The State of Aloha

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.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”

The State of Aloha

Kauai has got me thinking. Most folks on that island populate the northern and eastern sides. Tourists and locals alike are in the coastal towns such as Hanalei, Kilauea, Kapaa and especially Lihue. But once you get past that, the road takes you to the still and quiet leeward side. Out there, Niihau is on the not-too-distant horizon. The paved road ends on the Mana plain at the foot of dried up mountains. Beyond that is a row of kiawe trees. Barking Sands – a vast white sand beach – lies on the other side.

The Garden Isle’s quiet leeward side is the land of firsts. Waimea saw Capt. Cook anchor in the islands. His visit to Kauai is considered the start of the modern history of Hawaii. It certainly is the start of Hawaii’s contact with the West. A bronze statue commemorates his fateful landfall.

Then there’s Koloa: the first sugar plantation, established in 1835. All that’s left of the mill is a decrepit brick chimney in the middle of town. The company that started the mill is long gone too. It passed hands for more than a century and a half before it was shut down for good in 1996.

The methods perfected at Koloa became the industry’s standard. Koloa was the first plantation to really establish the notorious plantation store. The store was used by workers and accepted a private form of currency – deemed “Kauai currency.” It could be redeemed only at the store and the store enjoyed a markup on the price. Koloa also started providing housing for the workers but took some of their pay in the bargain.

Koloa is now a major tourist attraction. The former plantation-era storefronts sell knickknacks, wind chimes and sarongs to visitors. It reminds me of Paia, Makawao and Lahaina. Tourism has moved into the old sugar infrastructure. The contrast is sharpest in Koloa – right in the town is a massive statue commemorating the migrations of workers that came to the islands to work in the fields.

The plantations are gone now. Even the archaic Gay & Robinson plantation – the only one that never had an organized workforce – does not produce sugar anymore. The old houses are rotting in the sun. Rusty iron gates close off roads that used to course through sugar cane fields. It’s simply gone.

But the newer industries are also on leeward Kauai. The military has an outpost at the far end of the Kuhio Highway in the Kekaha District. The Pacific Missile Range Facility is on the beach across the channel from Niihau. For decades and throughout the Cold War, the Air Force has been launching test missiles from that remote spot.

Now, there’s a new and divisive industry setting up shop out there. Just like on Maui, Molokai and parts of Oahu, seed companies have come to Kauai in a big way. Dow Chemical, DuPont, BASF, Bayer and Syngenta all have facilities on the island. And just like the folks here, their presence has divided the community.

Dow Chemical, for example, has something called an “agroscience” division that partnered up with Gay & Robinson to research and experiment with insecticide-resistant seeds. It has brought much-needed jobs and income to the quiet leeward coast, but many fear that the experiments may harm the environment and health of the rest of Kauai. All along the Kuhio Highway there were handmade signs in support of a bill that would regulate genetically modified organisms.

Very recently, the bill passed the County Council after a grueling session that didn’t let up until 3:30 in the morning. Council Member Gary Hooser sponsored legislation to set up GMO-free zones around schools, hospitals, roads and other places. It authorizes the county to investigate the impact of GMOs in the environment. And it targets the big companies on the leeward side.

After all that, the mayor vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was legally flawed. Essentially, this is the kind of regulation, he argued, that should come from the state, not the county. Maybe so, but the state doesn’t have to act (at least for now) because the council overrode the veto last month. The law will be implemented next year. The companies already plan on challenging the law. The seed showdown on Kauai continues.

What started on Kauai is spreading to other islands. The Big Island just passed a similar regulation, and now our own council got in on the act. Councilwoman Elle Cochran introduced a bill with a similar intent last week.

The seed industry is new to Hawaii, and Kauai’s law is the first of its kind. Given the other things that the county has introduced to the rest of the islands – be it contact with the West or the sugar plantation – the companies setting up shop and the government response could be another historic first.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Ilima Loomis’ “Neighbors.”