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How Christmas Came to Hawaii

As Presented by Hoku Paoa Stevenson at the Queen Emma Summer Palace



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, 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.

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