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Samoan warrior performing cultural display at Sinalei Reef Resort and Spa
Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa

Samoan Culture

Useful things to know about Samoan life before you visit

Talofa lava, welcome to Samoa

One of the best things about a visit to Samoa, is that traditional culture is not something just on show at tourist attractions. People still live with a strong focus on Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way) - a way of life that stretches back more than 3000 years, and is still reflected in most aspects of Samoan culture and society today.

There are three main pillars to Samoan society - the church, close and extended family, and the tribe/village you are part of. Rather than functioning in a nuclear way where individuals/small groups largely fend for themselves, life in Samoa is all about being part of a larger community that looks after each other. Samoan values and this communal way of thinking means people are friendly. Rather than keeping to themselves they welcome visitors with their trademark smiles and open arms. If you stay in a beach fale - and everyone should - you’re likely to find yourself eating with the local village, playing with the local kids and even listening to the local gossip!

It’s worth knowing a couple of things about protocol before you visit. As with any country - it’s important to respect Samoan customs, especially in villages.

Fa'a Samoa

Fa’a Samoa - the Samoan way – is a way of life that stretches back more than 3,000 years and is reflected in every aspect of Samoa’s communal society. Fa’a Samoa celebrates traditional values, culture and environment.

The three main pillars of Fa’a Samoa are the matai (chiefs), aiga (extended family), and the Christian church. In Samoan society, matai are the head of their extended family, but their place in the nu’u (village) also encompasses civic and political roles.

Religion

Sunday is a day of rest. While many tourist attractions are open, you are expected to behave quietly and travel slowly through the villages. If you are staying at family-run accommodation, you may find your hosts will not provide a cooked breakfast on a Sunday. There is an evening prayer curfew - usually between six and seven pm so don’t walk through villages if that’s in progress. If you are attending church on Sunday, women are asked to wear a dress or blouse and skirt and men trousers and shirt.

Clothing

Samoans are modest people so it’s better to cover up a bit in villages (bikinis are fine at resorts). Topless swimming or sunbathing is a definite no-no and when leaving the beach to venture into the village, guests are asked to wear a lavalava (sarong) pants or shorts and t-shirt.

Fale etiquette

There are few rules around entering fales (traditional homes) - one of the most important is that shoes should always be removed. When elders are seated in a fale, you should not stand. When you yourself are sitting in one, avoid pointing your feet at others. Either tuck them away, cross them or cover them with a lavalava or mat.

Other helpful things to know

  • Most land and areas within a lagoon (or bay) are the property of a village, family or individual. You should always ask permission at the nearest village, as you may have to pay a small entry fee. Even if it looks like no one is around, it pays to wait, as someone will usually be along shortly.
  • Always ask permission from your host before taking photos in a village.
  • If in doubt about protocol around Samoan traditions and ways of doing things, ask your host or a village member for advice.

IMPORTANT DATES IN THE SAMOAN CALENDAR

As a Christian society, Samoa observes all annual religious dates such as Christmas and Easter with public holidays. Many, and sometimes all, Samoan businesses will close on public holidays, so check if any dates coincide with your visit.

Easter (Varies each year)

Families celebrate Easter by attending a church service on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As with any other special occasion, there is always a big “to’anai” (feast) prepared for the whole family. Some denominations decorate their church in Easter colours - purple, red and a lot of white.

Mother’s Day (2nd Sunday in May)

Like in most countries, every family does something different on Mother’s Day but some things are certain across the nation. There will always be a special Mother’s Day element to the church service (Mothers wear white that day), her favourite dish will be cooked as part of a feast and - in theory - mothers are expected to relax while fathers and children do all the work.

Independence Day

The first of June is when Samoans celebrate being the first South Pacific island to gain independence. Samoa was run by the Germans from 1899 when they and the Americans divided the archipelago up between themselves. In 1918 New Zealand took administrative control until 1962 when Samoa became self-governing. Obviously this is an event to be joyously celebrated every year with food, entertainment and a party-like atmosphere nationwide.

Father’s Day (2nd Sunday in August)

Similar to Mother’s Day. The same traditions apply, with the father of the house at the centre of celebrations.

Teuila Festival

The Teuila Festival was established in 1991,and has since grown to become one of the country's most celebrated annual events, and one of the South Pacific’s biggest cultural festivals. Locals love it, and tourists can’t quite believe their luck if their trip coincides with it. Think traditional Siva dancing, fire knife dancing, tattooing and carving demonstrations, Umu demonstrations (underground Samoan oven cooking), the annual Flower Float Parade, the popular Fautasi race (iconic Samoan boat race), and the crowning of Miss Samoa. 

White Sunday

If you’re lucky enough to be in Samoa for White Sunday you’re in for a treat. Samoan culture treasures children and this day is all about them. They may get gifts or privileges usually reserved for adults (like eating first). All women and children wear white and they run special programs during church services including biblical story re-enactments, recitations and dance performances. It’s a beautiful sight.

Christmas Day (25th of December)

Samoa starts celebrating Christmas 13 days before the day itself. In these 13 days government ministries and other congregations are invited to sing Christmas carols in their own style which are aired on TV. There’s a church service on Christmas Eve and Sunday - people attend dressed in white and the churches are decorated in red, green and white drapes with plenty of flowers.

Public Holidays in Samoa

New Year’s Day - 1 January

Good Friday

Holy Saturday

Easter Sunday

Easter Monday

Anzac Day - 25 April

Mother’s Day - second Sunday in May

Father’s Day - Monday after the second Sunday in August

Arbor Day - first Friday in November

Christmas Day - 25 December

Boxing Day - 26 December

Check out what events are coming up in Samoa...

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