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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 3, 2004

Re-creating Hawai'i's first Christmas tree

 •  Who Was Mary Dominis?
 •  A new view of Washington Place

By Paula Rath
Advertiser Staff Writer

Paper ornaments were the rage for Victorian tree trimmers.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Christmas, 1858, marked the unveiling of the first known Christmas tree in Hawai'i. It was decorated by Mary Dominis in the upstairs rooms of her home, Washington Place. She invited the children of Honolulu to bring their parents to see the tree. She hung gifts and fruits from the branches so that each child would have something to take home. She even provided a Santa Claus, who distributed gifts to the 100 keiki who were awed by the festivities.

Mary Dominis' Christmas tree was especially important because, in the early missionary days, Christmas was not celebrated. The strict Calvinist approach to Christianity did not allow for such frivolity.

Now, in observance of Christmas 2004, a group of enthusiastic volunteers for the Washington Place Foundation is recreating that first Christmas tree, as a creative lure to bring visitors to see the once-private second floor of Washington Place.

Now that a modern home for the governor has been built close by, the second floor is available for other uses, and there is sure to be interest in this formerly off-limits space — once the haunt of Mary Dominis, widow of adventurous ship captain John Dominis.

In the service of that interest, and the holiday spirit, a dozen or so creative, resourceful volunteers have been meeting in the evenings at the home of Mary Philpotts McGrath, president of the Washington Place Foundation, to handcraft ornaments inspired by the Victorian era.

"We are trying to interpret what we think Mary Dominis' tree might have looked like," said Corinne Chun Fujimoto, curator at Washington Place. Headed by Georg James and John Dinsmore, multidimensional custom and commission artists, the enthusiastic group crafted decorations reminiscent of the time.

Washington Place volunteers try to re-create Hawai'i's first Christmas tree.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

James said he pored through books and newspaper articles to determine how a Victorian Christmas tree might have been decorated. What materials were — and were not — available in 1858?

James and Dinsmore unearthed materials in the supermarket, craft shops and on the Internet. Sheets of images from a Canadian firm called Artchix provided images that were a rich resource for decoupage.

James said there were no glass ornaments until 1860, so those modern standbys could not be used.

Hunched over work tables, surrounded by stacks of gingerbread cookies, popcorn, cranberries, kukui nuts, papers and trims, the jolly group attacked with tape and glue guns at the ready. (No one said they had to adhere completely to Victorian materials, and a few modern assists were welcomed.)

Cookies were popular decorations in Victorian times. James discovered "a recipe for gingerbread cinnamon cookies that get brick-hard overnight." The volunteers decorated them with "scrap prints," decoupage papers made from German lithographs.

They crafted cornucopias of floral fabrics, trimming them with ribbons, lace and beads. Popcorn was strung with cranberries and, for an added Island touch, kukui nuts. The volunteers made little angels from dolls and placed miniature birds in bird cages.

They went through countless cans of gold spray paint, adding glitz to everything from walnuts to fishing tackle.

"Too much is not enough is our credo — just like the Victorians," James said. He threw his hands into the air, and it began to rain garlands.

Mary Philpotts McGrath, head of the Washington Place Foundation, looks over some of the finished Christmas tree ornaments.

• • •

Who Was Mary Dominis?

Mary Dominis was the wife of John Dominis, left, for whom the Kaka'ako seaside restaurant was named.

He was captain on a trading ship out of Boston who did a great deal of business in China.

In 1837, he settled in Honolulu. Having made what in those times was a fortune ($96,000), he built Washington Place, then referred to as "the grandest mansion in all Honolulu."

Dominis sailed to China to purchase furnishings for the home and was lost at sea. Until she died in 1889, his widow, Mary Dominis, waited and watched from the windows of Washington Place for her husband to return.

• • •

A new view of Washington Place

The Mary Dominis tree will be on the second floor of Washington Place. The public has not been allowed there for decades because it was where Hawai'i's governors and their families lived.

That domain is being made public for the first time this holiday season. Here's when you can go on a free (although donations will be welcomed) docent-guided tour of the second floor:

  • 5-9 p.m. today: In conjunction with First Friday Gallery Walk
  • 5-9 p.m. tomorrow: In conjunction with Honolulu City Lights
  • 1-5 p.m. Dec. 12: Also: Former first ladies Vicky Cayetano and Nancy Quinn will be signing the 2004 Washington Place Christmas ornament ($15), noon-2 p.m. Dec. 11, at Macy's, Ala Moana Center.