Hula to "Silent Night"

Christmas in Hawaii reflects worldwide cultures
November 30, 2003

The trumpet of a conch shell calls parishioners to worship Christmas Eve at Trinity by-the-Sea, Kihei, Maui. The open-air church is adorned with native red anthurium, white carnations, and wild red berries cascading on the altar. Pine trees, cut from the 4,000-foot "upcountry" Maui, adorn the sanctuary. A crèche, made in modern art figures of local tapa cloth, graces the church.

"Every year there is a hula to 'Silent Night' after the post communion prayer, "says the Rev. Morley Frech, rector. "And, as every Sunday, we say the Doxology and the Queen's Prayer in Hawaiian". (The Queen's Prayer was composed by Queen Lil'uokalani, an Anglican, in 1895 while she was under house arrest in Iolani Palace during the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.)

Fly over from Maui to Oahu, the most populous of the five Hawaiian Islands comprising the Diocese of Hawaii, and one finds worshippers participating in an equally unique service.

At St. Paul's Chapel in downtown Honolulu, people gather at midnight to celebrate in Filipino tradition. A candlelit star slides down a wire hanging from the back of the church to the poinsettia-bedecked altar. "It's on a pulley and slides through the congregation," says the Rev. Randolph Albano, vicar. "It signifies that the star brightens everyone's heart. We also decorate our homes with stars, paroles, which hang in the windows and doors. There's not a single (Filipino) house without that."

Stars, caroling during novena (nine nights before Christmas, Dec. 16-24) native rice cakes, and honoring elders are part of the Filipino tradition brought to the islands in the 1930s by this immigrant group who worked on sugar plantations. St. Paul's is one of the 39 congregations of the diocese-and one of the fastest growing.

"Filipinos represent approximately 15% of the population of Hawaii, " says Albano. "Christmas is the happiest celebration in the Christian calendar for us." Go over the Koolau Mountains to Windward Oahu and ask how native Hawaiians observe Christmas, and, despite secular commercialization, a profound meaning may emerge.

"Some Hawaiians reflect on a deeper meaning of Christmas, linking it to the concept of makahiki -- a period of intentional cessation of all hostilities and the reestablishment and making of peace," says the Rev. Tom Van Culin, a Hawaiian priest serving St. Matthew's, Waimanalo. "It also is a time when one gives back first fruits of the earth to akua (God), a time to recognize self sustaining, that we are supposed to be able to survive by what's raised and you trade or exchange what is a surplus product. It is a traditional way of sustaining life."

Back in urban Honolulu, in the oriental-style building of St. Luke's, worshippers celebrate with a familiar Episcopal midnight mass, and then go home to celebrate Christmas Day with festive foods and family traditions of their heritage.

"We have very, very traditional foods among Koreans," says Joyce Kim who came to Hawaii more than 40 years ago as an international student from Korea. "We have kal bi-short ribs with Korean sauce, very popular in Hawaii -- chopchae, a long rice noodle dish, kim chee, a spicy cabbage condiment, and mandoo, chicken broth with dumplings. Whenever we have a feast we have at least a dozen, maybe 20, different dishes." "We also visit elders, especially ones with no children, and greet them with a formal bow,' Kim says.

In a fun-filled manner on Christmas Day, the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, serving the community near the University of Hawaii at Manoa, surprises its youngsters with a pile of snow on the lawn, reflecting the northern hemisphere images of Christmas alongside palm trees in this tropical climate.

Hawaii has very few ethnic Episcopal churches -- congregations where clergy and people speak a language other than English and hold services in their native tongue. At St. Paul's, it is Ilocano. St. Andrew's Cathedral has one Sunday service in Hawaiian. However, multiculturalism rather than ethnicity, is the face of the Episcopal Church in 21st century Hawaii, notes says Mimi Wu, chair of the diocese's multicultural commission,

"A multicultural church is one that usually has one predominant group in the congregation, but has lots of other ethnicities within it," says Wu, a member of St. Luke's. "Because we are so diverse and multicultural with all different kinds of Asian cultures, we learn to have a harmonious culture."

Years ago, Hawaii's Episcopal churches were founded as Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean congregations, Wu said. "But that stopped as second and third generations all became English speaking. Americans do not stress a second language. Born and raised in Hong Kong, for instance, I am traditional Anglo-Chinese, so I raised two daughters who are fully bilingual."

However, the church is recognizing the need to identify with the various cultures and "slowly, bringing this back," Wu says. For instance, worship at the 2003 diocesan convention included readings, prayers, and music in Hawaiian, Ilocano, Spanish, Chinese and Korean.

"Being able to worship in your own mother tongue is really important," she stressed. "Having fellowship, music, caroling in our mother tongue is very different. It is important for me to identify with the Eucharist in Chinese. Prayers and music, religious and spiritual language has so much more meaning when offered in your own tongue."

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