The Japan Times
January 1, 2000

Pacific Islanders lead the way

2000 greeted with song, dance

MILLENNIUM ISLAND, Kiribati (AP) The 2000s arrived at the stroke of midnight Friday in the Pacific, setting off celebrations across the world.

Dancers on Kiribati's Millennium Island wore swaying grass skirts and headdresses to welcome the new year with a traditional call for good luck after chanting farewell to the pain of the past and heralding a new time of unity.

"Let all the world be joined with us to greet the new millennium," they sang on a tropical beach in their Micronesian language, called Kiribati. "Let us put aside all divisions — let us unite in love and peace."

The marking of midnight on Millennium Island and in the nation of Tonga started a rapid succession of celebrations in the South Pacific. The Chatham Islands — the easternmost part of New Zealand — hit the new century a few minutes later, followed by mainland New Zealand and the island nation of Fiji.

The island bashes were a showcase of the region's cultural diversity and rich heritage: A ritual fish catch and feast on Fiji; indigenous Moriori dances on the Chathams; a performance of Handel's "Messiah" for 300,000 people in Auckland, New Zealand.

It was an international spectacle: about 25 journalists were on Millennium Island to beam the ceremony to TV watchers around the globe. Estimates of viewership ran beyond a billion people.

Right after midnight, the president of Kiribati, Teberuro Tito, took a burning torch from an elderly man and handed it to a young boy in a ceremonial passing on of time to the new generation.

"Take this torch of hope and peace from Kiribati so that it may light up the whole world," Tito said. The boy and old man were paddled into the sea in a canoe while singers performed a farewell chant.

It was a tense ceremony for Kiribati islander Pwepwa Tokia, one of the dancers performing centuries-old songs and dances to mark the milestone.

"I wanted to do good for all the world," she said.

The first dawn over land was to break near remote Dibble Glacier in Arnarctica at 12:08 a.m. local time. Kiribati was to be the first country to witness the sunrise of 2000 at 5:43 a.m.

In Tonga, thousands dressed in white read a prayer in front of the royal palace, some of them in tears as they spoke. At the stroke of midnight, they broke out in a rendition of "Messiah."

Fireworks were set off near the conclusion of the music, performed before King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV.

As the largest — and the richest — nation in the region New Zealand planned the most elaborate celebrations fireworks, concerts, and several Maori "hake" war dances — including one with a cast of 2,000.

The celebrations follow a fierce race to clinch a first — and worldwide publicity.

Kiribati, for instance, moved the international dateline in 1995 so it no longer bisected the country. The move positioned Caroline Island to be among the first to see the new year. It was renamed Millennium Island in 1997.

Kiribati's neighbor to the west, Tonga, went on daylight-saving time in October, putting it in the same zone as Millennium Island.

Other countries staked their own claims to firsts. Pitt Island, for example, was to be the first "permanently inhabited" land to see the dawn of 2000. And Wellington was to be the first capital city.