a circle.

Common Christmas main courses are Samoan chop suey (sapa sui) and crab. Among the sides, taro or plantains baked in coconut are among the most popular. 

The most popular ingredient, by far, is coconut. When there’s conversation over food, some element of coconut is on the table, Saelua said, and this was the case for every interviewee. 

Saelua’s family serves a main course of fai’ai pilikaki (canned mackerel cooked in coconut milk with onions, sometimes with vegetables, spice and seasoning), with a side of fa’alifu kalo (taro cooked in coconut milk). Pani’popo (buns soaked in coconut milk) is one of the desserts. 

For Kuresa’s family, one of the main entrees is her godfather’s palusami (green spinach with coconut milk). And for Savea’s family, the main Christmas entree is fai’ai pa’a (crab boil covered in a thick, creamy Samoan coconut sauce).

In other ways as well, Samoan culture centers around coconut, Saelua said.

“Coconut is the fruit of our livelihood, because you can use it to drink coconut water, you can use it for its milk, you can use the shell for a bowl, you can use its husk to fuel a fire,” Saelua said. “We use every part of it. It was a way of surviving in pre-colonial times, but it becomes more than that; a representation of who we are as people, versatile and adaptable in different situations.

Samoan music

Music has a very special place in Samoan culture, especially around Christmastime, said Jason Savea, a pianist for the choir of the First Samoan Congregational Church of San Francisco.

“It’s not so much Christmas caroling going door to door, but singing at church, preparing Christmas songs, and dancing,” he added.

Often, the songs are Samoan renditions of traditional Christmas songs such as “Holy Night” and “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” There’ll also be Christmas songs native to Samoans, such as “Ia Tatou Pepese.”

For in-home Christmas celebrations, the music varies, but interviewees most often referred to songs from Samoan artists such as the pop band The Five Stars (“All the OG elders listen to it,” Saelua said).

Savea said that the band Punialava’a has been especially popular as of late. Other music played in the households are Samoan Christmas songs, Samoan oldies and songs from the States such as the oldies. 

A story of migration and Christmas

In some ways, says The Rev. Tagaloa, his story of coming to San Francisco mirrors that of many Samoans: Through his father’s military service.

His family migrated first to Hawaii in 1963, and his father was subsequently assigned to the San Francisco Navy Shipyard. 

His first memories of Christmas in San Francisco, as a child, evoke a multitude of colors in a different climate.

“It was cold, not tropical, like where we came from,” he said. “But the life of giving was the same.”

And the celebration, worship and feast were the same. 

Instead of eggnog, they had Samoan drinks, such as baby coconut. And there was pork and chicken and “all the good fixings, the Samoan way.”

“You can only imagine our home during Christmas,” said the reverend, the middle child of 13 siblings. “It’s all the hustle and bustle, all the joy in the air, all the food.” 

Those, he said, were the happy days in their home.

“I think it’s more so, because I had my brothers and sisters there with my parents, with the food that we all prepared, the decorations that we all created ourselves,” he said. “Like many other families, we didn’t have very much. We didn’t have the most elegant Christmas tree, but we sure did decorate it to the fullest.”

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David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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