Are you dreaming of a white (sand) Christmas? Or perhaps you’re just curious what it’s like to celebrate Christmas in 80-degree weather.
Either way, if you want to learn more about Christmas in Hawaii, you’ve come to the right place! Below, you’ll find our complete guide to experiencing the holiday in Hawaii, with tips for those visiting Oahu, Maui, the Big Island, and Kauai.
As you explore the traditions, celebrations, and trivia below, you’ll see some big differences between Christmas in Hawaii and on the mainland. But you’ll also find some striking similarities, including the fact that, just like on the mainland, there’s plenty of Christmas fun to be found in Hawaii.
Your Guide to Christmas in Hawaii
A Quick History of Christmas in Hawaii
- Makahiki: An ancient Hawaiian tradition
- When did Christmas come to Hawaii?
Hawaii Christmas Traditions
- “Hawaiian” Christmas trees
- Family time
- Santa Claus (Kanakaloka)
- Hawaii Christmas songs
Things to Do in Hawaii During Christmas
- Big Island
Is Christmas a Good Time to Visit Hawaii?
A Quick History of Christmas in Hawaii
Makahiki: An Ancient Hawaiian Tradition
Before European arrival, native Hawaiians celebrated Makahiki, a four-month festival that started around the middle of November. During this time, native Hawaiians honored Lono, a god associated with fertility and agriculture who’s also recognized by several other Pacific Island cultures. Makahiki was a time of sports, games, hula, storytelling, and other activities. Most notably, it was a time when war was prohibited.
Makahiki was celebrated when the rising of the constellation Pleiades (Hawaiian: Makalii) in the east coincided with the setting of the sun in the west. It marked the start of a new year for the ancient Hawaiians, so it’s more directly analogous to New Year’s celebrations than Christmas.
Although Makahiki celebrations declined after European arrival, the Hawaiian Renaissance revived interest in the festival. Today, Hawaii’s Festivals of Aloha pay tribute to the Makahiki traditions of the past with statewide celebrations that include parades, hula shows, concerts, and canoe races.
When Did Christmas Come to Hawaii?
Europeans brought a number of traditions to Hawaii, including the Christmas holiday.
Records suggest that the first celebration of Christmas in the Hawaiian Islands occurred in 1786, on the ship Queen Charlotte, under the command of Captain George Dixon, which was anchored in Waimea Bay off the coast of Kauai.
King Kamehameha IV proclaimed Christmas a holiday in the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1862. However, Christmas wouldn’t become an official holiday until 1896, when the Hawaii State Legislature approved a list of seven holidays, including:
- New Year’s Day on January 1
- Downfall of the Monarchy Day on January 17
- Kamehameha Day on June 11
- Birthday of the Hawaiian Republic on July 4
- Regatta Day on the third Saturday in September
- Thanksgiving Day on November 28
- Christmas Day on December 25
Now that you have a sense of the seasonal traditions of the native Hawaiians, as well as how Christmas arrived in Hawaii, let’s talk about what the Christmas season looks like in Hawaii.
Hawaii Christmas Traditions
Christmas Tradition #1: “Hawaiian” Christmas Trees
Palm trees aren’t the only kind of trees that grow in Hawaii. Two types of pines—the Norfolk Island pine (Araucaria heterophylla) and the Cook pine (Araucaria columnaris)—both thrive in Hawaii. Although neither is native to Hawaii, both are native to other Pacific islands:
- Cook pines are native to New Caledonia in the South Pacific. Interestingly enough, in the Northern Hemisphere these trees lean south toward the equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, they lean north.
- Norfolk Island pines, often called the “Hawaiian Christmas tree,” are native to Norfolk Island. This island, an external territory of Australia, sits between New Zealand and New Caledonia.
When both trees are young, it’s very difficult to tell them apart. However, as they mature, Cook pines on Hawaii grow tall and thin. In contrast, Norfolk Island pines grow longer branches that give it a much broader, pyramid-like shape, similar to a classic Christmas tree.
Which makes for a better Christmas tree? Throw some lights and decorations on either one, and you’ll have yourself a festive-looking conifer. Or, you could do what people who are blessed with an excess of palm trees do: Decorate those instead!
By the way, you can also buy traditional Christmas trees in Hawaii. Several spots in Hawaii grow trees, including Kula Botanical Garden on Maui, Helemano Farms on Oahu, and the Hamakua Christmas Tree Forest on the Big Island. In addition to Norfolk Island pines, these farms grow other varieties of Christmas trees, like Monterey Pines, Leyland Cypress, Murray Cypress, Portuguese Cypress, and Arizona Cypress.
The Home Depot and Costco also sell Christmas trees imported from the mainland. In fact, estimates suggest that Hawaii may import as many as 250,000 trees each year!
Unfortunately, these imported trees sometimes come with more than just Christmas cheer. Garter snakes, frogs, and even an alligator lizard have all been found in imported Christmas trees. Make sure you give yours a really good shake before bringing it inside! And if you do find a pest in your tree, try to contain it and call the Hawaii state pest hotline, 643-PEST (808-643-7378).
Christmas Tradition #2: Family Time on Christmas Day
In Hawaii, a number of businesses close down on Christmas Day, including grocery stores, bars, and restaurants. You’ll find a few restaurants that stay open to serve special meals, but a lot of people in Hawaii use Christmas Day as an opportunity to spend quality time with their family.
Some gather at home for a big meal. Given all the different ethnicities and cultures that have made their way to Hawaii, what’s for dinner will vary from household to household. Some will do a traditional ham, turkey, or roast. That same dish might share the table with kalua pig, poke, lomi lomi salmon, mac salad, opihi, manapua, sashimi, gyoza, lau lau, huli huli chicken—just about anything ono (delicious)!
You’ll also see a number of families meet up at the beach to enjoy a day near the water together. Some will set up a tent, ask everyone to bring a dish, and spend the whole day at the beach with the entire ohana: kupuna, aunties, unkos, keiki—everyone.
Christmas Tradition #3: Visits & Pictures with Santa Claus
Even Santa has found his way into the Hawaii Christmas experience. However, Kanakaloka, as he’s known in Hawaii, adds his own island flair to the holiday. In Hawaii, Santa often shows up via outrigger canoe, rather than sleigh. He also frequently wears slippers (flip-flops) and shorts, and he throws a mean shaka.
You’ll find him all over Hawaii, most notably at Honolulu Hale, where Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele (Mrs. Claus) hold court all December long.
Christmas Tradition #4: Singing Christmas Songs
You’ll hear the standard Christmas songs during the season in Hawaii, but there are also a couple of Hawaii-specific songs we want to point out.
“Mele Kalikimaka” by Robert Alexander Anderson
Mele Kalikimaka is how you’d pronounce the English words “Merry Christmas” with only the Hawaiian alphabet available to you. If you want to understand exactly what that means, check out this video:
The origin of this “translation” of Merry Christmas goes back to the early 1900s. However, it really started to take off when Bing Crosby covered Robert Alexander Anderson’s song, “Mele Kalikimaka,” on his 1945 album, Merry Christmas.
From there, the phrase “Mele Kalikimaka” entered into the American consciousness, and it remains one of the most popular songs about Christmas in Hawaii.
The 12 Days of Christmas (Hawaiian Style)
The other Christmas song you’ll hear around Hawaii is the 12 Days of Christmas—Hawaiian Style. Check out this version sung by Na Hoku award-winning trio, Na Leo Pilimehana. It’s sure to get you in the holiday spirit:
Now that you know some of the traditions you’ll encounter in Hawaii, let’s talk about the seasonal events to enjoy.
Things to Do in Hawaii During the Christmas Season
Below, you’ll find a selection of holiday events so you can revel in some holiday cheer leading up to the big celebration:
- Enjoy Honolulu City Lights, a month-long celebration in downtown Honolulu that kicks off with a big opening night celebration and includes a memorable Electric Light Parade on the first Saturday in December.
- Stop by the Hukilau Marketplace for their annual Christmas celebration, which includes music, activities, and a Keiki Snow Day when kids can tube down a snow chute.
- Since it shut down temporarily in 2020, Oahu residents have eagerly awaited the reopening of the Ice Palace. Their website says “opening soon”—maybe in time for some seasonal laps around the rink?
- Bring your pet to the Queen Kaahumanu Center for pet photos with Santa, sponsored by the Maui Humane Society.
- Try your hand at holiday crafts at the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. Create your own holiday wreath with native plans or make your own ornaments out of coconut fronds.
- The Kauai Festival of Lights is sure to give you that magical Christmas feeling. Stop by the Historic County Building Park for a Kauai-style holiday wonderland, with appearances by Santa and Mrs. Claus.
- You also won’t want to miss the annual Lights on Rice Christmas Parade, held the first Friday of December.
As you can see, there are plenty of activities across the islands to keep the Christmas spirit alive—and plenty of opportunities to share it with others!
Is Christmas a Good Time to Visit Hawaii?
Finally, a number of families consider heading to Hawaii during Christmas. With the kids out of school, what better time to make a visit? And better way to make a special holiday even more special than with a Hawaii vacation?
There are some upsides and some downsides to visiting Hawaii during Christmas. We’ll lay them out for you so you can make the right decision for you and your family:
- On the pro side, you can’t beat the weather. Daytime temperatures will hover in the 70s and 80s—which may be significantly warmer than what you’re used to. Water temperatures will be in the high 70s, cool enough to be refreshing but not cold enough to give you the chills.
- On the con side, December is technically the rainy season in Hawaii. That said, you’re more likely to see passing showers than rain that lasts all day.
- On the pro side, there’s a lot going on during the holiday season. All the resorts and shopping malls decorate for the season, and there’s an infectious holiday excitement in the air.
- On the con side, the Christmas season is among the most popular time of year for travelers. In 2021, 753,670 visitors landed in the Hawaiian Islands in December alone. In December 2019, visitors numbered nearly a million. As a result, hotels are fully booked, excursions and activities are packed, and prices are at their highest.
- However, on the pro side, what’s more memorable than celebrating a holiday in Hawaii? The excitement and the energy around the holidays in Hawaii are palpable—and memorable. Bringing your family to Hawaii for Christmas makes for the kind of trip you’ll look back on for a lifetime.
Mele Kalikimaka and Happy Holidays!
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, it’s easy to get swept up in celebration mode when December rolls around. Between the holiday decorations, festive events, and the spirit of warmth and gratitude, Hawaii is a fun place to be during end-of-year celebrations. Mele Kalikimaka and happy holidays from our ohana to yours!
If you’re thinking of making Hawaii your permanent home, we’d be happy to help! We’ve helped thousands of individuals and families make safe, easy, and affordable moves to Oahu, Maui, Kauai, or the Big Island. Just reach out to one of our experts to get a free quote.