It was Kalikimaka Eve on the north shore of Kauai, which looked like most winter days do—sunny, mid-70s, the air sparkling clean after two days of on-again, off-again showers. My partner Dick and I had been on the island for eight days, glad to escape our busy mainland lives, happy to spend Christmas in a place we love.
Since we arrived on the north shore, we’d planned to go to the little green church in Hanalei for a 5:30 p.m. Christmas Eve service. Nobody sings hymns in Hawaiian like the people in that church. We go every time we’re on Kauai, getting up (for us) early for the 10 a.m. service on Sunday because where else are you going to meet a kahu (reverend) named Alpha Goto who shows up in a lovely aloha shirt and is likely to deliver his sermon barefoot?
This church (the fifth incarnation of it on this spot) was one of the original Christian churches founded by missionaries who traveled nearly 6,000 miles from their homes on the east coast of the United States in the early 1800s. According to the church website, William and Mary Alexander arrived in 1834 and erected a pole and thatch meeting house next to where the current church stands. Depending on whom you talk to, the missionaries delivered a mixture of good (Jesus, for one thing, and a written Hawaiian language that led to one of the most literate populations in the world) and bad (discouraging the hula as well as insisting that unmarried people shouldn’t have sex ) to the Hawaiians.
I’m mostly a cultural Christian myself, having grown up in a nominally Protestant family, one that rarely went to church because a., my parents said they couldn’t find a minister they wanted to haul out of bed and listen to on any given Sunday, and b., my father claimed he could pray just fine mowing the lawn. My sister and I showed up at church on Girl Scout Sundays when our troop went and, on occasion, when we traveled to Southern California to visit our Auntie Lo, who was a faithful attendee and often organist/pianist for her nondenominational community church.
I figure that our parents, who certainly exemplified most Christian principles but didn’t label them as such, did us a favor by not having religious restrictions and dogma to overcome later in life. Though I was baptized as a baby in Auntie Lo’s church, I grew up without church or a church family, which seemed fine to me.
But Dick was raised in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which merged with the Methodists in the 1960s, and his parents were religious churchgoers and believers. Dick’s mother played the organ and piano; his father sang in the choir. They both gave time and money and love to their church, which Dick still attends and contributes to, in no small way to honor his parents.
And it was Dick who 20 years ago brought me to Hawaii, which is his second home in many ways. The place resonates deeply with me, not the least the little Kauai hamlet of Hanalei. The first time Dick drove me over the one-lane bridge, past the taro fields that lead to the little town, something in me settled in my chest in a way I’ve seldom felt. When I try to describe it (as I’ve often done in the past two decades), all I can say is that it felt like coming home. It still does, every time. And, just before you leave the town to head to the end of the road on the north shore, you pass the little green Hau’oli Hui’ia Church. I’ve loved this little church ever since I first stepped inside. The Mission House behind the church, which was restored in the 1920s by descendants of missionaries, offers one of the nicest tours in all Hawaii, the story of the people who lived there lovingly and kindly told.
So this Christmas Eve Dick and I arrived at the little green church 40 minutes early, thinking the place would be packed to the rafters. We got in line behind about 20 other early folks. I saw an older man in a Mele Kalikimaka aloha shirt standing a bit behind the line, and I wasn’t sure if we should stand behind him.
I smiled and said, “Excuse me, are you in line?”
He glared at me, “Of course, I’m in line.”
Surprised by his tone, I tried to keep mine light. “Thank you,” I said, and he turned his back. Maybe he’s having a tough day, I decided. Maybe he’s not feeling well.
As he walked in the vestibule ahead of us, a man who was handing out programs and candles said to the Kalikimaka Man in front of us, “Where’s your wife?”
He shot back, “She’s dancing,” waving up at the altar with one hand and collecting his program and candle with the other.
He’s local, I figured, and probably annoyed with the tourists clogging up his church. Not without good reason. Because not long after we settled near the back of the church, the place started filling up, and by 5, they’d dragged out folding chairs and put them at the ends of the pews. At the end of ours, a family of at least eight people settled in, some of them in the pew in front of us, the teenagers in the folding chairs. A nice young lady with long, dark hair, a short skirt and legs up to her neck sat beside me. She reminded me of Dick’s niece, Rebecca, who had lived with me for a while when she was in college.
“Hi,” I said, grinning at her.
She met my eyes and “hi’d” me right back.
Before the service Kahu Goto announced that everyone should have a program because the words to all the hymns were in there—in English and Hawaiian. “We want to teach you some Hawaiian,” he said. And, he added, everyone should have a small candle and holder.
I looked up at the rafters of the old wooden church. It wouldn’t take much to set it aflame. The kahu, of course, knew this and said he’d light the first candle from one of the large ones on the altar, then pass the light to someone who would pass it to another and so on around the whole church. He cautioned us all to be careful in passing the flame from person to person, which struck me as good spiritual advice, too.
“We’ll have some gentle movements we want you to follow with the candles as we sing,” he said. “Do them gently and mirror us—don’t think you should move to the left because we are up here. Just follow what you see.”
The choir, which typically sits in the front pews and strums ukuleles on Sundays, was up on the altar, the ladies in white dresses and the men in white aloha shirts. The Wahine Hula group wore green and red leis with their white dresses. One of the ladies had bright white hair and wore a white, high-necked, missionary-style dress. She had kind eyes, and I hoped that she might be the wife of the Kalikimaka Man.
The kahu got the service rolling, and a woman standing next to the grand piano sang a nice version of “Mary, Do You Know?” From then on the pattern went: Bible reading, hymn in English and then in Hawaiian, then a reflection by someone in the congregation, then a time of silent prayer. The Wahine Hula ladies danced simply and beautifully during the offering to “Mele Kalikimaka Huihui.” The hymns were classics: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger.”
With all those people in the house, the voices swelled up to those old rafters and cascaded down us like the warm, friendly rain that had begun falling outside. Next to me, I heard the sweet voice of the long-legged girl and the young man next to her, whose warm bass resonated in my chest. I smiled as I listened to them.
Near the end we got to “Silent Night,” the first three verses in English, the last one in Hawaiian. I had pulled out a tissue before the service started because, I swear, all my dead loved ones show up for that song—my Irish Catholic grandpa and his Christian Scientist wife, my grandma; the Lutheran grandparents (who worried that I’d convert when I married a lapsed Catholic); Auntie Lo, who played piano and organ by ear, even after she collapsed near the end of her life and returned much diminished but could still play music she’d known for a half century; the Jewish uncle who was really my father’s best friend from their Army days, who took my sister and me to our first “real” deli for pastrami and dill pickles; Julie, my fairy godmother when I was a young journalist still in need of mothering, whose voice is still loud in my head; my father, who died in 2004 and whose voice I don’t often hear but I sense that he’s around; and, of course, Clifford, the lapsed Catholic who loved me with a quiet devotion to the very end. I could hardly sing for the tears because at times like this I feel surrounded by the spirits of so many I knew and so many I didn’t—all our angels and Dick’s companion spirits have joined us by then, too.
I just stood there in that darkened church with probably 300 people, each holding a candle, and let the tears flow—there’s no stopping them then, especially during the Hawaiian verse:
Po— la ‘i e, Po— kama-ha’ o,
K ma-kua — hi’ne a-lo-ha e,
Me ke kei-ki, He-mo-lele e.
Moe me ka mu—luhia la-ni,
Moe me ka mu—luhia la-ni
We huddled in the darkened old church, stranger next to strange — “friends waiting to happen,” as my friend Antsy McClain sings in one of his songs — and all seemed right with the world. Throughout the service I had offered prayers for people I know who are suffering, who are in physical and emotional pain right now, thinking of each of them, wishing them peace and ease. I prayed my most frequent and fervent prayer for peace, white healing light and safety for all beings everywhere. And it felt in that moment as if everyone in that small church sent similar wishes to the heavens, too.
When the service was over, as people were depositing their candles and programs in the vestibule and went out into the now darkened night where soft rain blessed every head, Dick moved toward the altar to take photos. I made my way across the church to the Kalikimaka Man. I smiled as I moved toward him, and he looked at me, clearly not sure why this strange woman was approaching him.
“I thought I heard you say as you came in that your wife was dancing tonight,” I told him.
His face softened. “Yes, she was.”
“It was beautiful,” I said. “The ladies did a wonderful job.”
His smile spread across his face like sunlight. “Thank you,” he said.
I smiled back and nodded as he moved toward the door. I turned toward the altar where the dancers were gathered, perhaps gearing up for the next service.
I hope his wife is the sweet-faced, white-haired lady in the high-collared dress, I thought. Or whoever she is, that he is proud of her and she of him. I hope that they are kind to one other. I hope they have a very Mele Kalikimaka.