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228 - Merry Kiritimati!

December 24, 2007, 5:56 AM


There are three Christmas Islands in the world. One is a small community on mainland Nova Scotia (Canada) named after a nearby island, which is presently called Ghost Island but at some point was named after its sole occupant, a native man whose surname was Christmas.

Another is a 135 sq. km (52 sq. mi.) Australian island territory in the Indian Ocean, closer to Jakarta than to Perth and home to about 1.500 people (Chinese 70%, European 20%, Malay 10%). Two thirds of the island is a National Park, containing many flora and fauna species unique to the island. It was named by captain William Mynors of the Royal Mary on Christmas Day 1643. Discovery of huge phosphate reserves led to annexation by the British in 1888, settlement and mining from the 1890s onwards. The UK transferred sovereignty to Australia in 1957. Phosphate mining (closed in 1987, reopened in 1991) remains the main economic activity.

The most interesting of the three, I think, is the Pacific island of Kiritimati. This is the pronunciation of Christmas in the local language, Gilbertese, which is why it is not often recognised as the ‘other’ Christmas island (the more famous one being the aforementioned Australian-governed island). Here’s a quick overview:

• With a surface of 642 sq. km (248 sq. mi), the Pacific island of Kiritimati is the largest coral atoll in the world. It comprises 70% of the total land area of the republic of Kiribati, made up of 33 atolls in total.
• The island was named by captain James Cook, who discovered it on December 24, 1777.
• The island has a population of 5.115 inhabitants (2005 census), concentrated in four villages: London (1.829), Tabwakea (1.881), Banana (1.170) and Poland (235). A fifth settlement, Paris, is abandoned.
• Most places were named by French priest Emmanuel Rougier, who leased the island from 1917 to 1939 and planted 800.000 coconut trees there.
• In the early 1950s, Wernher von Braun proposed the island as a launch site for manned spacecraft.
• In May 1957, the British military executed Operation Grapple – the first test of their H-bomb. The Americans conducted a similar Operation Dominic here in 1962.
• The Japanese operate a satellite tracking station on Kiritimati, and at one time scouted the island as a landing location for their space shuttle HOPE-X (a project they now have abandoned).
• Apart from being named after the winterval known as Christmas, Kiritimati has another claim to end-of-year festive season fame: it’s located so close to the International Date Line (and on the right side of it, too) that it’s the first inhabited place on Earth to experience New Year.
• The eastern shore of the island curves to form the Bay of Wrecks, possibly a reference to how people feel the morning after a Christmas or New Year’s Party.

This map was provided by Toon Wassenberg, who sent this link to Christmas Island by way of season’s greetings; the link contains several maps of the Australian Christmas Island, and this one of its Pacific cousin.


228 - Merry Kiritimati!

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