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First in a series written for the Four Sundays in Advent
~By Leilehua Yuen
It’s the Christmas season? Bah! Humbug! Nope. Not at all. Not for me, anyway. In my calendar, this season is Advent. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and is a time of preparation for The Christ’s birth. The Christmas season begins on 25 December and lasts for twelve days (someone wrote a song about that), ending on the eve of Epiphany. Christmas (The Mass of Christ) celebrates the birth of the Christ, while Epiphany celebrates the coming of the Christ to the Gentiles.
What on Earth does all that have to do with Christmas in Hawai`i? Ah, gentle reader, curl up in your Christmas jammies, pour yourself a nice cup of hot cocoa, perhaps a marshmallow or a dash of rum, and I shall relate the story of how Christmas came to our islands.
Myself, having been baptised and confirmed into the Episcopal Church / Anglican Communion, I have an affinity for the multitudinous festivals and holy days of that church. Surprisingly, to me, the first Christian men, the most prominant of whom was Anglican, known to have spent that day in the Hawaiian Islands left it completely unremarked.
On December 23, 1778, Capt. James Cook, off Hawai`i Islands’s Cape Kumukahi, found his consort ship, HMS DISCOVERY, becalmed and left “to the mercy of a great swell which hove us fast towards the island, which was not two leagues distant.” The crew did manage to get the DISCOVERY away from land, and then, “while we lay as it were becalmed, several of the Islanders came off with hogs, fowls, fruit and roots to exchange. We got out of one Canoe a Goose which was about the size of a Muscovy Duck; its plumage was dark-gray, and the bill and legs black.” By evening, the ship’s company had bought and bartered for everything the Hawaiians had brought along, which was “full as much as we could dispense with.” They then set sail and at midnight began to watch for the flagship HMS RESOLUTION, expecting that the sister ship would see and signal them, but “she was not to be seen.”
On the morning of Christmas Eve, Cook wrote in his log, “At this time the weather was hazy, so that we could not see far, and being past the NE. part of the Island, I was tempted to stand on, till by the wind veering to the NE, we could not weather the land upon the other tack, consequently could not stand to the North to join or look for the DISCOVERY. At noon we were by observations in the latitude of 19°͈ 55ˈ North Longitude 20° ˈ East; the SE point of the Island bore [?] E. six leagues distant; the other extreme N 60 degrees W and the nearest shore two leagues.”
The next log entry is for 30 December. In 1778, there appear to be no mentions of the Christmas holiday in Cook’s log, or any of the others. Why?
Possibly, because the 18th century was hugely influenced by thomas Paine's work, The Age of Reason, and for some time religion took a back seat to logic. Possibly Cook, though Anglican, and the other officers of the mission did not feel noting a religious holiday pertinent to a scientific mission. Or perhaps they were too busy to take note. Or perhaps they had been somewhat influenced by the Protestant reforms. Possibly further research, and continuing to read the ship's logs, can shed light on their thoughts that day. But for now, all we know is that the first documented time Christians spent Christmas in Hawai`i, the day passed unremarked.
Leilehua Yuen was ordained in 1986 as a Lay Minister in the Episcopal Church, and received her certificate in Hilo, Hawaiʻi through the Education for Ministry extension program of the Universiy of the South at Sewanee. She later studied with esteemed kupuna "Aunty" Nona Beamer, and now practices as a traditional Hawaiian cultural practitioner, kumu, kahu, and cultural historian.