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Christmas 365 days of the year

Warm weather, a picnic at Flying Fish Cove and Santa in shorts - that's the festive season, Christmas Island style. Jackie Cockburn reports on how isolation and cultural diversity shape its school.

Santa arrived wearing surf board shorts at the first festive event of the season at the local cricket club on Christmas Island, but none of the children batted an eyelid. "They thought it was quite natural," says Ian Francis, the island's headteacher. "The December temperature is usually between 24 and 30 degrees, with 80 per cent humidity."

Ian's school, Christmas Island District High, is part of Western Australia's education department, yet geographically it is much nearer Indonesia.

Christmas Island is 500km from Jakarta and 2,600km from Perth, Western Australia. It is not be to be confused with the island of Kiritimati, also known as Christmas Island, in the Pacific Ocean: the island infamous for being the location of Britain's H-bomb test in 1957. That Christmas Island suffers severe drought and is the largest coral atoll in the world.

This Christmas Island in the Indian ocean is undergoing its monsoon season so December 25 will undoubtedly be wet at some point.

Like many of the staff at the island's only school, Ian will be spending his Christmas in Perth, via a stopover in Singapore to do some shopping, before returning to school in mid-January to prepare for the new term and a new academic year.

Ian has 380 pupils in his school, which caters from nursery to secondary-aged pupils. A small proportion of older pupils prefer to board at school in Perth. The school follows the Australian syllabus but with a language mix of 60 per cent Chinese, 20 per cent Malay and 20 per cent English, the cultural mix is rather different. All cultural festivals are respected and Christmas is not given a special prominence.

"For us, this time of the year at school is also about reporting and ending the school year," Ian says. "However, the Christmas decorations went up around town at the end of November and we have a lot more Christmas parties to attend this year than usual because we have a higher than normal amount of staff leaving to take up new posts on the mainland."

Alan Thornton, a teacher, enjoys this time of year. "Hari Raya and Chinese New Year are also large festivals for us and they share a cultural common thread with Christmas in that they are all about people getting together and for old wounds to be healed," he says.

The school's best dancer is chosen each year to don the "fat Santa" suit and according to Alan will "cavort immodestly" at the last school assembly of the year to a rendition of "Big Fat Santa", the blues song. Every child in the school then receives a present.

He says: "Those staff who do not return to the mainland for Christmas will collect all the other 'orphans' on Christmas day and head for Flying Fish Cove, the island's picnic area and share a meal."

The locals respect each other's faiths and an advert for the Buddhist temple on the community website refers to December 25 as "God's Birthday".

The local tourist board estimates that the island's 1,500 population is made up of 36 per cent from the Buddhist faith, a quarter Muslim and 18 per cent Christian. This cultural richness has been praised by Major General Michael Jeffery, the Governor General to the Commonwealth, who said during his visit to the school earlier this year: "The fact that Malay and Mandarin are offered on the school syllabus is a wonderful opportunity as the world needs more people with such linguistic and cross-cultural understanding."

Isolation and cultural diversity are primary factors in shaping the school. Teachers are forced to be resourceful and creative. Alan recalls a conversation between two four-year-olds after one assembly when the first child declared that she believed in Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad and the other child replied that he believed in the Power Rangers. "However hard you try, children will be children," he says.

The main language of teaching is English and teachers mostly come from West Australia but there are local staff, including education assistants, from the Malay and Chinese cultures.

One of the main difficulties for those who celebrate Christmas on the island is ensuring that all the food and festive fare has been ordered and delivered. More than half of the island is covered in national park and the 73km coastline is mostly 20 metre-high sheer cliffs. There is a weekly flight to Singapore and a twice-weekly flight to Perth.

The island was not populated when it first came to prominence in the 19th century for phosphate mining. It was annexed by Britain, but became subject to the laws of Singapore in 1900. Eventually the island became an Australian territory although it was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War.

Geographically, it is the top of a 50-million-year-old extinct volcano rising out of the Indian Ocean and has reinvented itself as an eco-tourist destination with such activities as fishing, bird watching and diving.

The march of the red crabs (pictured below left) is a wildlife watcher's delight at this time of year. The island is undergoing economic and social changes. A new arts centre has provided locals with a performance space, covered assembly area, seminar rooms, video conferencing and improved computer facilities. Local classes on offer include slimming clubs and line dancing and there is a once-weekly film screening at the open-air cinema.

Another major project is the construction of a new immigration reception centre. The island receives asylum seekers who have had to go into a temporary detention centre or local community housing.

Last month, 16 asylum seekers, six adults and 10 children arrived on the island off the warship HMAS Tobruk after being rescued from their tiny, sinking, wooden, boat off the coast of West Australia.

It may be small, but Christmas Island is mighty and involves more than Santa and celebrations.

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