On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That's the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii's way
To say "Merry Christmas to you."
--R. Alex Anderson
Welcome to the Holidays in the Islands, an experience like no other you’ll have anywhere else in the World. People in Hawaii love their decorating for the season, as ornaments start showing up in stores before Halloween! Fresh Christmas trees imported from the mainland go on sale on Thanksgiving Day and if you don’t get yours by the first week of December you are usually out of luck.
Honolulu is a city that dresses up all the municipal vehicles; buses, garbage trucks, cranes and just about anything with wheels in the municipal fleet gets draped in thousands of lights for an electric lights parade through downtown. Local boaters vie for First Place Awards in several lighted Boat Parades and many ordinary folk dress up their personal cars, motorcycles and mopeds for the Holiday Season.
The traditional drive to see the decorations around town is an annual event for all to enjoy. Each year it draws hundreds of thousands of people to Honolulu Hale (City Hall) and the Civic Center grounds. On opening night alone, 75,000 guests join in to kick-off the holiday season to gaze in wonder at the spectacular show. Starting from the “City Lights” at Honolulu Hale and winding through the downtown area, the business buildings are decked with garlands, wreaths, trees, and hundreds of thousands of white lights. Keep driving into Waikiki and see how the dazzling display of decorations line Kalakaua Avenue. Every Hotel tries to outdo each other on their facades and in their lobbies with extravagant displays of trees, flowers and animated characters delighting resort guests and locals alike.
Neighbors try and outdo each other with opulent decorations of their own. Palm trees are frequently decorated for Christmas, especially in outdoor displays and neighborhood yards. They nicely complement displays of Santa riding an outrigger canoe rather than a sleigh, dolphins in place of reindeer, and elves laboring in aloha shirts. Santa doesn’t visit department stores here as much as he does on the Mainland. Instead, the "Ku'u Home" (Our Home) plantation house in the Honolulu Hale Courtyard serves as "Santa's House" when he's in residence listening to wishes of island children. Because this is a tropical Santa, he'll be in shorts, of course.
Shopping in Hawaii isn’t just limited to the Malls. Hawaiians love their Craft Shows and Christmas sees each weekend from Halloween on jam packed with events all over the Islands. Usually there are quite a few going on the same day, so crafty shoppers are known to caravan from place to place to get the best deals. From hand made pot holders in traditional Hawaiian Quilt patterns to ornate Koa Wood carved furniture, from delicate beaded bracelets to artisan blown glass…you can surely find something to please everyone on your gift list and never even step into a store!
Christmas has not always been here in the Islands. In 1820, Protestant missionaries came to Hawaii from New England and brought their Christmas tradition with them. In ancient times a traditional Hawaiian festival called Makahiki was celebrated at this time. During this time, wars and conflicts were strictly forbidden and the Hawaiian’s celebration lasted for four months. Tributes and taxes were paid by each district to the ruling chief, sporting competitions and contests between villages were organized. Storytelling, feasting, and dancing were held in honor of the god Lono.
Captain George Dixon, docked the Queen Charlotte in Waimea Bay on Kauai in 1786, and commanded his crew to prepare a Christmas dinner that included roasted pig, pie and grog mixed with coconut milk. This is thought by many historians to be the first official “Christmas in Hawaii”.
In 1856, Alexander Liholiho (King Kamehameha IV) declared December 25 to be his kingdom’s national day of Thanksgiving. Two years later, Santa Claus made his first appearance in Hawaii, arriving at Washington Place (now the governor’s residence) to deliver gifts for the children.
Fast forward to today: Christmas morning is typically spent at a religious service followed by a large gathering of family and friends. Just like anywhere else you say? Guess again; Christmas carols are sung in Hawaiian and accompanied by ukulele or guitar by choirs and bands while ohana (extended families) celebrate luaus and picnics on the beach or in their backyards. Those who head to the beaches wear Santa hats and leis to go with their shorts and bathing suits. Even Santa Claus is a barefoot big man wearing an Aloha shirt and full white beard, who arrives in Waikiki by outrigger canoe.
From Christmas Day to New Years work pretty much grinds to a halt here. If you want to make friends with municipal employees now is the time to bring them manapua (barbecued pork-filled steamed dumplings) during this week and your permits will be expedited in the coming year…And New Years is all about the food. Our melting pot of different cultures has brought together a variety of different foods and they are especially abundant during the Holidays. Celebration foods include smoky, roasted Hawaiian-style kalua pork, and lechon, the crispier Filipino version. From Japan we have Mochi. This steamed glutinous rice pounded to a smooth, chewy consistency, and shaped into small round cakes is traditionally served in ozoni (soup). Eaten for breakfast on New Year’s Day, Mochi symbolizes wishes for long life and prosperity in the New Year.
One food that has become everyone’s New Year tradition is sashimi, or raw fish, usually ahi or tuna, prized for its red color, a symbol of good luck. Everyone seeks out the freshest and best fish they can find, keeping local fishermen busy and prices sky high. Sliced and dipped in a little soy sauce mixed with wasabi (Japanese horseradish), sashimi is more prized than caviar for the New Year celebration.
New Years Eve in Hawaii brings out the fireworks displays bigger than the Fourth of July. People gather early in the morning on Magic Island to stake out their claim for space to watch the pyrotechnics put on by the City and County of Honolulu. Kaneohe Marine Corps Base also puts on a spectacular show. Firecrackers are a strong cultural tradition in Hawaii and newcomers should prepare themselves for some loud and explosive action. Permits to purchase fireworks are mandatory and Aerial fireworks are outlawed for private use. Neighbors string 10,000 firecrackers together, hang them over the branch of a tree, and set the whole thing on fire!
When the smoke clears, and you wade through early-morning, ankle-deep firecracker papers in the streets of Waikiki on New Year's Day on your way to the beach, you know you have just celebrated the Holidays “Hawaiian Style”.
Elizabeth “Biz” Kellam is a Realtor Associate with Century 21 All Professional in Honolulu, Hawaii.