Mele Kalikimaka

When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, Christmas was always depicted with Santa on a surfboard. I mean, what would you expect, living on a tropical island? Doesn’t make sense for him to come down a chimney, riding a sleigh pulled by reindeer, does it? Christmas in Hawaii is definitely a unique experience, with its own flavor and culture unlike anything on the Mainland. And as a kid, I never wondered how Santa was able to deliver our toys on a surfboard—I only cared that I got them.

Christmas was introduced to the Hawaiians back in the early 1800s when Protestant missionaries first came to the islands. Prior to this the Hawaiian religion celebrated Makahiki, which was a time of thanksgiving, and all warfare was forbidden while communal bonds were renewed. Eventually King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma of Hawaii declared Christmas an official holiday in 1862.


Mele Kalikimaka means “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian (roughly translated). It’s not as difficult to pronounce as it looks, BTW—just say “Meh-leh Kah-li-ki-mah-kah” and flash the “shaka” sign and grin! There are 2 songs that say Mele Kalikimaka that I know of; the original is by Bing Crosby from the 1940s and the other one is a more updated version by the Beach Boys. Maybe you’ve heard these before?


What’s for dinner at Christmas? My guess is that most of America has ham or turkey during the holidays, or maybe roast beef. Being Japanese-American, someone would always bring sushi because that’s what you eat on special occasions. But there would be Kalua Pig too, just because— who doesn’t like roast pork, Hawaiian style? If you go to any luau in Hawaii, you’ll be able to see how they roast a whole pig and bury it an underground oven called an imu. As a tourist attraction it’s pretty spectacular to see the entire pig being hoisted out of the ground, but luckily by the time it hits your plate it basically looks like shredded pork. My wife’s family, from her Hawaiian side in Maui, really did have a pit in their backyard where they did this every year.

Poinsettias, which start blooming all over the place in pots during Christmas, are indigenous to Mexico and Central America. But they grow wild in Hawaii, where you can see them changing colors to their brilliant red on the hillsides. The tropical latitude makes for ideal conditions for Poinsettias, which can grow up to 12ft. and can be spotted everywhere, in backyards and along local roads. As winter comes in Hawaii, the shorter days cause the Pointsettia leaves to turn Ferrari Red, and everyone knows Christmas is coming. Be honest, when you see Pointsettias in pots it’s no big deal, but if you saw them like this, wow!

Let’s get back to Santa on a surfboard. Only in Hawaii can you get an ethnic looking Santa for a picture, right? Here’s my son at 19 months old, when we took a Santa picture at a mall in Honolulu. We’ve taken pictures every year since my kids were born, and we still make them take Santa pictures even today. My son is now in college and 20 years old, but he’s a good sport about it. This is my favorite though—with the local Santa who just got back from the beach.

Happy Holidays!

 

Photo credits: Ornament by Dave Dugdale Blocks by Daniel Ramirez Imu by DuffelBlog Kalua Pork by Daniel Lane

 

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About Bert Tanimoto

Oldish father of two youngish kids. Zojirushi enthusiast and professional writer. California resident with roots in Hawaii and Japan. Classic rock, popcorn movies, audio books, spam, sushi and cone filtered coffee. Guilty pleasures include donuts and pop bands like ABBA and Wham!.

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