As presented by Hoku Paoa Stevenson at the Summer Palace:
1786 Captain George Dixon was a long way from home. He reflected briefly on the lot of a sailing man. The warm breeze which rocked the Queen Charlotte gently at anchor was pleasant enough, 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, Kaua`i, 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 Hawai`i’s first Christmas.
1819 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 Hawai`i. 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 Hawai`i 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 Hawai`i and the tabu system, along with the old gods, would soon be gone. Hawai`i 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 Hawai`i, 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 Hawai`i.
1837 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. The work had gone well. Schools, churches and a written Hawaiian language had long been established and the first written laws had been adopted. Christmas had been observed when it fell on the Sabbath and just twice there had been Christmas services in the meeting house on weekdays. Otherwise, in this Christian kingdom, the days passed without notice. The offices of the king’s government remained open, business was transacted and the day’s work was done. Now, in Christmas week, 1837, missionary wives made quiet shopping trips to town and in the evenings at home, talked about what they should cook and who they should invite to the coming holiday dinner. When they met, the men passed a word of holiday wishes.
It was a festive, warm-spirited season and it had nothing to do with Christmas. There were no celebrations necessary for being a Christian but there were two that proudly went with being an American. One was Independence Day; its date was fixed on the Fourth of July. The other was Thanksgiving. It was as old, almost, as their reformed religion. Hawaiian converts and Puritans celebrated it with gifts, social calls and feasting, on New Year’s Day!
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.
The Chief’s Children’s School was strict, even for a future king. Alexander Liholiho was ready for a holiday. When the cake arrived, it almost seemed to make it official. It was a Christmas cake, without any doubt, and it was delivered to the missionary master on Christmas Eve. It came with no card but none was necessary for nine-year-old Alex, his two brothers, little Emma Rooke or the other eleven students. A Merry Christmas was implied and they fulfilled the anonymous wishes by taking the day off from lessons.
1843 The Christmas celebration, happiest children’s day of the year, was thus appropriately carried into the lives of the missionaries and the schoolmaster noted its presence in his dairy for 1843. “The children,” he wrote, “thought it would be doing God’s service to devote this day to merriment”.
Three years of coping with youthful energy relaxes the most rigid of rules and princely pressures took their toll at the school. When Christmas cake came again to the dining hall, it came from the hands of the students. The newspaper, The Polynesian, had wished “gentle readers, all, a merry Christmas to you; may you never wake to a less pleasant morn”. Alexander and his brothers took the paper at its word. The girls mixed the cakes and the boys made candy in the best tradition. In another three years, there was another tradition. Alex and his brothers were in England but their classmates carried on with the celebration. “This evening,” the schoolmaster’s diary read, “all are making ready presents for Christmas.”
1856 Toys! Toys! For Christmas and New Year! Had set a style for Hawai`i’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 that “Christmas is becoming to be more generally noticed in Hawai`i”. 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 their own way as a holiday. The Bethel, Fort Street, and Methodist Churches held joint services in Nu`uanu Valley, and later in the evening there was a lighter side. “I visited the circus,” a celebrant recalled, “and at night attended a Mechanic’s Subscription Ball. The most intricate quadrilles, foreign waltzes, polkas, mazurkas, redowas, etc., were danced to time and measure.”
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 there were none missing. It was a Christmas Eve gathering for young people at the big house at Washington Place. There were a hundred round-eyed and delighted young people. There was a Christmas tree and party favors and then bells were heard at the windows! There was Santa Claus with gifts for everyone.
1862 It took half a column in the Polynesian to describe the event. 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. “Later in the evening dancing commenced and when it ended is hard to say”. It was a Christmas to remember and only one is remembered better. The bishop had arrived in October to establish a mission of the Church of England. A month later, the king and his queen, the little Emma Rooke with whom he had attended school, stood before him to be confirmed. 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 Hawai`i by authority of King Kamehameha IV. It was 76 years since the first observance in Waimea Bay.
The city threw itself into the preparations. Churches throughout the land threw spectacular celebrations. The king sent to the mountains for cypress boughs to decorate the temporary Anglican cathedral and supplied myrtle and flowers from Queen Emma’s garden. The Fort Street Calvinist Church produced a huge growing Christmas tree. In the newspapers, the merchants advertised ‘toys in great supply’ and ‘dolls of all kinds’, and Christmas displays took large parts of their stores. Children gazed in awe at the arrays of candy in the confectioner’s window and chanted a little rhyme.” Candies red as rosy morn, Cakes which Emperors wouldn’t scorn, Sugared roses without thorn, Made to order by F. Horn.”
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 carried 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 where Archdeacon Mason described a vivid scene: “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.
We sang the grand old carol, Good King Wenceslas, and after a glass of champagne punch we made the air ring with the national anthem and another round of protracted Hurrahs and so to bed.” Christmas had come to Hawai`i.
EDITORS NOTE: Our thanks to Hoku Paoa Stevenson for this feature which she presented at the Summer Palace to a keiki halau. She actually paraphrased a book which she had bought at a yard sale, a very old publication of Hawaiian Dredging’s.