by JoAnn Bassett, author of the Islands of Aloha mystery series.

Christmas is big in the islands. The beaches are loaded with visitors who’d rather surf than ski, and the local people go full-tilt with gift-giving, ham-baking and tree decorating.

People have asked me, “But don’t Hawaiians have their own holiday traditions? What do Hawaiian people do for Christmas that reflects their unique culture?” The answer is simple: Hawaiian people didn’t celebrate Christmas before the missionaries showed up. And the New England missionaries brought some pretty old-school holiday traditions to the tropics along with their Bibles and their long-sleeved, high-necked cotton dresses. They introduced the Hawaiians to evergreen trees festooned with strings of popcorn; turkey dinner with all the trimmings (including cranberry sauce and yams); and even Santa Claus with his warm fur-trimmed red suit and black leather boots.

As you can imagine, living near the Equator presents some challenges for folks wanting to recreate a Currier & Ives Christmas. In Hawaii, evergreen trees are shipped in from the West Coast, mainly Oregon. They can cost up to three times as much as on the mainland and they only last about one/third as long. Santa is usually depicted on cards and in shop displays as a white-bearded chubby guy wearing sunglasses and flashing a shaka sign (the thumb and pinkie extended, other fingers folded down).

photo by PlusMinus, Wikimedia Commons

But if you take your kid to see Santa at most Hawaiian shopping malls you’ll find him wearing the full-blown red suit with white fur trim and black boots.

And chimneys—what about Santa coming down the chimney?

I can count on one hand the number of chimneys I ever saw on houses in Hawaii, but still the old guy manages to distribute the gifts. In Hawaii, Santa comes in through a window and kids are advised to make sure at least one ground-floor window is unlocked so he can climb inside. Of course it’s Mom and Dad’s job to make sure that window gets locked back up after Santa leaves.

Hawaiians are proud of their culture and their traditions, but they’re also willing to embrace other traditions that celebrate hope, renewal and family. Traditional Christmas customs work in Hawaii not because the missionaries were heavy-handed about the ‘right’ way to celebrate and didn’t allow for variance, but also because Hawaii is a place where all types of cultures and traditions are welcome. Even if all the needles fall off the eighty-dollar tree five days after you bring it home.

JoAnn Bassett, author of the Islands of Aloha mystery series


Normally we blog here at misterio press once a week about serious stuff and sometimes a just for fun post later in the week. Our blog is on semi-hiatus for the holidays. There will be another Christmas in an interesting and warm place post next Friday, for your vicarious traveling pleasure. The serious stuff will resume mid-January.

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  • Reply
    shannon esposito
    December 23, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Well, now I feel bad for complaining that the trees in Florida aren’t very fresh. Wowser. Neat to see how the different celebrations are influenced.

  • Reply
    Kirsten Weiss
    December 23, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    And it looks like it’s going to be a rainy Christmas here in sunny California. But in northern California, rain=winter so there’s something kind of Christmas-y and comforting about the sound of rain on the roof!

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