The first recorded Christmas in Hawai’i was in 1786, when Captain George Dixon of the merchant ship Queen Charlotte docked the ship on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. Dixon and his crew celebrated a large Christmas dinner that included a whole roast pig.
The ancient Hawaiians did not celebrate Christmas until after the arrival of the missionaries in 1820. Christmas occurred during the Makahiki, the four month period of resting and feasting when ancient Hawaiians honored the earth for giving them plenty to eat. No conflicts or wars were allowed during this time. After the Hawaiian embraced Christianity, it was only natural that they adapted some of the traditions of Makahiki to the celebration of Christmas.
King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma of Hawai’i officially celebrated Christmas in 1856 as a day of Thanksgiving. On Christmas Eve of 1858 Mary Dominis threw a party at Washington Place featuring the first instance of a Christmas tree and Santa Claus in Hawaii. King Kamehameha IV declared it an official holiday in 1862.
Today, the traditions on Christmas day are similar to other places; families gather for a large meal and then perhaps go surfing or swimming in the ocean and play ukuleles and dance hula late into the night. The different cultures and ethnic groups that have settled in the islands celebrate the Christmas traditions in their own unique ways. Santa Claus (Hawaiian: Kanakaloka) is not wearing his corporate red and white suit, but has swapped it for aloha shirt and short and slippers. Santa hats are worn and the traditional Santa’s sleigh and reindeer are replaced by an outrigger canoe pulled by dolphins.
The greeting Merry Christmas was difficult for the Hawaiians to pronounce because English language sounds like “R” in the word merry did not exist in the Hawaiian language. Thus, Mele Kalikimaka is not a literal translation but simply how we say Merry Christmas in Hawai’i.
In 1949, R. Alex Anderson wrote Hawaii’s popular Christmas song “Mele Kalikimaka.” He was born in Honolulu in 1884 composed nearly 200 songs before his death in 1995. As the story goes, in 1949 Anderson was in his office in Honolulu when his secretary, a woman from the mainland, mentioned that she had never heard a Hawaiian Christmas song. Thus, he composed Mele Kalikimaka and it became an enduring classic. Bing Crosby and The Andrew Sisters made one of the earliest recordings in 1950 on 78 rpm and 45 rpm phonograph records.
‘Ukulele players can learn to play my arrangement of Mele Kalikimaka for free!
- Learn Mele Kalikimaka in the sample format of Monthly Online Lessons.
- Learn Mele Kalikimaka in the sample downloadable files of Single Song Purchases.
Aloha, Mele Fong aka Ukulele Mele