Christmas Traditions of Hawaii

Christmas Traditions of Hawaii
Guest post by Leilani Tao

It may be difficult to imagine Christmas without the blanket of snow on the ground and the ugly sweaters. Here in Hawaii, we celebrate nevertheless. Although we don’t build snowmen or roast chestnuts in the fireplace, we have many of the same traditions and, certainly, just as much holiday spirit!


The first Christmas in Hawaii was celebrated in 1786 when Captain George Dixon and his crew of the merchant ship Queen Charlotte were docked in Waimea Bay on Kauai. They put together a Christmas feast that included a whole roast pig, Hawaiian-style, plus some coconut-based dishes. Christmas officially arrived in Hawaii with Protestant missionaries from New England, at some time after 1820. 1858 saw Santa Claus arrive in Hawaii for the first time at Washington Place, which is now the governor’s residence, where he presented gifts to children.

Before Christmas, the native Hawaiians had a festival called Makahiki to honor the god Lono and celebrate the land’s bounty. Makahiki lasted four months, usually from mid-fall to the end of winter, and war and fighting were forbidden during this time. It was a time of peace and plenty.

Today’s Christmas Spirit
The day after Thanksgiving basically begins the Christmas holiday. Cue the Christmas music! Although a few songs don’t quite capture the Christmas we experience—like “Let It Snow!” or “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”—we have some Hawaii-themed songs. Some are original and some are oldies given a Hawaiian spin, but they’ll all throw in some Hawaiian jam to your holiday playlist.

We decorate much the same as on the mainland, stringing up lights and hanging wreaths, though we may add a bit of our own style. Christmas lights spiral up palm trees. Wreaths may have tropical flowers in the mix, like flamingo or hibiscus flowers. Poinsettias grow very well in Hawaii and are arranged among the decorative shrubs and potted plants in malls for a dash of red.


The most notable decorations go up at Honolulu Hale, Honolulu’s city hall, where Santa and Mrs. Claus take their annual seats on the fountain in front of the building. They come dressed for the occasion. With his coat front opened and pants rolled up, Shaka Santa (so named for the shaka, or “hang loose” hand sign, he displays) is cheerful and laidback.

Mrs. Claus, known to us as Tutu Mele, wears a muumuu (a Hawaiian dress), a kukui nut lei, and a hibiscus flower tucked into her bun. Various other holiday figures populate the field beside Honolulu Hale, including Rudolph, a family of snowmen, and elves.

Honolulu City Lights
Those large holiday exhibits are part of Honolulu City Lights, the annual month-long Christmas display and festival run by the nonprofit Friends of Honolulu City Lights. Their opening night features the Public Workers’ Electric Light Parade, a parade of school marching bands and city work vehicles decked out in festive lights, as well as a holiday concert and a wreath exhibit.

The centerpiece is the lighting ceremony of the 55-foot tree and the lights display along the downtown buildings aptly named the Corridor of Lights. If you’d like to support Honolulu City Lights, purchase this year’s ornaments. Be sure to check out their other free events as well.

Santa Claus Comes to Hawaii, Too
Shaka Santa isn’t the only Santa we see here. Even Santa Claus wants to make the trip from the North Pole to our island paradise. The Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort hosts Santa’s arrival by outrigger canoe, and afterward he takes pictures with other beachgoers. You’ll find Santa at most malls, as well, happy to listen to your children’s Christmas lists and pose for pictures. Understandably, he often forgoes his usual red suit for an aloha shirt and board shorts.

Christmas Trees
Of course, we also put up and decorate Christmas trees! Most Christmas trees are imported from the mainland; however, they come with the risk of infestation, which can be extremely harmful to Hawaii’s native species. Helemano Farms on Oahu grows a variety of evergreen trees, the most well-known being the Norfolk pine. Half the fun of buying a Christmas tree is picking one out, and it’s so much more memorable when you can walk down rows and rows of live trees. Shop locally, and bring home a beautiful tree that will last longer than an imported one.

Christmas Cuisine
The classic Christmas main dish is usually a ham or turkey, which holds true in Hawaii. However, we enjoy fresh seafood and a number of ‘ono local dishes too, like kalua pork, lomi lomi salmon, ahi poke, haupia, and poi. Some people even have a Christmas luau, which involves roasting a whole pig in an imu, an underground oven.

Celebrating Christmas Day in Hawaii
On the day of, people have their own observances. Many go to church for Christmas services. Others have secular customs that take them to the beach for swimming, surfing, beachside grill sessions or picnics.

Most importantly, Christmas is a time for family. Presents under the tree and the feast get everyone together for the special day, but, if you’re looking for ways to spend more time with family, you’re in luck! Lots of fun, family-friendly holiday events are happening throughout December, from ice-skating to holiday parades.


The Hawaiian transliteration of “Merry Christmas” is “Mele Kalikimaka.” Here’s to a very merry Christmas—and Mele Kalikimaka!


Leilani is a Hawaii native, blogger, and avid surfer. The ocean is her happy place and she tries to get in the water as often as possible. Having been born and raised on the Big Island, she feels very lucky to be part of a company that is so closely connected to the Island’s history and culture.

Photo #1: Shutterstock by license to Leilani Tao
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