Christmas in Paradise
Mele Kalikimaka

Christmas is known to be many things to many people. The different origins in which each society celebrates this joyus holiday is quite fascinating to say the least.

Many world communities think of Christmas as a holiday filled with pine trees, nippy cold weather sprinkled with a white blanket of snow on the ground. There are houses bedecked with a myriad of lights that hang from the eaves and around windows and doors while inside a spectacular pine tree is covered with hundreds of lights and ornaments and underneath many many packages wrapped in bright paper and ribbons wait for the time to be opened and enjoyed. These are the pictures that stick in my mind as I think about Christmas and the place where I grew up. Christmas was and is joyous family time of celebration.

But for a moment letís turn away from what is considered the norm for most Judo-Christian folk and begin a journey to the South Seas and the warm tropical islands of the South Pacific, Hawaii. Here we will find a completely different set of traditions connected to Christmas.
To begin letís look at the basis in which the origins of the holiday began in Hawaii.

The Hawaiian people did not celebrate Christmas prior to the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778. It was, however, the protestant missionaries from New England who were the first to arrive in 1820 and introduced Christmas to the Hawaiian people.

In the year 1786 Captain George Dixon sailed with the Queen Charlotte and landed at the Sandwich Islands in December but he would have welcomed the December winds and the roaring fires that were part of Christmas in England. He would have liked to look out on glistening holly and snow-covered spruce instead of the palm trees on the shoreline and he would surely miss the rich sweet taste of the traditional plum pudding.

Still, he was a sailor; he could make home of any port. And there was a great tradition to be observed, even if he had to make do with what he had. So, on this December 25, 1786, he ordered a Christmas dinner and a bowl of punch prepared. A pig was brought from shore and roasted, the galley crew made pie and for this special occasion, the day's ration of grog was mixed with coconut milk.

From the deck of the Charlotte in Waimea Bay, Kauai, Sandwich Islands, his men toasted friends and family at home in England, and the miles between the two island kingdoms were bridged, for a moment, by the bumpers of the curious liquor. It was Hawaii's first Christmas.


Close by in the bay, a light burned late below decks in another of His Majesty King George's ships. Capt. Nathaniel Portlock added a final footnote to his log. That day he had gone ashore and distributed a pocketful of trifles to the native children who followed him wherever he went. This morning abroad ship, he had received a caller. He wrote the story of the visit in a single flowing sentence. "Kiana came off in a long double canoe," he wrote, "And brought me a present of some hogs and vegetables which I received gladly, and made in a return that pleased him very much." Christmas gifts had been exchanged in Hawaii. The boatman who greeted Capt. Portlock, one of the first boats since Cook, was old before he saw another. Kamehameha had become ruler of all the islands and now in 1819 he was dead. His son, Liholiho, was the Iolani. The king's storytellers told of one other Christmas that they could recall.

Two years before, Englishmen had come to Hawaii during the season of makahiki. After it was over, and the kapu on sailing lifted, the chiefs visited the ship. The next day, the Englishmen came ashore to feast with the chiefs because it was a special day for them, the anniversary of the birth of their Savior and religion, and they wanted to celebrate. Theirs beliefs were still not known in Hawaii and the tabu system, along with the old gods, would soon be gone. Hawaii had no religion.

In New England, where the evergreens hung heavy with snow and there was religion, there was no Christmas either. The law in New England had once forbidden the settlers from celebrating the festivals and customs that had flourished in the Europe they'd fled. The hard-working Puritans wished to free their church from all rites and ceremonies not specifically set forth in the Bible. Since the Bible was silent about Christmas, the Puritans listened to no sermon on that day. In 1819 as the Thaddeus prepared in Boston for the long missionary voyage to Hawaii, the law was no longer in effect but the church's doctrines were still faithfully followed. Christianity, but not Christmas, was on its way to Hawaii.

1837 - 1843

The missionaries followed and with them came the Christian traditions that evolved into diverse celebrations that included Roman Catholic and Puritan festivities. Honolulu Harbor was dotted with sailing vessels at anchor. There were more than twenty businesses under way in the city and its population had grown to many thousands. Kamehameha III was on the throne, a sugar plantation had been laid out on Maui, and an English language press had been printing for over a year. Seven groups of missionaries had followed the Thaddeus by 1837 and had settled into the work of preaching and teaching.

But the sailing ships that lay at anchor in the harbor were not all from New England and not all had Puritan captains. Roman Catholics living in their district at Waianae followed their tradition by attending Mass on Christmas day, and there were merchants and mechanics from Europe and America who celebrated the holiday as they had at home. On December 30, 1837, late and apologetic, the English newspaper recognized both them and their holiday. "With all good wishes for the welfare of our patrons, and of every member of the community, we wish them a 'merry Christmas' and a 'very happy new year'." It was the first time the phrase appeared in print.

Toys! Toys! For Christmas and New Year! Had set a style for Hawaii's holiday advertising. There had been a big Christmas lottery one year and the first of the pre-Christmas auctions had been held. The Polynesian had reported in its pages "Christmas is becoming to be more generally noticed in Hawaii"
And Alex Liholiho, now Kamehameha IV, had a happy idea. There had been no royal proclamation of Thanksgiving for three years and all previous notices had named the last day of the year. The King, who had witnessed the great festival of Christmas in Europe thoughtfully set aside December 25th, 1856, as a national day of Thanksgiving.

It pleased everyone - European and Americans, Anglicans and Puritans. The king's aim was achieved. Everyone celebrated the day in his or her own way as a holiday. The Bethel, Fort Street, and Methodist Churches held joint services in Nu'uanu Valley.

It was a year's experiment and it was not repeated, but Christmas was now a part of the life of the land. The evening 'auctions for Christmas' had become social events with front seats 'for the ladies'. There was more Christmas merchandise in the stores and more stores closed for Christmas. By 1858 there were just one or two rituals missing from the Christmas celebration. Then Mrs. John Dominis decided to have a party. And then there were none missing. It was a Christmas Eve gathering for young people at the big house at Washington Place. There was a Christmas tree and party favors and then bells were heard at the windows! There was Santa Claus with gifts for everyone.


The tree was lighted with candles and its branches bent with the gifts. Saint Nick held court in a doorway where he passed out more presents and handfuls of candy. The bishop had arrived in October to establish a mission of the Church of England. . The king had first requested the mission years before and it had been accomplished with only much personal effort. Now it was done and Christmas was drawing near. The king was deep in grief because his only child, the Little Prince, had died only months before, but he felt that the church's holy festival should be officially observed. In 1862, Christmas was proclaimed a national holiday in Hawaii by authority of King Kamehameha IV. It was 76 years since the first observance in Waimea Bay.
To add to the gala appearance of the town, flags were displayed onshore and on the ships in the harbor. For a week before the holiday, the Anglican choir practiced carols. Guns on Punchbowl were readied for a salute. Kukui torches were prepared and fireworks were gathered. The king lent all his candelabra to the church. On Christmas Eve, all the churches were ready. The Catholic Cathedral of our Lady Of Peace was illuminated from pavement to dome with wreathes of light. Inside, the altars were beautifully decorated and more than a thousand candles were lit. The tree at the Fort Street Church accepted more than 200 small lights and its branches were burdened with gifts for more than 70 students, with no two gifts alike. At 11:30, when midnight service began, the Anglican Church was ablaze with light from the king's candelabra. Service continued until one a.m., then the guns were fired and flaming barrels of tar rolled from the heights of Punchbowl. The king and the bishop began their slow procession from the church to the palace. Behind them walked a vested choir of twenty, and twenty torch bearers lit the way for the members of the congregation.

Throughout the streets of Honolulu the procession marched in slow cadence, singing Christmas carols. The assembly stopped briefly at several places to call out special greetings and light innumerable green candles, then marched on to the palace gates. The torches and blue lights were ranged round the small circular piece of water in the middle of the palace grounds. The fountains played grandly and the reflection of the torch lights, together with the clear brilliant moonlight of these latitudes on the water, and on the dark excited faces of the people, were very remarkable. At this moment, some really good fireworks were let off and rockets shot up into the air amidst deafening shouts from a thousand voices for the king and queen.
The old carol, Good King Wenceslas, was sung and then air rang with the national anthem with another round of projected Hurrahs and so." Christmas had come to Hawaii.
As we journey back to the present the fact that Christmas came to Hawaii from the English and Spanish missionaries is the culmination of many years of blending and is now the norm for this tiny group of islands belonging to the United States.

Today, thereís no bigger Christmas celebration than "Honolulu City Lights," a favorite holiday spectacle put on by the City & County of Honolulu. Held at Honolulu Hale (City Hall), "Honolulu City Lights" features a 50-foot Norfolk pine Christmas tree, elaborate Christmas tree and wreath exhibits, giant Yuletide displays and live entertainment. Whether youíre young or young at heart, thereís no better place to catch the Christmas spirit in the islands

What a juxtaposed site to see Santa arrive in a dugout canoe in bare feet and a red furry swimming suit.



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