Wednesday, February 27, 2013

First Birth Ceremony

Last week my good friend Deb invited me and Daniel to something called a "first birth ceremony." I had only ever heard a few things about this, and immediately the moment that I did hear about it I knew that I was not to leave the island until I was witness to one of these.

When the typhoon warnings came through in December, my first thought was, "NO! I HAVEN'T BEEN TO A FIRST BIRTH CEREMONY YET!" Oh. That thought, of course, actually came after all of my thoughts about hoping that everyone was going to be safe, etc.

The reason I have felt so strongly about attending one of these is because this is the explanation I got about what it is:

After giving birth to her first child, the mother is treated to all sorts of allegedly painful therapy treatments, including getting splashed with boiling water. This apparently goes on for days and days. At one point her skin is painted and she is dressed in traditional clothing. She is then presented to family and friends who dance around her and give her money at a huge vibrant feast.

Guys. Who the heck WOULDN'T want to attend something like that?

Ok, and first of all, all of you Palauans and Palauan culture know-it-alls. I recognize that what I've written and what I will continue to write here probably contains all sorts of inaccuracies. GUYS. BACK OFF. I'm not writing the encyclopedia on Palau here. I'm writing for Stranger. People don't read this to learn things.

Apparently these ceremonies go on all day and since none of us even knew the new mother, we showed up very late, hoping to just catch a peek of the main event from the background. And what we found was not what I expected.

The ceremony takes place outdoors and two large tents had been set up to protect the hundreds of spectators from the rain. We were immediately enthusiastically welcomed by the very large and kind group, who placed us in chairs right at the very front. I love Palauans. And while I'm no expert on their culture, I am actually enjoying learning about it while I live here.

The new mother had yet to be presented, so instead the pre-ceremony entertainment was happening.

Karaoke, of sorts.

LOUD karaoke.

Like, so loud I can't believe you guys didn't email me from the U.S. and ask me what all the noise was about.

I think it might have been the loudest sound ever created by humans.

The songs were all in Palauan. And rather than just listen from their seats, several people from the crowd would slowly Westside Story walk-dance up to the singer, stick money in the singer's clothes, and then dance around him or her until the song ended. Then the spectators would take their seats again and prepare to do the same thing on the next song.

I felt like I was living that movie Goundhog Day. Or, like, a really weird sequel to that movie that went straight to VHS.

The karaoke went on for at least 2 full hours after we got there. And guys. Did I mention we were very late? This had been going on for the Queen of Colors knows how long. And NOBODY (other than us) seemed to hate every second of it with a hot passion.

Finally the karaoke was cut off and the new mother was presented to the crowd. She was decked out in full body paint and costume and was directed to walk on woven leaves that were laid in front of each of her steps. Because there were only three of these, this procession took a very long time.

While she was walking I couldn't help but think this was a pretty cool tradition. And it made having a baby seem like the hippest thing on the planet. I seriously wanted to get pregnant just for the attention. But then I remembered that this woman had been assaulted for days on end with boiling water. Oh, and also I'm a man.

Eventually she got to the small center stage. New music began to play while the largest man who has ever lived sang. The song choice?


People danced around her while she stood and smiled.

Eli: Really??? This song?

Daniel: Yeah, they should do Birds of Prey or Blackbird or something. And who is that girl with all the body paint?

Eli: Uh . . . the new mother . . .

Daniel: The new mother of what?

Eli: The new mother . . . for whom this first birth ceremony is being held . . .

Daniel: Ooooooooooohhhhhh. First birth ceremony. I was wondering why there weren't any birds.

Send help. Someone.

~It Just Gets Stranger 


  1. Haha this is great :) I would have been very confused too...

  2. Well, what do you expect? Twice up the barrel and once down the side!

  3. Oh my goodness. I have never wanted to attend something so much. I must come to Palau...

  4. The more I read the more I like Daniel!!! Bird ceremony!!! HAHAHA

  5. You have captured it perfectly. In the future, remember it is acceptable to arrive, collect fried chicken & pig parts, and depart. I recommend this course of action. You can also take as much spam as you can carry, if you want. Not so sure that's a good idea, but only marginally worse than previous . . . .

    Anyway, imagine the poor girl who has given birth, endured water treatment, and now has to watch (prospective) in-laws gyrate mindlessly to Justin Bieber songs? Have you no heart? It's in the hot afternoon sun. The only time I actually knew the young woman, I offered her a chair (because she was struggling to stand and about to pass out). My wife and calmer folks ushered me out of there (with our chicken and pork parts) . . . .

  6. So the boiling water part of the ritual is true?
    I was hoping at some point you would dispel that and the poor new mother would have all ready indured all the pain she needed to by -I don't know- giving birth!
    Very interesting and definitely a unique culture...
    And War? Really?

    Thanks for sharing :)

  7. Note to self: when I finally get married and pregnant, go ahead and stay in the USA so you don't have to take part in any crazy post-birth ritual.

    As cool as you said this is, I can't help but think that, after ejecting human life from one's nether regions, I'd want nothing more than to be cooped up at home with my new little one, and pampered as much as possible, for as long as possible. Even if the boiling water part isn't true, this seems...weird. And uncomfortable. (I swear I'm not knocking your beloved Palauan culture.)

  8. The funniest part if the song choice for me? I can't help but hearing it sung in my head by Jakie Chan a la Rush Hour…

  9. Oh, that was you guys? I thought it was my neighbor who pretends to be in a rock band.

  10. Great strange story. I have to disagree with you on something, though. I do read this blog to learn about things. To learn about things I never want to do in my life. :)

    PS: Oh Daniel. Be my bff.

  11. Now why is it actually funnier reading this than being there?? Ha! Great description! And Daniel? Priceless! (although you forgot to add that he decided to take our garbage home- ie,the leftover bento boxes and drink cans!)

    Glad you enjoyed!

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  13. As a Palauan-American, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog. I actually found myself laughing out loud because I do understand your bewilderment and curiosity with the Palauan culture. I'm sure most of the time you were wondering what the hell was going on, but I can assure will never experience this moment again. Palau says, "You're Welcome!". The ceremony celebrates the first born child, as well as welcoming the new mother into motherhood. Of course, in every culture this is considered a huge step into the next phase of a woman's life. I can assure you that Palauan women these days actually welcome the idea of enduring hours and days of being splashed with hot water (infused with herbs/plants that help a woman's body recover from the gestation/birthing process). To protect her body from the herbal water, she has tumeric-infused coconut oil slathered all over her body. Why do Palauan women welcome this? Because this is very unique to our island culture. We do not know of any other Pacific Island culture that has this kind of celebration for a first-born child.

    The music, money, and food are all part of the celebration. We have to show our guests a good time with crazy music, dancing, and of course showing off the oiled (not painted) woman who is officially a new mother. I hope some of you are able to go to Palau to view this ceremony....I guarantee you won't forget it.

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  15. Hehehe, I appreciate your point of view. First born ceremonies, for us Palauans, is a big deal. Though it seems an assault to be bathed with scalding water, it's not as bad as it sounds. It's actually long days of healing under a traditionally trained and certified woman, whom is hand picked by her clan. The hot bath is infused with varoius herbs that help the new mother's body heal, and presentation is a celebration of overcoming child birth and celebrating life. There's so much more to it, but unless one takes time to fully understand the whole thing, simple glimpse is obviously just an outsider's perspective. A first born ceremony in Palau is one of the most beautiful things I know, and have witnessed nowhere else.

  16. Yes im Palauan and i Agree with the other Palauans comments. Long ago, legend has it that Palauans werent familiar with natural childbirth. In order for women to give birth was to perform a caesarien which most likely resulted in a new mothers death. A demigod fell in love with a mortal who became pregnant and through his love for her asked his mother, a godess for help and she taught him that natural childbirth can be achieved witgout the need for c-section. After the first miracle birth the people of were overjoyed that they began the healing ceremony which is intended to rejuvenate and beautify the body of the new mother to encourage more offsprings and to celebrate her survival and remember the blessings of that first succesfull birth which ensured the survival and thriving life that a Palauan Woman has to this day.