How Christmas came to Hawaii

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The first Christian missionaries in Hawaii were Puritan and carried with them their distaste for Christmas celebrations. Captain Cook first sighted the islands of Oahu and Kauai just after Christmas in 1777 and missionaries arrived aboard the Thaddeus in 1820 but the first official Christmas celebration was not until 1862. That year, the Government of Hawaii proclaimed a general holiday to publicly celebrate Christmas.

King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma had arranged for a branch of the Church of England to be established in Hawaii. Bishop Stanley and his mission arrived in October of 1862 and quickly went to work. According to the Bishop’s diary, Christmas had not been observed outside inpidual homes. Business was carried on as usual and the schools re-opened after a break on December 20, as though to ignore the 25th on purpose.

That first celebration was a grand one! The temporary cathedral was decorated with cypress boughs and beautiful flowers. The king lent all his silver candelabra to make the church ablaze with light for midnight services. The church litany was first chanted in Hawaiian (translated by the King) then in English. The services included a procession around the church and at its conclusion, the real spectacle began.

At the same time as a salute from the battery, the face of Punchbowl was “lit up by flaming tar barrels which were sent cascading down from the crater’s rim.” Outside the cathedral doors, a procession formed. The King had provided twenty eight-foot long torches made of kukui wood and coconut fibers dipped in tar. The King, clergy, choir and congregation marched through the streets of Honolulu singing Christmas carols, surrounded by a torch-bearing guard of honor. When the procession reached the palace, fireworks were set off.

Along with the Anglican extravaganza, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace was illuminated with wreaths of light. When its doors were opened at midnight, the magnificent main altar and side altars in the wings of the building were beautifully decorated. Religious services celebrated Christmas at Catholic and Episcopal churches and the church at Kawaiahao. They were the only churches to officially celebrate Christmas until 1895 when the Central Union Church added a service when Christmas did not fall on a Sunday.

(drawn from Dutton, Meiric K., Christmas in Hawaii, The Advertiser Publishing Co., Ltd. (1950).)

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