Prior to celebrating Christmas as we know it today, Hawaiians had their own celebration that coincided with the traditional Christmas timeline, it was known as Makahiki. Makahiki historically lasted from the months of October to February. It was a time when all wars among the Hawaiian people were strictly forbidden and it ushered in an essence of “peace and goodwill towards men”. Makahiki was a time to recover and strengthen emotionally, mentally and physically. Makahiki is still celebrated today with games, food and festivities with provisions for various charities as a central piece.
The first documented Christmas in Hawaii was in 1786 when George Dixon, Captain of the Queen Charlotte merchant ship, celebrated with a large Christmas dinner for him and his crew. Moving forward, Christmas celebrations in Hawaii varied due to the ever-expanding lineage of missionaries and evangelists who would come to the islands bringing with them their own versions of holiday traditions. On December 25, 1856, King Kamehameha IV declared Christmas a national holiday. The first Christmas tree stood in Hawaii in 1858 on the royal grounds. Christmas finally became an official holiday in Hawaii in 1862.
Today, Hawaiians celebrate Christmas in many different ways, we’ve talked with some locals to discover a few of their favorite ways the islands celebrate this special holiday season.
The people of Hawaii have their own version of Santa Claus, Kanakaloka. He arrives for Christmas in a bright red outrigger canoe wearing a Hawaiian shirt, bright red shorts and rockin’ that long white beard.
Hawaiian Christmas Trees
When you’re far away from the white snow and close to the white sand you have to adapt to a different style of Christmas tree. Instead of the traditional decked-out Evergreen Conifers, you will find decorated Norfolk Pines all over the islands. These are customarily decorated with beautiful, fresh flowers but you will also see them with traditional Christmas ornaments and bulbs. Decorated Palm trees are also an acceptable alternative to mainland Evergreens.
You will still find the usual Christmas carols being sung throughout the islands of aloha; however, they carry a bit of a different tune. Typically being sung to a ukulele or guitar along with some Hawaiian words and maybe even a hula.
Hawaiian Christmas Dinner
Christmas dinner is a staple for every home this time of year, but in Hawaii, it looks slightly different. In place of the traditional Christmas ham or turkey, Hawaiians have a feast fit for the islands. A typical Christmas on the islands will have Kalua pig as the main dish and sides such as sticky rice, chicken long rice, sashimi and squid luau. Customary desserts include Poi (a Samoan dessert made from overripe bananas and coconut milk) and Halo-halo (a Filipino dessert that is served cold and made with shaved ice, evaporated milk, syrup and a variety of fruits).
Christmas Lights at Honolulu Hale
Arguably one of the best holiday displays in Hawaii, Honolulu City Lights at Honolulu Hale is a month-long display of Christmas lights and decorations. This annual exhibition includes a large outdoor adorned Yuletide tree, a 21-foot tall Shaka Santa and Mrs. Clause, an indoor tree display and a corridor of wreaths. The trees feature Hawaiian style and made ornaments that are available to purchase in smaller sizes for you to take home.
The heart of Christmas remains the same regardless of if you are celebrating on the mainland or on the islands. The holiday season traditions adapt to their surroundings to produce experiences unique to each location. No matter where you are this holiday season, we wish you a Mele Kalikimaka (or as we mainlanders say “Merry Christmas)! If you need help pronouncing Mele Kalikimaka check out Bing Crosby’s famous Christmas song of the same title.