Christmas Island​—Why We Visited It


THE island of Kiritimati (pronounced Ki-ris-masʹ, or Christmas) is the largest of the 33 islands in the Pacific Ocean that make up the nation of Kiribati. * The island has some 150 square miles [388 sq km] of land area, which equals that of all the other 32 islands of Kiribati combined. About 5,000 people live on Christmas Island, while the total population of all the islands of Kiribati is about 92,000.

All but one of the islands of Kiribati are coral atolls. Christmas Island is not only the largest atoll in this nation but also, in terms of land area, the largest coral atoll in the world!

In addition, Christmas Island is notable because of its proximity to the international date line. People there are among the first to experience the beginning of a new calendar day, a new year, and other annual observances, such as that of the death of Jesus Christ. *

Furthermore, this remote coral atoll is one of the most important breeding grounds for seabirds in the Tropics. Not long ago it was said that some 25 million sooty terns regularly nested there.

No Longer an Avian Secret

When the explorer Captain James Cook landed there the day before Christmas in 1777, the island was uninhabited by humans. But there was an abundance of birds. Cook named it Christmas Island. * For many years the location of the island had apparently remained a secret known only to the birds.

During one of our visits, a warden from the Wildlife Conservation Unit gave us a fascinating tour. As the warden led  us onto a beach, graceful, inquisitive white terns flew out to greet us. Hovering teasingly just beyond arm’s length, they watched our every move.

On the ground beyond the beach was a colony of sooty terns. Hundreds of thousands of these birds come to Christmas Island to breed. When they arrive, they fly day and night for weeks in a swirling, chattering mass above their breeding sites, waiting for all the birds to arrive before they finally settle to nest on the bare ground.

Fledgling sooty terns begin their ocean wandering at about three months of age. They do not return to land until some five to seven years later, when they are ready to breed. During those years away, they spend most of their time in the air. There is not enough oil in their feathers to allow them to remain afloat on water.

We saw black noddies sitting on nests, along with their chicks and unhatched eggs. Whereas these seabirds build a nest for their young, the white terns do not. They lay their eggs on bare tree branches. Fortunately, their young hatch with well-developed feet and claws, which are just right for hanging on. These fluffy baby terns clinging to the branches instantly won our hearts. The parents too are exquisite little snow-white birds with a contrasting black bill.

As we toured, a Christmas shearwater resolutely sitting on its egg kept a watchful eye on us from a sheltered area nearby. Christmas Island has the largest known colony of wedge-tailed shearwaters in the world. And it is one of the last known breeding grounds for both the Polynesian storm petrel and the Phoenix petrel. Among the many other birds breeding there are the red-tailed tropic bird, the masked booby, the brown booby, the red-footed booby, the brown noddy, and the frigate bird.

Frigate birds soared effortlessly overhead, performing magnificent aerial acrobatics, stealing fish in midair from other birds, and vying for tidbits discarded by fishermen. This aerial skill is borne of necessity, since the frigate bird does not ordinarily land on water. As with sooty terns, their plumage lacks sufficient waterproofing properties, and in addition, their six-foot wingspan makes takeoff a challenge.

 We learned that a little brown bird seen earlier was a Pacific golden plover. It is one of many migratory birds that use Christmas as a vital refueling and wintering stop after a long flight from their breeding ground thousands of miles away, above the Arctic Circle. Excellent navigation skills direct these marathon fliers to this avian outpost, some 1,300 miles [2,100 km] south of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Our Special Reason to Visit

We regularly visited Christmas, not to see birds, but to be with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses there and to share with them in their meetings and preaching activities. Geographic isolation presents real challenges for these dear ones. For example, years ago when a Witness died suddenly, his bereaved wife courageously delivered the funeral discourse herself because there was no one else to do it. She wanted the many in attendance to hear the Bible’s hope for the dead.​—John 11:25; Acts 24:15.

Apart from three fine Bible translations, there are few vernacular Bible publications. However, Jehovah’s Witnesses publish a four-color monthly Watchtower magazine in the Gilbertese language along with other Bible literature. That surprises many, as fewer than 100,000 people in the world speak this language. Such Bible-based publications enable this isolated group of Witnesses to hold their regular meetings for worship and to fulfill Jesus’ commission to preach the good news of God’s Kingdom.​—Matthew 24:14; Hebrews 10:24, 25.

Transportation presents a challenge to visitors. However, on Christmas Island one can travel by road from London to Poland via Tennessee in just three hours! How is this possible? Banana, London, Paris, Poland, Tennessee, and Tabwakea are colorful village names, suggesting the origins of some of the early visitors to this island.

During one of our visits, a kind doctor invited us to accompany him to Poland, allowing us to preach there for the very first time. As we had only two hours at Poland, we literally ran from house to house so that we could reach all the homes. Everyone we contacted listened appreciatively to our Bible message and accepted some literature, which they could not believe was in their own language.

We have warm feelings for these dear people so far away on Christmas Island. Also, there is a special place in our hearts for its magnificent feathered inhabitants. Long ago Captain Cook might have felt that the island was strictly “for the birds,” but today many people there beg to differ. They, like the birds, call it home.


^ par. 3 Kiribati was formerly called the Gilbert Islands. Now Kiribati includes not only the 16 islands of the Gilbert Islands but also the Phoenix and Line island groups as well as Banaba (Ocean Island).

^ par. 5 In obedience to Jesus’ command, Jehovah’s Witnesses memorialize his death once a year on the day that corresponds to the one on which he died.​—Luke 22:19.

^ par. 8 An island named Christmas is also found in the Indian Ocean.

[Maps on page 16]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

Christmas Island






International date line

[Picture on page 16]

Frigate birds

[Credit Line]

[Picture on page 17]

White tern

[Credit Line]

© Doug Perrine/​

[Picture on page 17]

Brown boobies

[Credit Line]

Valerie & Ron Taylor/​

[Picture on page 18]

Preaching with local Witnesses

[Picture Credit Line on page 18]