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Customs of Niue

Marriage and Family

Weddings are usually prepared by members of the bride’s extended family. They put up the fale (a temporary shelter from the sun or rain) for the reception, invite a large number of guests, and provide a feast, which is held after the church ceremony. Alcoholic beverages, especially beer, are usually served. As part of the wedding celebration, members of different families or groups of friends perform songs and dances wearing traditional costumes. In some families, relatives give various outfits to the couple and expect the bride and groom to change clothes several times during the event in order to show off as many outfits as possible. At some point, guests toss small amounts of money at the couple and make wishes (often humorous) for their future.

After the wedding, the couple most often takes up residence with or near the husband’s family. They become part of his extended family for all practical purposes, although the bride never entirely loses her obligations to her own family. In some cases, especially when a woman marries a person from another country, the couple might join the wife’s extended family.

The magafaoa (extended family) is the center of Niuean life. Children might be raised by an aunt, uncle, or grandparent due to family circumstances. Matua, the term for parent, is not only used for a biological mother or father, but for whoever is the guardian of the child. It is also sometimes used to address elderly family members.

Land is owned by the magafaoa, not by an individual, and land courts keep genealogical records dating back several generations in order to settle ownership disputes. Oral genealogies in various forms extend back to the first settling of the island. Magafaoa membership is patrilineal, and the head of the family is usually a man. Traditional roles are well-defined. Men hunt and fish; women cook, care for children, and run the household. However, roles are flexible and may overlap; both men and women may do paid work.

Most magafaoa land is used for subsistence farming. Bush gardens of taro and other vegetables are owned and worked by the entire family. Similarly, fishing and uga (coconut crab) hunting are shared activities where family obligations govern the distribution of the goods. Economic enterprises, ranging from shops to bee-keeping to pig raising, that occur outside the magafaoa area can be individually owned. Most adults have some source of income outside the family. The magafaoa cooperates in caring for the elderly or unemployed.

Not only do magafaoa members share work and food, they also contribute time and effort to preparing for special events such as the haircutting and ear-piercing ceremonies. For certain occasions, friends, business associates, and others are also expected to help.

Within the magafaoa, nuclear units are generally able to set up their own household, usually in homes on land belonging to the magafaoa. Plenty of housing is available, but a few families will have a home custom-built on leased land. Land cannot be sold, but it can be leased for periods of up to 60 years.


The staples of the Niuean diet are locally grown. Taro is the primary food, but cassava, yams, bananas, breadfruits, coconuts, and pawpaws (papayas) are also common. Some families raise pigs; most have chickens (although the consumption of frozen imported chicken is common). Because all villages are fairly close to the sea, most families fish and gather crustaceans and shellfish from the reef. Niueans must also import food. In addition to chicken, imports include beef, canned corned beef, sliced bread, nontropical fruits and vegetables, beer, juices, and soft drinks, but these are not always available because imports arrive only once every month.

A favorite local dish is faikai, chunks of fish marinated in coconut cream; another is takihi, slices of taro and pawpaw wrapped in leaves and baked in an umu (earth oven). Small bakeries produce several varieties of bread, including coconut bread.

Most people eat only breakfast and dinner (called tea). Wage earners might eat a light lunch at work. Some families use the traditional umu for cooking, but many have electric or gas ranges. At special or traditional events, large leaves are used for plates; Western-style dishware is used on a daily basis. Western utensils are common, as is eating with the fingers of the right hand.

Families gather at a table for all regular meals. Foods may be more traditional staples, such as taro and pork cooked in an umu, or they may be similar to those eaten in New Zealand, such as bread, potatoes, and oven-roasted meat. At social events like weddings, long tables are piled high with taro, roast pig, and other traditional foods; guests help themselves and eat picnic-style. It is a common practice for guests to pack up extra portions to eat at home.


Niueans greet each other at work with common English greetings or in Niuean with Fakaalofa atu! (“Love be with you!”) or the informal Mafola? (“OK?”). Niuean greetings are usual at home or in the village, although people who have spent time overseas might also use English. Men usually shake hands. Women friends meeting after a long absence kiss each other on the cheek.

Niueans might use first names to address one another, but nicknames are more common. Most people have more than one nickname that may be used by different people or on different occasions. Nicknames are most typically the abbreviation of the Niuean and English versions of one’s given name.

When parting, people say Koe kia! (“Good-bye”). For two people, the phrase is Mua kia! and for three or more it is Mutolu kia! If someone is leaving for a long time, it is most appropriate to say Monuina! or Monuina e fenoga! (“Blessings,” or “Blessings on the voyage!”). Informal English phrases are also common.

Informal visits can occur anytime, although Sundays are the favorite time to visit friends and family. For casual visits, a flexible and relaxed atmosphere prevails. Customs are more important on special occasions, particularly weddings, funerals, haircuttings, and ear piercings.

After a respected person dies, the family receives visitors for several days. Except for close friends, these visitors arrange to come in groups (such as a family or social organization). They sit while one or a few spokespeople give a brief speech of condolence. The bereaved may pass around refreshments. Each visitor hugs the bereaved person(s) upon leaving.

Young people socialize at weekend dances in several halls around the island, and there is usually at least one fiafia (party) in progress each weekend.


Cricket (in summer) and rugby (in winter) are the most popular sports. People also enjoy volleyball, soccer, tennis, table tennis, netball, and track events. Alofi has a nine-hole golf course. Cultural events, sometimes competitive, are occasions for traditional song, music, and dance. Some churches have accomplished choirs that devote a good deal of time to their art.

In their leisure time, men like to fish (for food or sport, for marlin, wahoo, or tuna), hunt (usually for birds), and do woodwork. Some are skilled at making the vaka (outrigger canoe), commonly used for fishing. Women gather to make baskets, hats, and other handicrafts. They make many household items from treated pandanus fiber and coconut fronds. Embroidery is also a popular handicraft, and tie-dyeing has come into fashion. Show days, such as the one at Hakupu each June, are occasions for athletics and for displaying handicrafts.

Holidays and Celebrations

The inhabitants of Niue celebrate New Year’s Day on 1 January. Commission Day is a holiday on 2 January. Easter is celebrated from Good Friday through Easter Monday. Anzac Day, on 25 April, takes its name from the acronym for the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. It commemorates the landing of Anzac troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula during World War I. Since its inception as a holiday in 1920, it has also come to honor those who have died in World War II and the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Queen Elizabeth II’s birthday is celebrated on the first Monday in June, although her real birthdate is in April. The reason for the switch is said to be England’s notoriously unpleasant April weather. Constitution Day is observed on 19 October, and Peniamina’s Day is on a Monday in late October. Christmas is celebrated on 25 December. Boxing Day (26 December) takes its name from an old British custom when those in the service and trade industries would carry around small earthenware boxes to collect tips. Nowadays it is a time to relax and visit. Niueans living abroad often return to the island for the period between Christmas and early January.

Haircutting and ear-piercing ceremonies have become common in this century (although they are in gradual decline) and serve as coming-of-age rituals. Boys usually do not have their hair cut until they are at least seven years old. At some point after that, but before a boy reaches adulthood, he will have a haircutting ceremony. All the families who in the past have invited the host family to haircuttings are invited to the event and are expected to make a cash contribution.

Before the haircutting day, a fale is constructed with coconut leaves. This area, adjoining the host family’s home, is then lavishly decorated and a large quantity of food is gathered, including taro, fish, chickens, pigs, and canned food. Important guests take a turn to cut off a lock of the youth’s hair, often making speeches for the occasion. Meanwhile, the food is divided and set aside for guests according to how much they contributed to the event. When the affair is over, the food is distributed, and guests take it home with them. Usually the amount of money given by the guests exceeds the cost of the occasion.

Ear piercing is the corresponding custom for girls, and the event is likewise celebrated with speeches, financial contributions, and food.

Source: Encarta Interactive World Atlas