"Christmas comes but once a year"-- Nowadays, it seems as though Christmas is with us almost all year. Especially when the decorations go up in the shopping centers even before Thanksgiving, carols are played continuously in the stores and on our car radios, and catalogues burst out of our mailboxes. By the time the big day arrives, most of us are thoroughly tired of the Christmas-overkill and ready to move on into the new year. Once upon a time, however, things were different in Waimea. There are still those who can remember how it was when Christmas was a simpler time shared by everyone in the town, and when one evening in December was a night to anticipate the whole year long. This is a story of those memories.
First, a bit of history. . .It's a well-kept secret, but Christmas wasn't always popular in Hawai'i, or even on the mainland. Although we think of Christmas as a holiday dating from the birth of Christ, it has been celebrated in America only for the past one hundred years. The Puritans came to New England in order to escape the pomp and display of holidays such as Christmas. In the early colonies, great efforts were made to keep the celebration of Christ's birthday plain and simple. No gifts, no trees, no feasts. The Congregational missionaries who arrived in Hawai'i in the 1820's and 1830's agreed on the long boat ride coming over that they would continue to maintain this simple religious approach. The Reverend Lorenzo Lyons, who founded Imiola Church, kept this emphasis on celebrating the birth of Christ in a religious manner, and that is how it remained up until the late nineteenth century.
It's hard to keep from celebrating a good thing, however, and as early as the 1860's, Honolulu had accepted some of the popular forms of the holiday as we know it today. Hawaiian royalty embraced Christmas as practiced by the Church of England which had established a mission in Hawai'i in 1862. In that year, King Kamehameha IV sent his subjects up into the mountains to gather cypress boughs and flowers to decorate his chapel for a Christmas Eve service. His own personal silver candelabras were brought in to fill the chapel with light, and Archdeacon Mason wrote that he had never seen in England a church so beautifully decorated. The midnight service was followed by a torch light parade through the streets of Honolulu with the marchers singing Christmas carols. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic ministry, which had arrived in 1827, was also celebrating Christmas in their cathedral with beautifully decorated altars and midnight masses. Private homes, including Washington Place, displayed Christmas trees, and Punahou School even had one of koa.
It was impossible not to be influenced by the increasing observance of Christmas, and gradually, the Honolulu-based missionaries became more accepting of the festivities, attending open-houses and parties, putting up Christmas trees, and allowing their children to exchange presents. By the 1890's, Christmas had become an official holiday of the kingdom.
Rural and isolated, Waimea did not respond immediately to the new customs of Christmas, although travelers to Hilo at the turn of the century must have noticed the bakeries and stores filled with candies and presents for the holidays. By the 1920's, old-timers can remember the celebration of Christmas when a manger was set up in Imiola Church. By that time, a small Episcopalian church had also been established, and a bishop from Saint Augustine's Church in Kohala made the long trip on horseback for a monthly service. With its ties to England, this church undoubtedly placed an emphasis on the celebration of Christmas.
Parker Ranch took the initiative in making a Christmas celebration that was truly a community activity, one that is still fondly remembered by those who grew up in the pre-war days. Two or three days before the Christmas holiday, the Ranch would throw a party for the entire town. Everyone was invited, and everyone was given a present. The party was held at Barbara Hall -- now the main hall at Parker School. Preparations went on for weeks ahead of time with Ranch employees bringing in a huge tree from the mountains and volunteers decorating the hall, baking food and wrapping gifts. Sometimes the tree was so huge that the front wall of the hall had to be removed and the top branches had to be cropped. Lights were also added before the serious decorating began, and since there was no electricity, a generator was setup, requiring the skills of the Ranch engineer and his crew. Meanwhile, wives of the employees hung thick, red Christmas berry wreathes on the windows, and covered the railings and balconies of the hall with green pine branches.
Above: Parker Ranch Christmas Party Preparations
Great efforts were made to insure that no one was forgotten in the community. Lists were drawn up of the families and all of the children, even the infants. Teachers from the school doubled-checked the lists, and toys and presents appropriate to each age group were ordered months before Christmas. All of the children received brown paper bags filled with oranges, apples, hard candy, raisins and walnuts gathered from the orchards at Waiki'i. New school supplies -- composition books, pencils and pens -- from the Ranch store were also carefully wrapped for the school-age children and placed under the tree. The adults were not forgotten, and gifts were wrapped for them as well.
Those who attended these early Ranch parties as children will never forget their excitement in the weeks preceding the event. For many, this night was Christmas! They dressed in their best clothes -- some even had new shoes for the occasion -- and waited anxiously until evening came. Then families gathered and walked to Barbara Hall, for there were no cars in Waimea. Fathers carried large flashlights to light the way, and you could see neighbors making their way down the streets to town. Many families walked two or three miles in the cold, and sometimes wet, night. Parker Ranch Christmas Party Preparations
When everyone had arrived and was seated on benches -- the same ones which still grace the front lanai of Parker School-- the switch would be thrown and the huge tree was bathed in light. Underneath the tree would be the gifts, piled high. After the singing of carols and other formalities of the evening, "JingleBells" would then be sung -- a sign that Santa was near. The young children were so excited by then that they could barely control themselves, and Santa himself would appear from the back of Barbara Hall. Gifts would be distributed, and then a special treat -- ice cream -- would be served in trays that held twenty-five cones at a time. With no refrigeration, Waive children could not pop open a freezer door whenever they had a yearning for a scoop of vanilla or chocolate, and the taste of cold ice cream was a Christmas memory they carried with them throughout the year.
The program ended by 9:30 p.m., and everyone headed home with their gifts. Some spent the evening going house to house serenading and singing Christmas carols. They would arrive on families' porches and sing until they were given refreshments, small treats, or a small donation. Many of the serenaders played ukulele or guitar and sung with great beauty. Their music filled the night and added to the joyful memories of the Christmas party.
In 1941, the war began and the Christmas parties stopped. It seemed inappropriate to have such festivities while Hawai'i was involved in the war effort, and with the black out, it would also have been difficult to have the tree and its lights. Some families continued to observe the holiday in a quiet way, and the churches maintained their religious observances. At Camp Tarawa, Christmas was celebrated, but few of the soldiers were fortunate enough to join local families during the holidays. A number of Waimea families had become acquainted with soldiers and invited them for dinner or a luau during the holiday season. Tsugi Kaiama was then running "Sue's Chuckwagon," a hamburger-style restaurant where Parker Ranch Realty now stands. With her family, she befriended members of the Fourth Battalion Medical Corps, many of whom used to play cribbage in the back of the restaurant, and invited them for a family luau.
After the war, Waimea once again began to celebrate its community Christmas. Parker Ranch continued to take the lead in hosting the party, first at Barbara Hall which had been used as the USO during the war, and then at Pu'uopelu, the Parker family home. Richard Smart, who had returned to Waimea after the war years, was especially fond of this celebration and always became involved in the preparations. Hisao Kimura, who was by then in charge of setting up and decoration of the huge Christmas tree with his "Purple Heart Gang," remembers how Mr. Smart would come by pau hana every day to check on their work and offer words of encouragement and advice. He always wanted to participate in the choice of colors of the lights which changed each year, and reviewed the daily progress that had been made on the extra limbs that were carefully nailed and wired to the trunk of the huge tree, making it appear twice as thick and wide as it originally was. After checking the main hall, Mr. Smart also visited the warehouse where the three hundred or more packages were being wrapped in distinctive, colorful paper by volunteers. By then, gifts had been brought in from as far as San Francisco -- especially the See's Candy which arrived at the Kamuela Airport -- and Honolulu, where hats, shirts and boots were purchased from McInerney's or Ross Sutherland's. For the Ranch families, turkeys and hams were also ordered.
In 1960, the development of electricity made possible another Parker Ranch sponsored activity --the home lighting contest -- which was judged on Christmas Eve. Homes, as well as commercial establishments, were awarded prizes for their lighted exterior displays. During the same year, Waimea began what is now a popular tradition -- the annual Christmas parade.
On December 20, 1963, the town celebrated its first community-sponsored Christmas party at the Thelma Parker Gym. After the parade, a standing room only crowd enjoyed entertainment and the traditional arrival of Santa Claus. Waimea was evolving -- population growth, new businesses and a new community association meant that the Ranch could focus its holiday efforts on its own employees. In the following year, the renovated Kahilu Hall reopened. This was commemorated by a New Year's Eve dance open to all members of Waimea, Kawaihae and Puako.
The town has changed, becoming larger and more diversified. Now, most of us go our own ways during the holidays, and only the annual Christmas parade remains as a community event to bring us all together. But when you see the tree lights on a few days before Christmas, you can almost sense the way it was when Waimea was a small town and Christmas meant that everyone came together for one night while the kids ate ice cream, carols were sung, the tree was admired, and families went home in the cool, crisp night to the sounds of music being sung from door to door.
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