I performed this piece at the TNB Literary Experience in December 2009. It’s available on YouTube at: Is There Really a Hawaiian Word for Christmas?

 

I told Kimberly my title would be “Deconstructing Mele Kalikimaka,” because I thought if I didn’t have an intellectual-sounding title nobody would pay any attention.

Kimberly said, “Don’t worry. They’ll all be drunk or stoned or busy hitting on each other, and won’t pay attention anyway.”

“I get it,” I said, “like when I was teaching night school.”

 

Barack Obama and I were born and raised in the same far-away exotic foreign land.

Kenya!

All right, Hawai’i.

Obama and I shared many Christmas traditions. For example, enduring endless repetitions of Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.” On the radio! In the stores! White Christmas was bad enough, but that was a Mainland thing so that didn’t matter.

We never had white Christmases.

But we did have Hawaiian words, and we knew which were traditional words and which were transliterations, and a song built on a not really-Hawaiian phrase for Christmas, sung by a Mainland guy with full orchestra . . . and the Andrews Sisters . . . was an insult.

 

Transliteration. Deconstruction. Actually I’m going to do a contextualization, which is more accessible. I know agile minds out there are already all over Mele Kalikimaka’s historical specificity, hermaneutically of course, and while considering bilateral symmetry and propositional ramification they are hoping, indeed praying, that I won’t inappropriately conjugate anything or descend into misplaced concreteness – meaning that if I do a Bing Crosby imitation I’ll be in deep shit.

But I will recite the words.

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say,
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day,
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway,
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright,
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night,
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say “Merry Christmas to you.”

Had enough?

 

So . . . is Mele Kalikimaka really the Hawaiian way to say Merry Christmas? That depends on what you mean by Hawaiian.

If “ancient Hawaiian,” no. They didn’t have Christmas. The first they heard about it was from the gangs of Pacific rogues who fell upon Hawai’i in the early nineteenth century – missionaries, who told them to worship Christ, and sea captains, whalers, and traders, who taught them what to do on Christmas.

It could have gone like this:

The missionary says, “Yes, on Christmas we celebrate the birth of our saviour Jesus Christ with prayers and a church service.”

“Uh-huh,” the Hawaiians say.

The whaler says, “What we do is cut down a big tree, bring it inside the house, put candles on it, say Merry Christmas, light them, get drunk, eat, keep drinking and eating and saying Merry Christmas until we pass out.”

“Sounds like a plan!” the Hawaiians say. “But saying that holiday’s name is rough . . . we don’t use C or R or S in our language. So . . . Merry, Mele, yes, that’s easy, but Ka-ri, Ka-li, uh . . . how about Kalikimaka?”

“Close enough,” the whaler says, “when you’re drunk it won’t matter.”

 

So . . . Mele Kalikimaka! Merry Christmas! Hawaiian* or not Hawaiian?

Let me go to my Pukui-Elbert Hawaiian-English dictionary.

Mele, here it is, meaning “song, or chant.” Umm.

Kalikimaka, yes, here it is, “Christmas.”

All right, it means “Christmas song or chant.”

 

“Christmas song or chant is Hawaii’s way

to say Merry Christmas to you.”

Hmmm. Nah.

 

Now in English we can unpack Christmas into “Christ” and “mass,” so let’s take Kalikimaka apart too.

kaliki, corset

maka, beloved one

 

Here we go:

Chant for a beloved corset is Hawaii’s way….”

I don’t think so.

 

Hawaiian Christmas, as we have learned, is green and bright. This is unlike, for example, Christmas in Biloxi, Mississippi, but let’s paddle on past that.

To properly celebrate Christmas you need a tree.

Eighteenth century Hawai’i, the most remote islands on earth, had no pines. But Norfolk Island, a British penal colony down towards Australia, did. The British brought them to Hawai’i, where they flourished – the pines, not the convicts.

Each year our family had to make a decision. Should we get a local Christmas tree, that would be a Penal tree, or should we get a Mainland tree, that would be a Douglas fir, but everybody called them Mainland Christmas trees. They were superior to Penal trees because, well, they were from the Mainland.

I went college on the Mainland. Freshman year, Introduction to Botany, the professor was showing slides of evergreens. He put up a Douglas fir.

“Who knows this one?”

“It’s a Mainland Christmas tree?”

 

Ah . . . the Mainland. That distant paradise across the Pacific, where everything was better.

They had TV, but we didn’t. They had FM radio, and we had AM. They had places for kids to get into trouble . . . but so did we.

Weekend nights at the shore were like anywhere – parked cars, kids smoking, drinking, making out, listening to the radio. But we’d be trying to pull in Mainland stations, twenty-five hundred, three thousand miles away. The farther, the better. KGO, San Francisco was good, KSL Salt Lake was better, and one night a kid with a hopped-up car radio started yelling that he had WLS Chicago. We got out of our cars and clustered around, listening.

Our little station played the same songs, but they sounded better coming from the Mainland. At Christmastime, a little static and some fade improved even Mele Kalikimaka.

I was making out with Leilani one night, with San Francisco pounding in.

“Get Salt Lake,” she said, “and I’ll take off my bra.”

 

But that was teen life. Small-kid time was harder. One Christmas we were decorating our Penal tree with the radio on and Bing was singing away. For the first time, I paid attention to the bit about the sun and stars. It was frightening. Where had I gone wrong? Was the Mainland a stranger place than I thought?

“Mom,” I said, “Mom! You know the song? Is here the only place where the sun shines by day and all the stars at night?”

 

One Christmas I asked the minister down at the First Foreign Church if Kalikimaka really meant Christmas.

He looked at me. “That’s the Hawaiian word for Christmas, son.”

I said, “But the Hawaiian word for Christ is Kristo, and since you told us we should put Christ back in Christmas, shouldn’t it be Kristomaka?”

He looked at me.

I said, “Because then Mele Kristomaka would mean Chant About Beloved Christ.”

He kept looking at me.

“Beloved Christ . . . right?” I said.

Finally he said, “Son, we’re Protestants. We don’t chant.”

 

 

*Hawaiian is a living language, and of course it has transliterations, and words with multiple meanings, as do all languages. I plead guilty to cherry-picking meanings. Please don’t mistake the little games I’m playing with Hawaiian words for legitimate linguistics work. Speakers of Hawaiian know that, for example, the word I’ve rendered as mele has several different pronunciations, and each has a different meaning. Because this is a humorous piece and meant to be spoken, I haven’t used proper orthography. My uncle, the late Donald Kilolani Mitchell of Kam Schools, would probably be annoyed, and the late Mary Kawena Pukui, whom I knew as a boy, would probably gently scold me. E kala mai ia’u!


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DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

36 responses to “Is There Really a Hawaiian Word for Christmas?”

  1. I’m so glad you published this Don, because as you no doubt recall (far better than I), I was both drunk AND stoned **AND** making out in that sexy-as-hell back nook and missed this the first time ’round.

  2. Don you are as dignified and gentlemanly in person as you are in the pages of TNB – I mean that of course in the most subversive of ways…. what a fun night – so happy to have heard you read this *live* – now I can have something else to think about when I haul out the old Bing Crosby Christmas Album and we get to this damn song…

  3. Don Mitchell says:

    I was doing my best not to be gentlemanly and dignified. So it didn’t work, is what you’re saying.

    But seriously — I’m so glad to have met you (and the others). I won’t be able to make the next quarterly event, but as for the one after that — I’ll be there.

  4. Zara Potts says:

    Oh I wish I’d been there to hear this in person! Thanks for posting it.
    Meri Kirihimete from Aotearoa!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      That’s te reo Maori for Mele Kalikimaka, right?

      By the way, Ruth and I were walking in Manhattan this afternoon, but without camera — a pity, because there was a store named Zara — your name in large letters, all over.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Kia ora! Yes.
        I know about the Zara store because my mother went to Spain and brought me back a RECEIPT. Not an item of clothing or exciting like that – but a RECEIPT!!
        She just laughs when I mention it!

  5. Megan DiLullo says:

    Is there such a thing as too much fun? If there is, I think you all may have qualified. I’m elated to hear about the event and that I get to read the stories that we’re told.

    Can’t wait until the podcast come out.

    Thanks, Don.

    Is it wrong that I envision you reading this in your Bond Girl outfit? But with a festive flair.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I was considering it, but the top would have been too cold, and walking about Manhattan in a balaclava and carrying a double-barreled shotgun would have been, well, interesting.

  6. I wish I’d been there too – next time, Mitchell, next time.

    If you can get Australian radio, I’ll take off my bra.

    And hey! Leave the Andrews Sisters alone!

  7. So wait, I was so busy enjoying Don’s reading on Friday, I missed the make-out session?

    That’s so sad.

    Hysterical, Don. You know my thought when you were reading it? Could it be chant for a beloved one in a corset? Or must the corset be the beloved? I obviously know nothing of Hawaiian conjugation, never having dated a Hawaiian girl–though Heaven knows they can dance–but I might just chant for a Hawaiian girl in a corset.

    I like corsets.

    What were we talking about again? I get sidetracked.

    Oh, right. Yes, great piece!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Will, it was fun for sure. I was in awe of your posse, as well as your piece. Hmm. That didn’t come out quite right.

      Evidently that first booth as you come in has a certain rep.

      The corset thing is bogus in the sense that I took apart a word in just such as way as to yield those two words, kaliki and maka. When they’re together in a word, the word is just the transliteration of Christmas.

      I did haul out my dictionary and believe me, I was really happy when I discovered that I had those two words to play with.

      Corsets, yes.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    This is brilliant. So sad I missed it, and I eagerly await the video.

    Is there also video of the makeout session?

  9. I can’t believe I missed a chance to meet you fine people *and* to makeout.
    The knife just goes deeper and deeper!

  10. Richard Cox says:

    I don’t know anything about make out booths or Hawaiian Christmas but this post did make me want to watch Christmas Vacation.

  11. D.R. Haney says:

    The exchanges between those present at TNBLE/NYC remind me of those between myself, Zara, and Simon after our last event in LA. Who knew that in-jokes could produce such envy?

    Well, maybe all know that.

    I’m now getting used to Christmas bright and green, and if climatologists are correct, the world will eventually join me in singing a variation on “Mele Kalikimaka.” Meantime, I was going to demonstrate my gift for trivia by stating that the song “Blue Christmas” was introduced by Elvis in the movie Blue Hawaii, but a trip to Wikipedia indicates that I only imagine myself to possess a gift for trivia, seeing that the tune and flick have only “blue” in common.

    You show definite stand-up potential, Professor Don.

  12. Don Mitchell says:

    I thought Elvis sang a Hawaiian Christmas song too, but didn’t take time to check it out. The Beach Boys had one, and I was going to weave it in, but that 8 minute limit is a bitch and I couldn’t.

    Yeah, I thought the TNB Christmas Experience was going to be more of a stand-up venue than anything else, so that’s the way I wrote. I think I was right.

    Year ago I was running in a park in Buffalo in the winter. The place was almost deserted except for me and another guy I’d see every 7 or 8 minutes, because he was going in the opposite direction.

    Along the lines of what’s being posted in Brad’s piece, the big question when running where people run in opposite directions along the same path is not just whether to wave or Howdy more than once, but if and when to stop, turn around, and join the other runner. Obviously that can get tricky if you’re not welcome. Then you have to pretend you were turning back to a water fountain, or to talk to somebody else, or act like you dropped something. Whatever.

    Anyway, this snowy day the other guy stops, turns, says something like Mind some company? I said no, and then we had a great hour talking about the similarities between teaching an intro lecture class, and being a stand-up comic, which is what he was. He was in town from downstate, as I remember. Timing, pacing, use of voice — it’s probably the same for any performer (you’d know, Duke) but the only person I ever talked to about it was this comic, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

    The only thing he regularly had that I didn’t was hecklers.

    We also agreed that in the same way that running backs are said to prefer running to their left or right, that we had preferred, meaning innate, delivery sides. I deliver best to my left; I have to make an effort to take care of the right side of the audience.

    Surely musicians have the same problem? No?

    • D.R. Haney says:

      I’m pretty rudimentary as a musician, so I wouldn’t presume to say. But I do think that we’re heckled privately, or derided after the fact, by some of those listening or watching where convention insists on good manners. All a performer of any kind — comic, athlete, lecturer, musician — can do is deliver as sincerely, passionately, skillfully, and entertainingly as possible. The willing or ready will respond. The rest won’t.

  13. […] C. Of course we drove our cars in a convoy, we had beer and cigarettes and radios tuned to mainland stations and we were all […]

  14. […] He’s still not sure if there is a Hawaiian word for Christmas. […]

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  16. Gloria says:

    I just watched this on the Youtube channel, Don, and for once, I’ve finally found a TNB writer who looks and sounds exactly like he’s supposed to. (The only other one was Listi.) You’re very tall.

  17. […] are the landmarks: about half a mile out, the new version of the First Foreign Church, just beyond there is where C almost lost control of the Bad Ass Pink Chevy, scaring the crap out […]

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