Almost tarred and feathered

A chicken wielding a paintbrush gives Sam Vincent a taste of Arctic traditions.

I have never been chased by a chook before, let alone one wearing a cape, a schoolbag and a pair of Converse All-Stars. Yet here it is, six feet tall and brandishing a wet paintbrush as it pursues me around a classroom.

It's muck-up day in the Greenlandic town of Maniitsoq. Festivities start at 2am: air horns and drums booming through the night as packs of youths march the streets, intent on letting everyone know their moment of freedom has arrived.

With bleary eyes, I part the curtains of my hotel room. It is already light. Outside, I watch as the schoolies run amok, splashing black and blue paint on the footpaths and each other, making everyone look as though they have just stepped off the set of Braveheart; everyone, that is, except the kid in a chicken costume and his mate dressed as Santa.

Being my last day in town, and being the closest thing to a visiting foreign dignitary, I have been invited to speak at the local primary school. By 10am, the mischief-makers are nowhere to be seen as I'm ushered into a classroom of waiting year 4 students.

With my friend Aqqalu translating, I'm bombarded with questions while the teacher sits quietly in the corner. Do kangaroos eat fish? Would I like to come seal shooting this weekend? Have I met Princess Mary (Greenland is ruled by Denmark)?

We're discussing nutritional virtues of roo burgers when suddenly the door is flung open. It's the pranksters!

My talk on marsupial meat is quickly drowned out by a cacophony of instruments and squeals as the year 12 students, led by Santa, shower their younger colleagues with chocolates and jelly snakes. Then I see it. Clutching a brush and a tin of black paint, the cheeky chicken is rushing straight for me. The teacher has noticed too and quickly springs into action, grabbing the chook's arms and lambasting it in loud volleys of Greenlandic while the littlies rush about behind us, clambering on to desks and shelves to collect their loot.

The practice of painting each other on muck-up day, I'm later told, is a modern take on an earlier Greenlandic tradition, whereby graduating students would cover victims with the tar once used to waterproof wooden fishing boats. Tolerated in earlier times, both forms of the prank now carry the threat of prosecution following one too many parental complaints about ruined school uniforms.

Back in the classroom, the mood is tense. Paint is dripping off the chicken's brush and on to the floor as the teacher holds back its arms and continues to argue with the bird. The children are now egging the teen on while drums and horns and even a kazoo provide the soundtrack to the unfolding drama. But then, to my relief, another instrument suddenly joins the fray, scuttling the students. Saved by the bell.

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