by Stan Griffin

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A song in the recent past (popular perhaps as long ago as a half century) begins with these words: "How'd you like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?" If this idea appeals to you, be prepared to do two things: (1) make a choice, because there are actually TWO Christmas Islands; and (2) forget about a "white Christmas" because both islands are in the tropics, not far from the equator, where snow never falls.

One Christmas Island is located in the Indian Ocean. It is 220 miles south of Java and about 650 miles northwest of Australia. It was first sited by Europeans on Christmas Day, 1643.

The other Christmas Island is situated in the central Pacific Ocean. It is about 1,500 miles south of the Hawaiian Islands and approximately 4,000 miles northeast of Australia. The famous English explorer, Capt. James Cook, landed there on Christmas Day, 1777.

Perhaps some additional information about the two will make your choice easier.


This island is 11 miles long and 4 1/2 miles wide at its narrowest point. It's about 60 square miles in area and is densely wooded. There was no indigenous population (native people) on the island. At present, residents consist of Chinese, Malayan, and Europeans. Most of them are employed by Phosphate Resources NL, a private mining company engaged in removing the island's principal natural resource. A few inhabitants are part of the local government.

The island has extensive phosphate deposits. Rock phosphate and phosphate dust are extracted and exported, mainly to Australia and New Zealand. Phosphate is used in the manufacture of detergents, but recent environmental concerns have made it a less desirable product.

Christmas Island was officially annexed (added or taken over) by Great Britain in 1888, and it became part of their Singapore colony in 1900 (even though Singapore is 7-800 miles north). During World War II (1942-1945), Christmas Island was occupied by the Japanese.

Thirteen years later (1958) control of Christmas Island was transferred to Australia, and it became an Australian territory. It remains so to this day. An Island Administrator is appointed and represents the Australian government on the island. In addition, a Shire (county or province) Council consisting of nine elected members, is the local governing body and is responsible for municipal functions and services.

This Christmas Island has an airport and a technical school. A tourist complex has been constructed The phosphate mines closed down for a while, but they are again in production. Since 1990 the island has been experiencing an economic boom (increase in business income), and the atmosphere is optimistic.


Much larger than its namesake, it has a coastline of 80 miles. Christmas Island has a length of 35 miles and a width of 25 miles, giving it an area of 140 square miles. Another variation from its "twin" is the way it was originally created. It is an "atoll." This is a circular ring of coral in the open sea built on a sunken bank or formed in the crater of an underwater volcano; a roughly ring-shaped mass of reef-building coral and calcium-containing algae (kelp, seaweed, etc.). The coral always encloses one or more shallow pools or lagoons.

This Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the Pacific Ocean. It has been described as "low-lying and sandy." There are no rivers. A layer of soil (generally poor) makes possible the growth of tropical plants. Some of those are: coconut palms (most important to the economy), taro, papayas, bananas, breadfruit, to name a few.

Like the Indian Ocean's Christmas Island, there were no natives living here when Capt. Cook arrived. Currently, the population consists of those described as "Polynesians" and the descendants of "Melanesians, Moluccans, and Samoans" (island people of the area). At present, there are approximately 2,500-3,000 residents. The official language is English (because of their governmental connection), but most speak a native dialect referred to as "Gilbertese."

As mentioned earlier, the coconut palm is an important economic element on the island. They provide the main export: copra, the meat of the coconut. It is taken from the shell, dried, and the oil is extracted. The oil is used in the manufacture of soap, candles, margarine, detergents, and cosmetics. The United States is their primary trading partner.

It was December 25, 1777 when Capt. James Cook and his expedition came ashore on the island. They had arrived the day before. At that time they described what they had seen from a distance: " ... a few coconut trees two or three places ... but in general the land was very barren ..." After landing, they found it to be an " . . uninhabited island ..." and a "bleak place to spend the holiday ..."

They remained on the island until January 2, 1778. Among other things, they set up a telescope and were able to view an eclipse of the sun which was visible from their position.

Food, of course, was a major concern to sailors; they were lucky to catch a number of large turtles for future meals. The men were able to take them alive by swimming out in pairs, flipping them onto their backs, grabbing hold of their fins, and pulling them in to shore. All told, the cook ended up with 300 turtles, averaging 95 pounds each, to feed the crews.

Before Cook departed, he put a document into a sealed bottle to be left behind. It claimed the island for Great Britain and included the names of his ships (the "Resolution" and the "Discovery"). They sailed north, and it wasn't long before they found the Hawaiian Islands.


During the period 1820-1870 both British and American whaling ships stopped at Christmas Island to trade for coconut oil and copra. From 1838-1842 the United States Exploring Expedition charted many of the islands, plotted whaling areas, and added to the scientific knowledge of atolls.


Christmas Island was formally annexed by Great Britain in 1882. It eventually became (in 1919) part of the colony that included the Gilbert Islands and the Ellise Islands. During the period 1936-1938 the United States disputed ownership of the island, but Great Britain remained in control.


While World War II was in progress, a U. S. military air base was built on the island. Today it is an international air facility. Nuclear tests were conducted there on two different occasions by both Great Britain and the U. S.: 1957-1958 and again in 1962.


It was 1979 when the Gilberts got their independence. That same year Christmas Island became part of the new island nation of Kiribati (ki-re-BAHS). By this time they had a new name: "Kiritimati," the native pronunciation of "Christmas." (kihr-uh-sih-MAHS)


Kiribati consists of 33 atolls and islands and covers a total area of more than two million square miles. They include islands on both sides of the equator and both sides of the International Date Line. A partial list of those atolls and islands follows: the Gilberts (where 95% of the people live); Banaba Island; and the Line Islands (Christmas Island is part of this group, one of 11 that sprawl across the equator).


Kiribati's capital is Bairiki, located on Tarawa atoll.




This is an independent republic with a legislature to make laws and a president to be head of state and government. Each inhabited island (including Christmas Island) has a council that administers local government. Also found on each of them is a free, government-maintained medical dispensary and a primary school.


Water shortages are common today on Christmas Island as well as on many other islands in the area. Small cargo ships frequently transport water among them.


The small amount of good growing land makes the importation of large quantities of food necessary. Experiments have been conducted to establish aquiculture farming there. Also known as "hydroponics," this is the cultivation of plants in water containing dissolved inorganic nutrients (needed by plants for growth) rather than in soil.


Christmas Island is constantly looking for new business activities. There may be manganese deposits on the sea floor nearby; these could be mined. The island has been singled out for extensive tourist development. It is hoped that the "atoll environment" will attract visitors. A hotel complex has been completed. From all indications, it appears that the numbers of tourists is increasing.


The excellent air facility previously mentioned makes getting to the island easier. Christmas Island is a stop on an important air service route: planes fly from Tarawa to Christmas Island and then on to Honolulu, Hawaii. (The island of Tahiti was added later.)


Christmas on Christmas Island? It's definitely a possibility!