Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Little-Known Story of Catholic Discrimination in Hawaii

It goes without saying that Christmas is "celebrated" by people of all faiths these days. Sure, it is a Christian holiday, but the day off, televised parades, movies like "A Christmas Story," the gifts and the bombardment of holiday songs on the radio can be enjoyed (or endured) by all. Hawaii is no different, but it may have had a rocky start.
The first known Christmas celebration in Hawaii took place in 1786 - about 10 years after Capt. Cook came across these islands. A merchant ship in the fur trade, the Queen Charlotte, came to the islands and anchored at Waimea Bay on the leeward side of Kauai.
On Christmas Day, the captain ordered his crew to prepare a feast. The 33 souls aboard the brig enjoyed roasted pig, booze, coconut milk and pie (we're not sure what kind). The navigator held a toast to friends and families far away in England. Interestingly, this is the same ship and crew that moved on to the west coast of Canada, and one year later was credited for being the first Westerners to survey and christen a group of islands known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Christmas events in the islands after that one are lost to history. Perhaps an odd collection of shipwrecked crews or deserters and beachcombers gathered for a meal and good company to recall Christmas celebrations back home in America, South America or Europe.
Christianity officially came with the arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820. Maybe they brought Christmas festivities along with their religion. It would seem only natural at first to presume so. Perhaps they did recognize Christmas, but if they did, it was probably a most muted celebration. It is even more possible that they skipped the holiday altogether.
The missionaries from New England had puritanical descendants who despised Christmas. For them, the holiday had no place in scripture and it was nothing but an excuse to avoid working. The Puritans in Plymouth Colony went out of their way to build homes and worked extra hard on that day to show their contempt for what some referred to as "Foolstide."
This anti-Christmas streak continued into the 19th century. In New England, school was held on that day and any merrymaking students were disciplined harshly. Many Protestants still viewed the holiday as some kind of winter bacchanal more associated with pre-Christian solstice celebrations. They frowned upon the caroling (they considered it rabble rousing), the pagan traditions of bringing evergreen trees into the home, and the idleness on Christmas Day.
Roman Catholics, however, held a different view. For them, Christmas marked the start of a holy period of time. The Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the 25th of December, the traditional birthday of Jesus, and go on until Jan. 6, the Epiphany, when the three kings made their arrival.
The contrasting views of Christmas probably played out here in the islands. Catholic missionaries came to Hawaii in 1827 much to the chagrin of their Protestant counterparts. What made it even worse for the Yankees and the English was that the first Catholic fathers were French. These Christians had no qualms against Christmas, ornaments, sparkling raiment, nativity scenes, and enjoyed the holiday without a shred of compunction.
The largely Congregationalist missionaries were already established and held the ear of Hawaiian royalty. They managed to persuade their convert Queen Ka'ahumanu - the regent at the time, for Kamehameha III was still considered too young to rule - to institute a policy of suppression toward the Catholics.
On Christmas Eve in 1831, the French priests were forced to leave the islands. They headed for a small settlement in Southern California in what is now considered greater Los Angeles. The Catholic persecution continued. Hawaiian converts were beaten, whipped and imprisoned until they agreed to reject Catholic teachings.
The harsh policy toward Catholics eventually resulted in an international incident. The expelled French missionaries returned six years later with the power of the French military behind them. In 1839, a French warship came to Hawaii. Its captain warned Kamehameha III that if the policy toward Catholics continued, the islands must be ready to "incur the wrath of France" - no empty threat in those days.
The king relented. He declared the Catholic worshippers free, paid compensation for the expulsion of the priests, and even donated land for a church. They have remained in the islands since then. The Catholics were thus free to worship and, to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge, keep Christmas in their own way.

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