Before you board the plane for your tropical Christmas holiday, here are some things you should know about Hawaii Christmas traditions and what you might find a bit different from your usual seasonal activities.

The Origins of Hawaiian Christmas Traditions

Christmas wasn’t officially celebrated in Hawaii until 1862, though there are records of small celebrations held as early as 1786, when sailors on the British ship Queen Charlotte went ashore on the west side of Kauai to catch a wild pig for their holiday meal and collect coconuts to mix with rum for their celebratory drinks. Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and later sailors and traders from around the world, brought various holiday traditions to the Hawaiian islands, and these customs became blended with seasonal traditions already native to Hawaii.

The celebrations also overlap with Thanksgiving, and for a while before Christmas was established as a formally recognized holiday on the islands, December 25th was declared Hawaii’s official Thanksgiving Day.

Makahiki Festival

Before there were Hawaiian Christmas traditions, there was Makahiki. This four-month indigenous holiday starts in October or November and lasts through February or March. Because it’s based on the lunar calendar, the exact dates shift from year to year, starting when the constellation Makaliʻi, also known as Pleiades, makes its first appearance in the night sky.

Makahiki honors the local god Lono and is, at its heart, a harvest celebration. Traditionally, wars and fighting were prohibited during this time, and people from all across the Hawaiian islands would meet for sports competitions, such as spear throwing and arm wrestling. Modern celebrations include athletic events and cultural demonstrations held at state and national parks across the Hawaiian islands.  

Hawaiian Santa Claus

In Hawaii, sleighs aren’t a common sight, so Santa shows up in an outrigger canoe pulled by dolphins across the Pacific Ocean. Santa Claus even looks different in Hawaii. Instead of a heavy red suit, Santa might wear swim trunks under his classic red coat or a red aloha shirt — and he’s probably going barefoot so he can enjoy the feel of soft sand between his toes as he delivers gifts to island children.

When it comes to seeing Santa in person, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the season. In early December, kids head to Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu to watch as Santa arrives via outrigger canoe and get photos taken. Other Santa-centered celebrations might include tropical touches such as holiday-themed leis, caroling on the beach or visits by elves wearing colorful aloha shirts and Santa hats.

Christmas Trees and Holiday Decorations

While the classic image of Christmas decor involves decorated pine trees strung with lights and adorned with ornaments, Hawaii’s tropical climate isn’t exactly an ideal growing environment for Christmas trees. Families in Hawaii that want a traditional Christmas tree rely on pine trees imported in refrigerated containers via cargo ship from cooler climates where those trees are grown. Locals often eschew the classic evergreen and decorate palm trees with long strands of Christmas lights instead.

On Kauai, you can see Christmas lights, including decorated palm trees, at the annual Festival of Lights at the Historic County Building in Lihue. Visits with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus are included.

Locals in Hawaii also celebrate the holiday season by decorating their cars and trucks with lights for an impromptu holiday parade and driving through the streets playing Christmas carols for roadside observers to enjoy. For a more formal parade experience in Kauai, the annual Lights on Rice parade rolls down Rice Street in Lihue in early December. In years when COVID-related restrictions prevent the parade from rolling, the event is presented virtually to let locals and visitors enjoy the music and decorations from their homes or hotel rooms.

Feasts and Treats

Food is an important part of any holiday celebration, and Christmas in Hawaii is no different. Like most of the seasonal festivities, Christmas dinner is a mix of old and new traditions. On Christmas Day, you might have turkey alongside poke bowls, sticky rice and fresh tropical fruit.

For the ultimate Hawaiian Christmas meal, feast on Kalua Pig, a whole roast pig cooked in an underground oven surrounded by banana leaves and hot rocks. Kalua pork takes a while to cook, but the melt-in-your-mouth texture and incredible flavor make it a welcome alternative to turkey or ham.

Once you’re full of Christmas treats, it’s easy to work off your holiday meal with a trip to the beach. You might spot locals in Santa suits surfing offshore or stumble upon a local family enjoying a beach luau as the sun sets on Christmas Day.

Saying Merry Christmas Hawaiian Style

If you’re joining in the Hawaiian Christmas celebrations, learning how to say Merry Christmas in Hawaiian can go a long way. When it comes to sharing some Christmas spirit, the phrase you’re looking for is  “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is a literal translation of the English-language holiday greeting “Merry Christmas.” The Hawaiian version has been memorialized in song by both Robert Anderson and Bing Crosby, so don’t be surprised if a local market vendor or store Santa Claus bursts into a verse or two when you say “Mele Kalikimaka.”

Once you’re committed to a tropical Christmas, you might want to try learning a few Hawaiian Christmas carols. If you strike up the right tune, locals might join in with a ukulele.

If your holiday plans include relaxing in a private villa overlooking the Pacific Ocean and enjoying a scrumptious Christmas dinner of roast pig on the beach, contact Koloa Landing Resort today to start planning your Hawaiian holiday.