Chef James Temple is a retired chef, cookbook author, food blogger, golfer and family cook living on Molokai. Temple’s food columns can be found at “Tasting Hawaii.” His page here on The Molokai News will receive regular updates.
By James Temple
Ancient Hawaiians numbered between 200,000 to as high as a million by the date of the European “discovery” of the “Sandwich Isles,” as they were called then, by Captain James Cook on January 18, 1778.
The Hawaiians during this time did not celebrate Christmas, but considered the four winter months, October through February, a time to celebrate the harvest and Lono, the Hawaiian god associated with rain and fertility. They called this period the “Makahiki” season. During these months, war was forbidden. Games were played. Special days were set aside to do chores, but the time of the Makahiki was for dancing, playing and giving thanks.
The highest chief of the island acted as host to Lono during Makahiki, performing ceremonies to mark the beginning and end of the festival. The chief collected gifts and offerings – food, animals, kapa, cordage, feathers and other items – on behalf of Lono and redistributed them later amongst lesser chiefs and their followers. Thus it might be thought of as the equivalent of modern Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions.
In 1786 two English merchant ships sailed into Waimea Bay, off of the Hawaiian island of Kauai, the day before Christmas, carrying 33 crew members each. The ships were the Queen Charlotte, commanded by Captain George Dixon, and the King George, commanded by Captain Nathaniel Portlock.
Captain Dixon had served under Captain James Cook during Cook’s third Pacific voyage, so he was familiar with the Hawaiian Islands. Once they had anchored, Captain Portlock went ashore to visit the islands people, giving out trinkets to the women and children he met.
The next day, Christmas Day to the English, Kauai Chief Kiana approached the ships in a long double canoe bearing gifts of welcome. He brought the makings of a Christmas feast with him, hogs and fresh vegetables, coconuts and bananas. Captain Dixon was so pleased, he ordered the galley crew to prepare a Christmas dinner.
A Christmas grog was made of rum mixed with coconut water. The island hogs were baked into a sea-pie, a concoction of available meats layered with hardtack and lard and baked in a large iron pot.
The sailors probably celebrated by singing traditional carols of the British Isles. This was the first celebration of Christmas in the Hawaiian islands. It wasn’t until 1862 that Christmas would become an official holiday in Hawaii.
Today, Christmas celebrations in Hawaii include the food, customs, and traditions of all the people who have settled here from around the world.