CHRISTMAS IN HAWAI’I – A Hawaiian’s Canadian Wife’s Perspective

Most people are familiar with the famous song, Mele Kalikimaka written by Hawai’i composer Robert Alexander Anderson in 1949 and popularized by Bing Crosby in 1950.

This song really encapsulates the feeling most of us get when we think about a tropical vacation during the harshest part of northern winters!  That steel guitar and palm trees swaying?  Right?  Many of us living here are transplants from colder climates and have this heart-in-two places feeling when it comes to the holidays.  Green and bright is not something we typically associate with Christmas time!  We miss our traditions at home with our families, and that wonderful insulating feeling that only a good dump of snow near Christmas can provide. Therefore, we’ve had to create new traditions and learn what Christmas means in the tropics.

Prior to colonization, Hawaiians had their own celebration at this time of year. It was called Makahiki and it ran for four months based on the lunar calendar that the Hawaiians followed very closely for planting cycles, gathering etc. The rising of Makaliʻi (the constellation Pleiades) at sunset marks the beginning of the Hawaiian new year, known as Makahiki. Makahiki typically begins mid-November and ends in late January or February, aligning with the rainy season. It was a time where all war was forbidden, a time of peace for the native peoples here, not unlike the Christian holiday today. The locals maintain these traditions with Makahiki celebrations on Moloka’i and elsewhere around the islands, with ancient games (the Hawai’i Olympics!) and fun, see more here:  “Each year, we celebrate Makahiki season by taking an accounting of all the blessings we enjoyed for the year, celebrate our success and prosperity and petition for the needs of the people and island for the upcoming year. Over time, the way we have celebrated has changed but the core reasons for prayer, thanksgiving and celebration has remained the same. Traditional Makahiki festivities continued uninterrupted until 1919. In 1982, Molokai residents felt the need to revive these traditions in the community and reestablished the festival with games, food, music. Happening almost simultaneously, Molokaians were also involved in trying to stop the bombing of Kahoʻolawe by US military forces and their allies, and reestablishing Makahiki ceremonies on Kahoʻolawe eventually led to the bombing halt. Through the years, Molokai has hosted canoe races, diving tournaments, surf meets, and of course, the school wide competitions to determine the best athletes across the island. We eventually opened it up to competitors from off island and the event has grown in prominence and esteem to make it the ultimate tournament of champions in Hawaiʻi.” 

Of course with the arrival of the missionaries to Hawai’i, Christian traditions then replaced ancient ones:

“The first recorded Christmas in Hawaii was in 1786, when the captain of merchant ship the Queen Charlotte, George Dixon, was docked on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Dixon and his crew celebrated a large Christmas dinner that included a whole roast pig.” – Wikipedia

Thankfully many old traditions have been re-integrated into the culture. These days, it’s a wonderful blend of old and new.

I moved to Maui permanently in 2009, so for me the traditions changing started with Hāna where I lived for 10 years before relocating to Wailuku. My husband comes from an enormous family so it was a busy time of year. Christmas day we would join in a huge potluck brunch with the paternal side of his ‘ohana (you don’t really know the meaning of a lot of food until you marry into a Hawaiian family!) and play games, the most popular being Bingo with LOTS of awesome prizes. We’d do this under the pavilion at Kapueokahi (Hāna Bay) while the kids played on the beach. At night, we’d go caroling through the subdivision with the maternal side of his family, making sure to stop in to sing to the guests at the one and only Hotel in Hāna. Most of the neighbors would run out with gifts for us as we passed, usually of the yummy variety!   When you have a musical family, music is the most special makana (gift) you can give.  We carry on that tradition now that we’ve moved, and my husband sings Christmas songs for our new neighbors each year.

Some holiday beauty to enjoy if you’re here with us over the holidays might be to visit the hotel strips. The hotels in Wailea and Ka’anapali have stunning holiday displays in their lobbies this time of year. The Grand Wailea is a favorite, as they light up the courtyard at the front of the property.  I like to go there with a friend and have a fruity cocktail at one of the lounges on property to kick off the season. Maybe a beach stroll after or a hotel hop to check out the others with notable lobby decorations!   Be sure to see if the Wailea hotels will be putting on a New Years Eve fireworks display while you’re here. There are boat trips you can take as well, so you can celebrate from the water. Like this one: or this one:

Lastly giving back just feels good, so I encourage you to make a donation to the Maui Food Bank while you’re here or maybe assist in a beach clean up with the Maui Surfrider Foundation Feeding the hungry may be how you like to help, a couple options here: or

We have many animal charities too that need help and depend solely on donations, like the Boo Boo Zoo.  Maui Humane Society is another that can always use a little extra help.

And so I shall leave you with this, Mele Kalikimaka Me Ka Hau’oli Makahiki Hou from all of us at Maui Vision/Kauai Vision Rentals!

Tanya Helekahi

Tanya is a member of the Maui Vision/Kauai Vision Team, feel free to ask her questions at [email protected]