New Year’s Day celebrations
On the afternoon of New Year’s Day on Atauro, a group of us were invited to go to a special mass. They told us, “We will take you there at 5pm, there will be lots of singing, and after, you will eat there!”
Tony, a couple of other guests and I had already been to the local church during the week, to listen to the choir rehearse. We loved their open, unforced, powerful way of singing. Also, when we’d first arrived, I’d described my earlier Atauro experiences of songs and singing (by the Singing Boatman on the early morning boat back to Dili) to the manager of the place we were staying, so he was on the look-out for other musical experiences we could have.
That New Year’s Day mass was one of the most welcoming experiences I felt I’d had in Timor. When we arrived it seemed like proceedings had already started, but there were 5 blue plastic armchairs lined up at the front of the space that we were ushered into.
“Would rather be up the back,” muttered a couple of our group self-consciously, but there was no chance of that. We were clearly Honoured and Welcome guests.
Everyone in the congregation knew all the songs, and sang in full voice. Some songs were fairly easy to join in with, as they had repetitive choruses with only a few words. One was even in English:
Singing glory, praise the lord, hallelujah
Singing glory, praise the lord, hallelujah
Singing glory praise the lord, hallelujah
Singing glory, hallelujah, praise the lord!
This was not a Catholic Church, but kultu [Protestant Church]. The pastor beamed at us as we joined in with the singing. He then asked a member of the congregation to come to the front and translate the Gospel and his Sermon into English, one sentence at a time. The less godly among our group might have preferred them not to do this, as it was quite an intense sermon, filled with constant reminders of God’s love for us and the need for us to accept him as our personal saviour… But at the same time, the effort that was made to include us and make us – a group of foreigners and strangers to this close-knit community – feel a part of the event was truly generous.
When mass concluded, people began to shuffle around and change places. Some large tables were brought in. Row upon row of people lined up to shake hands with each of us, and with the pastor. The women gave each of the women in our group a gentle two-sided cheek press. Men just a got a handshake. “Boas festas” we all wished each other.
I went outside to wash my hands and was directed towards the large kitchen at the back of the building. (Timorese kitchens are built separately to the main building, and this one was spread under a rooftop with no walls). Twenty or more women were busy cooking, chopping vegetables, washing dishes, pouring drinks into glasses and cups, slicing large cakes. It was a hub of activity and incredibly detailed in its organisation of labour.
The evening meal began with a snack – a slice of sweet cake, flavoured with nuts, and a cup of hot, sweet tea or coffee. When that was finished, the team of women cleared all the dishes and began to re-set the tables for dinner. While we were waiting we took photos of ourselves with all the children who had by now overcome their shyness and were clamouring around us. Digital cameras are wonderful in this context, with the possibility of showing people the photos you have just taken.
Dinner was amazing in its range and abundance. After all, this is not a wealthy community. We had clearly been invited to a significant event in their year for which all stops had been pulled out. There were several different meat dishes, and several vegetable dishes, two kinds of rice, and even some vegetables cooked without salt. We were invited to eat from the “head table” – the pastor’s table. There was another, larger table for the rest of the congregation to eat from. Everyone helped themselves and sat on long benches to eat their meal.
Meanwhile, the music continued. We learned over that weekend of the Timorese (or maybe just Ataurean) tradition of committing to performing live music 24 hours a day across the festival period. They had a roster of singers ready to roll out the songs, and a sound system with speakers attached to even the tops of the palm trees outside, so as to share their music with the rest of the community. It was impressive in its devotion, if not somewhat exhausting and relentless in its execution.
Once everyone had finished eating, they announced that the pastor and his wife would now be going home to have a rest before the next service the following morning. We took this opportunity to thank everyone for making us so welcome. I made a speech in Tetun on behalf of our group, and then Tony, Alison and I sang Amazing Grace, as a way of offering a contribution of our own to the celebrations. The guy on the organ picked up our key, and accompanied us from the second or third phrase.
We walked home as a group, quite humbled by the experience and the welcome we had been given. The music continued well into the night, all the way through to the following morning.