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