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Local choirs compete during a Christmas service at Arorangi Cook Island Christian Church. (Hans Tammemagi)
Local choirs compete during a Christmas service at Arorangi Cook Island Christian Church. (Hans Tammemagi)

I didn’t sign up to be a caroller in the Cook Islands Add to ...

Sometimes things don’t go as planned – and those moments often make for the best stories. Tripping columns offer readers a chance to share their wild adventures from the road.

Christmas Day in the Cook Islands began like most others: hot and humid and sunny. But instead of snorkelling or lazing about the beach, on this morning, my wife, Allyson, and I donned our best tropical clothes, hopped on a scooter and rode over to a simple, white-washed church.

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Arorangi Cook Island Christian Church was packed with Polynesians in colourful shirts and dresses; many of the ladies also wore straw bonnets. We arrived just as the service began and were led to a bench in the crowded hall. Sunlight poured in through tall windows and it was a pleasant change from the dreary weather we were missing at home.

Unlike many places of worship, not a glimmer of gold leaf or ornate carving was to be seen. The black-robed pastor welcomed the congregation and, as he began a short oration in Cook Islands Maori, we settled in for the service.

Suddenly, several families next to us stood up and burst into song. Men and women, children and grandparents bounced and swayed as their Maori refrain reverberated from the walls. They sang and sang the same refrain over and over again with incredible vigour. We had no idea what they were singing, but smiled and bobbed along with everyone in the church.

Finally, their energy flagged, and another group, dressed in turquoise and seated in another part of the church, jumped up and began to sing, even louder and even more vigorously. They did their utmost to outdo the first group.

Then another group took over, striving to be the loudest yet. Then a fourth group sang. Allyson and I were captivated.

Suddenly this musical Yuletide mayhem stopped. Every head turned toward us as the pastor said, “Now it is time for the tourists to sing.” It was like being struck by lightning out of a clear sky. I was shocked, and was particularly embarrassed, since I am tone deaf and cannot carry a tune.

About 10 of us tourists – the others were strangers from New Zealand and just as surprised and self-conscious as we were – nervously gathered together. After a panicky discussion, we agreed upon a tune and started to croak out Silent Night. Compared to the earlier singing, our effort was feeble and uninspired.

After a few bars, however, the congregation joined in, and soon the carol pulsated throughout the church. It was wonderful. We were elated. Instead of being outsiders, we now felt a part of the service. Once finished, we sat down with pulses racing.

Later, we learned these groups were choirs representing different parishes on the island, and there is much friendly rivalry between them. Far from home, we had discovered a passionate congregation that warmly embraced us into their midst, and our hearts swelled with Christmas Spirit. It was a morning we will cherish forever.

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