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With all the fanfare surrounding Christmas, it’s hard to believe there’s anywhere on the planet that DOESN’T celebrate the holiday. But, it wasn’t too long ago that the word “Christmas” meant nothing to those who lived in the islands. Here’s a brief history lesson about how the holiday came to Hawaii, who brought it here, and some tidbits you may find interesting:
The first “recorded” Christmas in the islands was in 1786, when the captain of the merchant ship, Queen Charlotte, George Dixon was docked off Waimea on Kauai. According to the accounts of Dixon, a search party was sent ashore. The group caught a wild pig, which was roasted by the ship’s cooks. Sailors mixed their traditional rum ration with the milk of coconuts taken from the island in what may be the first recorded piña colada in history. When you book a Kauai Bike Tour through Hawaii Aloha Travel, you’ll visit Waimea Canyon, not far from the famed spot where Captain Dixon was docked on this historic day.
According to the Orange County Register, in a celebration that echoed the American Thanksgiving, British officers later extended the season’s greetings to the natives by sending “trifles” ashore for women and children on Kauai. Soon after, a local chieftain sent canoes out to the British with pigs and vegetables, the first recorded Christmas gift swap in Hawaii.
The missionaries who arrived in 1820 had a more restrained view of Christmas and didn’t organize active celebrations for several years. But as other branches of Protestant evangelists, along with Catholic priests, arrived in the islands, the various traditions of Christmas became known. Traders and sailors who arrived in the missionaries’ wake were more likely to celebrate the holiday. By 1837, a Honolulu newspaper published salutations of “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.”
In 1856, King Kamehameha IV moved the official national day of Thanksgiving to Dec. 25, more than coincidentally coinciding with Christmas. A large Christmas party was held on the royal grounds in 1858, including what is believed to be the first Christmas tree in the islands.
Christmas became an official Hawaiian holiday in 1862. Historical accounts said the occasion was marked by the firing of cannons and flaming tar poured down the sides of Punchbowl Crater in Honolulu to re-create the image of a volcano.
What’s interesting to note is this: the ancient Hawaiians actually DID celebrate a festival around this time of year, even before the missionaries arrived.
Hawaiians observed Makahiki, a four-month celebration around the winter solstice that was a time to thank the gods for the food drawn from the land and sea. At the heart of the festival was the god Lono, who represented fertility and growth. His image in the form of a tiki was carried throughout the islands.
During Makahiki, it was forbidden for warriors of rival clans to go to sea in war canoes. This ensured that the time could be spent in peaceful celebrations and feasts featuring pig and fish.
The festival also marked the beginning of the new year, a time when those in Hawaii say “Hauoli Makahiki Hou,” which means, roughly, “happy new year to you.”
Despite its humble beginnings, Christmas in Hawaii has become one of the most popular holidays in the islands. It’s a time when we cherish our friends and family — and remember the virtues of Makahiki!