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Fourth in a series written for the four Sundays in Advent
~ by Leilehua Yuen
And so, at last, Dear Reader, we come to the last Sunday in Advent, the season of preparation for Christmas. And so, I believe, it is fitting to now tell how the holiday officially was introduced to our islands, with all the pomp, pageantry, and festivity we associate with Christmas in Hawai`i today.
Alexander ʻIolani Liholiho Keawenui was born in 1834, the child of High Chief Mataio Kekūanāoʻa, governor of O`ahu, and Princess Elizabeth Kīnaʻu the Kuhina Nui of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Kuhina Nui was a position roughly equivalent to Prime Minister.
The young prince was educated by the New England missionaries to Hawai`i, but never seemed to quite inculcate their dour simplicity. Sent at age 15 on a visit to England, he was impressed by the richness and ceremony of the Church of England. Feted and honored in Europe and the British Isles, he experienced prejudice and bigotry in the American portion of his travels. This likely set the stage for his change of spiritual alliance.
When his uncle, Kauikeouli (Kamehameha III) died on 15 December 1854, Liholiho succeeded to the throne. He was sworn in as king of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha IV, on 11 January 1855, at age 20.
In 1856, the young monarch married Emma Kalanikaumakaamano Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke, daughter of High Chief George Naʻea and High Chiefess Fanny Kekelaokalani Young, daughter of John Young, military advisor to Pai`ea Kamehameha. Though the royal wedding contained Anglican prayers, the wedding had to be performed by a Congregationalist minister.
This same year, Kamehameha IV decreed that December 25 would be celebrated as the kingdom's national day of Thanksgiving. The politically influential and highly conservative American missionaries objected to Christmas on the grounds that it was a pagan celebration.
Mary Dominis, the widow of Capt. John Dominis, descendant of Croatian nobility, wished to celebrate the Christmas holiday in high style. With a pro-Christmas monarch on the throne, on Christmas Eve of 1858 she hosted a lavish party for 100 of Honolulu’s children and their parents.She even had a Santa Claus to give Christmas presents to the children.
Mary Dominis also was noted for planting the first European-style garden in Honolulu, and is said to have grown a Christmas tree from a sprig that was sent to Hawai`i by ship.
In 1859, Emma wrote to Queen Victoria of the U.K. to request a clergyman from the English church. The King's foreign minister, Robert Crichton Wyllie, also made requests through diplomatic contacts for a mission to Hawai`i.
In 1860 Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Winchester, suggested expanding the mission to include a Bishop who could organize a new branch of the Church of England. William Ingraham Kip of the American Episcopal Church in California also supported the idea, but the American Civil War prevented any help from that quarter.
The mission was approved by Archbishop of Canterbury, John B. Sumner, and the British Foreign Secretary, Lord John Russell. Thus, Hawai`i’s first Bishop, Thomas Nettleship Staley, was consecrated on December 15, 1861 as the church's first bishop of the Kingdom of Hawaii. He and his wife departed on 17 August 1862 and arrived in Honolulu in October 1862.
The King and Queen were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the new bishop, especially as they wished for him to christen their young son, Albert Edward Kauikeaouli Kaleiopapa a Kamehameha. Sadly, the royal heir died, and the new Bishop arrived at a court in mourning.
Joining the new Hawaiian Reformed Catholic Church, Kauikeouli and Emma were baptized on October 21, 1862 and confirmed in November 1862.
Shortly thereafter, Liholiho rescinded his decree proclaiming December 25 as a national day of thanksgiving, and formally proclaimed Christmas as a national holiday of the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Over the succeeding years, the two championed the Anglican (now Episcopal) Church in Hawaii and founded St. Andrew’s Cathedral, raising funds for the building. In 1867 Emma founded Saint Andrew's Priory School for Girls. She also laid the groundwork for an Episcopal secondary school for boys originally named for Saint Alban. After the death of Kamehameha IV, it was renamed ʻIolani School in his honor.
In recognition of their work on behalf of the church, Queen Emma and King Kamehameha IV, “The Holy Sovereigns,” are honored with a feast day of November 28 on the liturgical calendar of the Anglican Church and the U.S. Episcopal Church.
And that, Dear Reader, is how Christmas came to be a recognized holiday in the Hawaiian Islands.
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.