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Third in a series written for the four Sundays in Advent
~ by Leilehua Yuen
Despite numerous claims that the Missionaries brought Christmas to Hawai`i, that simply isn't so.
The first documented celebration of Christmas in the Hawaiian Islands was aboard the ships QUEEN CHARLOTTE and KING GEORGE in 1786 in Waimea Bay, off the island of Kaua`i.
The Missionaries, those austere proponents of New England Christianity, would not arrive in the Hawaiian Islands for another thirty four years – not until March 30, 1820. And Christmas was not a holiday to them. As the Bible made no mention of celebrating Christmas, they did not do so. In fact, until the 1770s, in their home of New England, celebrating Christmas was illegal.
Reading Scripture, one finds no mention of Christmas. Therefore, the Missionaries felt, it did not qualify as holy. The Missionaries, strong proponents of scholarly learning, also disputed the date of Christmas celebrations, arguing that December 25 was the date of a Roman festival, hijacked by early Christians. To celebrate that day, they felt, was sinful homage to a pagan custom.
The Boston Missionaries were heir to the beliefs of Puritan England. Responding to certain political and religious excesses, in the 1600s, England underwent major reforms. After the Puritans came to power, in 1647 the celebration of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide were outlawed in England. Her American colonies followed suit, and in 1659, Massachusetts included in their penal code a 5 shilling fine for celebrating Christmas. In 1681, the laws abolishing Christmas were repealed, but James Howard Barnett notes in The American Christmas (1984) that the Puritan view prevailed in New England for almost two centuries.
Despite the legalization of Christmas, New England officials still disapproved of celebrating the holiday, especially with any form of revelry. Decking the halls with boughs of holly – or any other greenery - was associated with pagan custom, and thus was expressly forbidden in Puritan meeting houses, and while not illegal, was discouraged in the New England home. Making merry could still bring prosecution for disturbing the peace.
We all have our cognitive dissonances, however. Although there is no mention of them in the Bible, somehow Election Day and Harvard Commencement Day were recognized days of rest in addition to the Sabbath. Days of thanksgiving and humiliation also were observed.
This was the mindset of the Boston Missionaries who, in 1820, sought to bring the Word of God to the Hawaiian people.
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 is now a traditional Hawaiian cultural practitioner, kumu, kahu, and cultural historian with ecumenical and interfaith leanings.