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A San Francisco Samoan Christmas, far from the islands

Lesa Tagaloa, Rose Mitchell, Annie Seuseu and Jason Savea
Source: Mission Local

San Fracisco, CA —  “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.”

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.


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.”


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 substituted for taro leaf, 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.


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. 

Read the full story at Mission Local