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Christmas, costumes and ceremonies

Christmas, costumes and ceremonies

by Tessa Smallwood - Monday, 24 December 2012

Choosing a Christmas costume is always a challenge fraught with creative considerations. But what do our imaginative outfits really convey? Inspired by our recent Christmas party I thought that it would be a valid use of my time (and yours) to explore a few fantastic and fantastical ceremonial costumes of the Museum’s Ethnological Collection.

This year the museum Christmas party took the theme ‘fairy tales, nursery rhymes and stories’: Princesses danced with piglets and tigers with mice. Some of us embodied sedate Disney characters, others more sinister figures whose memory is rooted in menacing folk-stories or gory social histories. My Christmas outfit was a faux fur, all-in-one (rather large) number; completed by tail, mane and paws.

The ceremonial costumes of the Museum’s Ethnological Collection are variously mischievous, playful, terrifying and solemn. There are so many to show you, but this small selection will provide a view into other cultures and other times.

This striking costume is from Rarotonga. It is believed to have been collected from Arorangi village in 1899. The bark-cloth outfit was made from a tapa cloth, which was usually sourced from the Islands’ mulberry, breadfruit or banyan plant fibres. The traditional decorative design would likely have been painted on by hand using swamp mud as a dye.

For a period, the people of Rarotonga and Mangaia would wear bark-cloth costumes for various celebratory dances. The masks of this style are sometimes called ‘pare eva’ which would associate them with mourning rituals. However they can also be referred to as ‘pare tareka’ which suggests something more in-line with dancing pageants.

It is thought that such carnivals would variably illustrate the stories of cultural, mythical and historical narratives. As such, perhaps these performances were not so very far removed from our Christmas Party theme.

A wood dancing mask with an elaborate feather headdress; this mask would have been worn by the man who was performing as the character Tumbuan in the ceremonial Duk-Duk dance of traditional Tolai society. The man would also have worn a short, bushy cape made of leaves to complete the costume.

The Tumbuan is the feminine counterpart to a male ‘Duk-Duk’ costume. It is differentiated from the male by the full face mask with a crescent-shaped mouth and circular eyes. Although the Tumbuan mask represents the female, it would only ever have been worn by a man. Women and children were not allowed to see the Duk-Duk dance as they were forbidden to look upon the malevolent spirit of Duk-Duk.

Duk-Duk is an aggressive, spiritual figure who appears dressed in thick leaves to the waist. Around him, a secret society once formed to influence various religious and socio-political aspects of Tolai culture. On a full moon, the members of the top secret Duk-Duk society would gather together to carry out judgment and punishment on people it deemed as offenders. Penalties were harsh and were known to embrace execution. Let’s hope that that doesn’t happen at this year’s spree of office parties!

Perhaps the act of donning a costume and ‘strutting your stuff’ on the dance floor is not just simple good humour. It seems that masks and disguises are a clever tool for evoking memory, inciting camaraderie and provoking eccentric behaviour. They can be used to tell stories, honour public and personal memories and to protect you from the consequences of destructive actions.

So beware the power of your Christmas costumes my friends, and don’t do anything you’ll regret when the mask comes off!


  • G.A. Zegwaard, ‘Jipae: festival of the mask costumes’ in Asmat art: wood carvings of Sou (Leiden, Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde and Periplus Editions, 1993)
  • R. Neich and M. Pendergrast, ‘Pacific Tapa’, 1997 pp.75-81.
  • Post by: Tessa Smallwood

    Tessa is a Collection Manager Human History at Auckland Museum. She has a strong background in interdisciplinary study and has worked across the Museum's Pacific, Archaeology, History and Applied Arts Collections. She has responsibility for the care and preservation of the Archaeology and Pacific Collection objects and the maintenance of their records. Tessa is particularly passionate about object photography and enhancing the digital ‘discoverability’ of our collections.

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