Christmas, à la Hawaii

Santa is wearing shorts, sunglasses, and carrying his surfboard. It’s an odd sight at first, but that’s Christmas in Hawaii. At least, the standard local version.

surfsantaI routinely flipflop over whether or not I like Christmas here in the islands. On one hand, sitting on the beach and enjoying a warm, sunny day is entirely pleasant (most everyone I know is freezing on the mainland or in Europe). On the other hand, it doesn’t feel much like the classic Christmas; you know, the holly, ivy, and evergreen sort. It seems just like any other day in the subtropics. Apart from the lights wrapped around the palm trees, 25 December could be Easter or Fourth of July.

Lacking a seasonal cue, if it weren’t for the yearly decorations of the merchants and hotels it really wouldn’t seem like Christmas at all. I’ve never spent the year end holidays ‘down under’ in the southern hemisphere, but I imagine it feels fairly similar to our island-style, warm weather version. Maybe it’s the climate but, on some level, the ‘holidaze’ seems slightly (only just) less commercial in Hawaii, and I certainly appreciate that.

It’s generally a barefoot Christmas here. The twinkling palm trees throughout the islands have a certain charm, I suppose, curiously mismatched to Christmas tunes like ‘White Christmas’ or ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’ playing in the background. The big hotels boast some pretty spectacular holiday displays in their lobbies, which are passed by visitors scantily clad in their swim suits on their way to the pool or beach. I’m sure the shopping malls are equally decked out (or nearly so), though thankfully I never step foot in one. In Honolulu, the urban shopping vortex of Waikiki feels festive in a commercial way—decorated with the standard artificial trees, boxes wrapped colorfully as presents, and holiday window displays—luring tourists and locals to buy, buy, buy.

I bowed out of the present buying madness years ago. I wanted to simplify Christmas, and I do not know a single person who needs more stuff. The few gifts that I now give to others tend to be experiences that can be shared: a pair of concert tickets; dinner at a nice restaurant; a gift certificate for a massage; or something homemade and freshly baked.

Maybe Christmas feels slightly less commercial here because I’m very uncommercial, myself, and have unplugged from the buying frenzy. I also live on a ‘neighbor island’ (Maui) and pleasantly apart from urban Honolulu. I long ago stopped watching the television, so I’m delightfully free of the bombardment of commercials urging me to spend and buy. All this helps make Christmas a bit more manageable and enjoyable… despite our non-traditional holiday weather.

Americans have largely tossed aside the notion of ‘less is more’; I don’t think its even in our nature, sadly enough. The collective thinking seems to be that if we make Christmas even bigger and better, it will somehow recapture its magic and meaning. I beg to differ. In my opinion, keeping the holidays simpler enables them to mean even more… and certainly more enjoyable. While there seems to be a growing unhappiness with the ever-increasing commercialization of Christmas, it’s not simply the advertisers’ or merchants fault. Let’s face it: in our capitalistic, corporate society, merchants are not going to change, especially not while WE are the ones rushing out to snap up bargains and buy. It’s up to us as individuals to make decisions that simplify the holidays, reorganize our priorities, and keep the focus on something more meaningful than an escalation of mad spending and soulless parties.

I have wonderful Christmas memories from childhood; my mother was the very spirit of the season, ever generous, tasteful and classy. After my mother died more than two decades ago, I stepped away from traditional Christmas completely for awhile. For several years, I simply couldn’t face it. I took an extended break, neither giving nor receiving presents. When I decided to rediscover and reinvent the holidays, I chose to celebrate the Winter Solstice rather than Christmas proper. I couldn’t subscribe to any notion of celebrating Jesus’ birthday but I could certainly rejoice in the gradually lengthening days and return of the sun. A lovely present or two exchanged with my beloved felt nice, so I welcomed that, too.

Stepping out of the traditional ‘holidaze’ and creating my own rituals was tremendously freeing and empowering. I genuinely enjoy the holiday season now but mostly because it’s entirely on my own terms. And I keep it simple.

Living abroad in different countries, I realized that many traditions exist around Christmas, even down to the day gifts are given. Celebrating Joyeaux Noël, the French exchange presents clear through to Epiphany, 6 January (though Epiphany varies in different countries). In Spain, it’s Christmas Eve that’s the big night, followed later by Three Kings (Epiphany) as the grand culmination of two weeks of celebration. In our years in England, I adored Boxing Day, 26 December, because it’s also a full holiday and nearly everything is shut (trains, included), which essentially makes Christmas into a two-day event. Rather than a brief 24 hours capping a long buying frenzy, Christmas gets extended into something that feels like a proper holiday. Boxing Day gets its own feast and parties, too, if slightly less grand than the Christmas ones.

Admittedly, I seem to be a bit late getting into the holiday spirit this year. Must be the balmy weather. Didn’t we just have our beach party Thanksgiving? Or was that Arbor Day… or Memorial Day. It all feels the same here in Hawaii. I confess that I miss Boxing Day, along with Christmas sweaters and scarves, bundling up for holiday parties, a creamy Vacherin Mont D’Or, a succulent roasted goose, and the scent of a real evergreen tree. The Winter Solstice is two weeks away and there’s not a tree in our house, so I’d better figure out a solution (especially with my mother-in-law arriving).

The challenge is that I simply cannot bring myself to buy a tree shipped from the mainland (a significant portion of the shipment this year was held in quarantine, being infested with a pest harmful to Hawaii’s agriculture and ecosystem, and had to be fumigated before being released; some crates were sent back). A few evergreen trees of various types are grown at higher elevations on Maui and the Big Island, but they cost a pretty penny. Actually, I stopped buying cut trees many years ago, even where they were local and abundant. My general practice is to purchase a small, live tree and then plant it after the holidays; planting a tree always feels like very good karma and a gift to the future. Alas, a live tree is a bit more challenging and expensive here in the islands (it simply wouldn’t survive being planted outdoors in a subtropical climate).

Years ago when we lived on the Big Island of Hawai’i (and subsequently Kauai), each Christmas I purchased a small lime or lemon tree and then decorated it (wrapping up the plastic pot in some holiday paper or foil). Non-traditional, sure, but I’m a decidedly non-traditional kind of guy. After the holidays it went into the earth and offered fruit for years to come. Brilliant.

One year on the mainland, I purchased a quaint, potted rosemary bush that had been trained and tapered to a Christmas tree shape. It was appealingly fragrant and I kept snipping off bits to drop as herbs into my cooking. After the holidays it moved outside and transformed into an unkempt little shrub (sadly, a frost later killed it). If I could find one of those on Maui, I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Dress it up with a few baubles and a string of lights. Mission accomplished.

Each year there’s an amnesty day up at Haleakalā National Park here on Maui, when visitors are allowed to cut down one of the invasive pine species in the park and take it home. Our friend is a ranger there and I kept meaning to ask him about it, but I didn’t get around to it in time and I missed it. C’est la vie. I’ve also heard that there is a local project selling small, potted Koa trees (an indigenous Hawaiian hardwood) – or maybe it’s an ohia lehua tree, I don’t recall – which can then be planted. I plan to check into that. Tomorrow. On my way back from the beach.

As the holidays descend, here’s hoping that you find unique and special ways to savor them in a way that truly nourishes your soul. Unapologetically start a new tradition. However we may choose to celebrate, I hope we can all remember that it’s actually a season of gratitude and sharing, and that even in our seeming troubles we still have so much to be grateful for. Practice kindness and always share the best of what you have.

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