silent storytelling

As the prelude begins, we walk, barefoot, to the front of the church and assume the resting stance. A brief pause, and then we begin dancing. Although I had only practiced once a few days before, the muscle memory takes over and the motions become fluid and delicate, mirroring the other dancers. We wear matching red and white mu’umu’us, floral hairpieces, and star-shaped cowrie shell chokers, celebrating the specialness of the occasion about which our hands tell the story. I wasn’t even in high school the first time I joined this ensemble, candles flickering, strong voices intoning memorized lyrics, and the smell of pine mixed with a bit of must. A rich tradition: the Silent Night Hula.

Since college graduation, my participation in this tradition has dwindled, limited by the time and expense of flying across the ocean to spend Christmas with family.

This year, however, we needed to hold family close, being reminded more than ever of the temporal nature of our earthly existence, so we quarantined, masked, tested, and flew. This year, we marked x’s on the dance area, 6 feet apart. This year, we added liturgical facemasks to our traditional outfit. This year, small family clusters in cloth masks donned face shields and held battery-operated candles. But they sang, and we danced.

I wanted to cry at the beauty and sadness swirling through the sanctuary, but I couldn’t. So many tears have been shed already, so I just kept dancing to the muffled voices.

Hula is storytelling. Ancient dances share history and ancestral knowledge (read more here), and especially before the unification and transcribing of Hawai’ian language, hula carried the stories through generations. Although hula is typically paired with a chant or song, the movements convey special importance beyond being simply an illustration.

Silent storytelling. Muffled voices. Silent Night.

And here’s where I realized the gift of the hula especially for times like these: when almost everything is taken away we can still tell the story of the holy infant so tender and mild. Of the dawn of redeeming grace.

Jesus, Lord at thy birth.

My home church on Christmas Eve

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