2-87. The Other Christmas


It’s in Kiribati, so you might think it’s pronounced Keer-ih-tih-mah-tee. But it’s actually pronounced KEER-iss-mass. And it’s not even in Keer-ih-batti, but in fact, KEER-ih-bahs.

Confused? Good.

Formerly known as Christmas Island, Kiritimati is an atoll smack dab in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s often confused with Christmas Island, which is part of Australia and located in the Indian Ocean, but they are vastly different places.

As you may have guessed, Kiritimati was discovered on Christmas Day. OK, that’s not true either. It was discovered in 1537 by the Spanish, who called it Acea. 240 years later, Captain Cook wandered to the island and named it Christmas Island, despite the fact that he actually arrived on Christmas Eve. Still, the name Christmas Island stuck and it was so noted on maps for centuries.

You can walk between the land in the lacework lagoon.

You can walk between the land in the lacework lagoon.

What did the people who lived there call it? In fact, there were no people living there. Some small groups of farmers and miners occupied the island on and off during the 19th century, but in 1905, the island was completely devoid of people once more. In 1912, a new group started a colony there, and today there are over 5,500 people who call Kiritimati home. These people are mainly Micronesians who converted to Protestantism or Catholicism in roughly equal numbers, though nearly 20% are agnostic. They speak English and Gilbertese, which is a native language that takes its name for a nearby group of islands known as the Gilbert Islands after a British sea captain.

Kiribati is actually the local pronunciation of “Gilbert.” The Kiribati people adopted latin script for their writing, and phonetically spell words with some differences in how they’re spelled in English. They also write the “ess” sound as “ti,” which lends confusion when one applies American pronunciation to their words.

Today, you may hear about the islands (in varying pronunciations) as they are subject to inundation if global warming predictions come true. At only a few feet above sea level, the residents of Kiribati along with relatively nearby Tuvalu are often given as examples of populations that will soon be homeless.

Kiritimati is also the site where the UK detonated their first H-bomb as it hung from balloons attached to the island. While testing suggests that fallout levels were not enough to affect the thousands of Commonwealth sailors in the area or the ecology of the islands, lawsuits in this regard raged on for decades, with a British court finally ruling in 2012 that the cancers found in Navy personnel happened too long ago to have any judicial merit.

If you’d like to visit Kiritimati, you’d be most welcome. Fiji Airways has flights from Hawaii for about $1100. And it’s one of the few places in the world you can walk from London to Paris to Poland in a day. Those are the names of three of the villages on the island. Or you can hitch a ride on the back of a truck for a tour, as this video provides.

What a view...

What a view…

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