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The Hawaiian Christmas Story

When traditional Christmas settings are mentioned, Hawaii might be the last place to come to mind. In the Aloha State, you won’t find thick blankets of snow (that is, unless you head to lofty summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island) and you won’t experience Popsicle-like temperatures.

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? In Hawaii, there aren’t many homes with fireplaces.

Can Christmas really be Christmas in Hawaii? Yes, it can. Hawaii residents begin putting up their holiday lights and Christmas trees as soon as the last piece of Thanksgiving turkey is gobbled. There are joyous Christmas concerts, community parades and dazzling displays throughout the state.

Christmas wasn’t formally introduced to Hawaii until after 1820, the year Protestant missionaries came to Hawaii from New England. In ancient times, however, the holiday coincided with a traditional Hawaiian festival called Makahiki. This celebration lasted for four months and included great feasts and games. During this time, wars and conflicts were strictly forbidden. As far as the early Hawaiians were concerned, the Makahiki was their time for "peace on earth and goodwill toward men."

The first Christmas celebration in Hawaii is believed to have occurred in 1786, when Captain George Dixon, docked aboard the Queen Charlotte in Waimea Bay on Kauai, commanded his crew to prepare a Christmas dinner that included roasted pig, pie and grog mixed with coconut milk. The English navigator then led his men in toasts to their families and friends back home.

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.

Today, there’s no bigger Christmas celebration than "Honolulu City Lights," a favorite holiday spectacle put on by the City & County of Honolulu. Held at Honolulu Hale (City Hall), "Honolulu City Lights" features a 50-foot Norfolk pine Christmas tree, elaborate Christmas tree and wreath exhibits, giant Yuletide displays and live entertainment. Whether you’re young or young at heart, there’s no better place to catch the Christmas spirit in the islands.
 

The early missionaries reduced the Hawaiian language to written form, enabling the Hawaiian people to read and write in their own language. Many words for which there were no clear Hawaiian language equivalents were translated phonetically.

Let's look at some key phrases that you may hear in Hawaii during the Christmas and New Year's Day holiday season.

Mele Kalikimaka - Merry Christmas. The words "Mele Kalikimaka" are a phonetic translation. When the missionaries and other Westerners first brought the custom of Christmas to the islands the Hawaiians had difficulty pronouncing Merry Christmas and turned it into words that rolled more easily off their tongues.

Hau'oli Makahiki Hou - Happy New Year. The western Christmas and New Year fell during this same time of the year that the Hawaiians traditionally honored the earth for giving them plenty to eat. This period of resting and feasting was called Makahiki (mah-kah-HEE- kee). It lasted for 4 months, and no wars or conflicts were allowed during this time. Because makahiki also means "year", the Hawaiian phrase for "Happy New Year" became "Hau'oli (happy) Makahiki (year) Hou (new)"(how-OH-lee mah-kah-hee-kee ho).

Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou - Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Mahalo Nui Loa - Thank you very much. When you receive a nice gift or are treated to a special meal or beautiful song, you'll want to express your appreciation for the kindness.

Here are a few individual words that you may also see in Hawaii during the Christmas season:

Angel - Anela
Candy - Kanake
Christmas Eve - Ahiahi Kalikimaka
Christmas Tree - La’au Kalikimaka
Elf - Menehune
Garland - Lei
Gift - Makana
God - Akua
Holly - Kawa’u
Jesus Christ- Iesu Kristo
Joy, Happy - Hau’oli
Love - Aloha
Mistletoe - Kaumahana
Ornament - Wehi
Peace - Malu
Reindeer - Leinekia
Santa Claus - Kanakaloka
Snow - Hau Kea
Snowball - Popohau
Snowflake - Hau puehuehu
Star - Hoku
Wreath - Lei

Mele Kalikimaka! Merry Christmas!