New Year’s Fireworks and Other Traditions

New Year’s in Hawaii means fireworks – it is one of a handful of states where it is still legal to set them off, although some of the more dangerous ones have been outlawed in the last few years after a series of fatal and near fatal accidents finally motivated law makers to take on the unpopular stance and do some regulation. The reluctance to take a hard line against dangerous fireworks is rooted, or so the legislators claim, in respect for the cultural traditions – mostly Asian – that use fireworks to send away the evil spirits. There’s also a pretty substantial lobbying effort on the part of the sellers of the fireworks who make a mint every New Year’s, Chinese New Year, and Fourth of July.

Another big New Year’s tradition in Hawaii is mochi pounding.  This one is Japanese, where the fireworks tradition is mostly Chinese.  Mochi is sweet rice, and pounding the mochi into a paste and making flat cakes and tradtional dishes for consumption at midnight on New Year’s Eve is thought to bring good luck and health for the coming year.  The mochi pounding process is also part of the celebration – here’s a video:


It also looks like Madam Pele, who gave the folks of Pahoa a break for Christmas, may have plans of her own for some New Year’s fireworks. Here’s the latest report from West Hawaii Today about the flow:

By Chelsea Jensen
West Hawaii Today
After a four-day hiatus, the leading edge of the June 27 lava flow resumed its trek toward a major Pahoa intersection, Hawaii County Civil Defense reported Saturday.

The flow front resumed its advance Friday afternoon and had moved about 15 yards — or about 45 feet — downslope by Saturday morning, Civil Defense said, noting the flow front was about 35 yards wide. The flow had been stalled since Monday afternoon about 700 yards above the Pahoa Marketplace and about 0.6 mile upslope of the Pahoa Village Road-Highway 130 intersection.

Breakouts above the leading edge along the flow’s surface and margins continued Saturday, Civil Defense said. The breakouts extended mauka about 2.5 miles upslope of the flow front.

The closest breakout, located on the south side of the flow pad, was about 75 to 100 yards behind the stalled flow front as of Friday and appeared to be taking the path of steepest descent toward the Pahoa Marketplace. No update on that breakout was provided by Civil Defense or the U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

“The surface breakouts and activity along both margins continues upslope of the front, however, current activity does not pose an immediate threat to area communities,” Civil Defense Administrator Darryl Oliveira said in the agency’s morning eruption update. “Civil Defense and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory personnel are maintaining close observations of the flow. Residents and businesses down slope will be kept informed of any changes in flow activity, advancement and status.”

Smoke and combined vog conditions were reported as moderate to heavy Saturday morning with a light variable wind causing the smoke to settle in areas stretching from Puna to Hilo. Smoke and vog conditions may increase in some areas and individuals who may be sensitive or have respiratory problems are advised to take necessary precautions and to remain indoors.

– See more at:

Hawaiian Style White Christmas

Well, it looks like we may have a white Christmas. Our first winter storm is here and the predictions last night were for as much as 6 inches of snow – of course that is on top of our high mountains at 12,000 to 13,000 feet (Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea) but still, it is a little weird to think about having snow in Hawaii. Right now it is very overcast with intermittent rain and windy, but if it turns out that we do get our white Christmas, I’ll take some pictures to post.

Meanwhile, it looks as if Madam Pele may spare Pahoa until after Christmas. The flow front has slowed down again, although it now seems clear that it is headed right for the center of Pahoa and all the major stores and businesses in Pahoa Town Center have already closed down. The emergency bypass road has been opened, even though the main road has not yet been overrun, just to give people time to get accustomed to it so they can find and navigate it when they DO need it. The town gas station has been drained of fuel and the tanks flushed so they won’t explode, and they are even giving tours of the fresh lava flows around the transfer station.

It must be agonizing for the folks living in and around Pahoa, watching and waiting for the destruction to overtake them, but at least it looks like they’ll have Christmas at home this year. So, mahalo to Tutu Pele for waiting until after Christmas.

A not quite Christmas story


When we first moved over here in 1998, it was also my 50th birthday on the 21st. We had some friends visiting for the holidays, and the wife noticed in our local newspaper that there was to be a solstice celebration atop Mauna Kea on my birthday. She suggested that it would be an interesting way to mark a significant ‘milestone’ birthday.

I thought so too, so we called the number in the paper and found out a little more about what was going on. The event was planned for the summits of all the highest peaks on all the islands and was to be a sort of Native Hawaiian demonstration about the importance of the mountain tops in their culture. There were some pretty stringent requirements for participation, including fasting for 24 hours prior to the event, and bringing ho’okipu – a gift – in this case, a shareable dish for everyone participating, for consumption after the event, and also a willingness to seriously participate in the ceremonies that would take place.

We decided to do it, and met up with a surprisingly large and surprisingly mixed group at the hunter check in station at about 3000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The leader of the Hawaii island contingent was Auntie Pua Kanahele, a well-known and very respected cultural practitioner, kumu hula, and priestess of Pele, along with a number of members of her hula halau. She exhorted us all in the seriousness of the event, and invited anyone not fully committed to participation to leave. Then she taught and led us in several chants. Imagine standing in the middle of a desolate lava field with about fifty other people being led in chants in Hawaiian by this woman:


You can be sure that no one was going to question anything she told you to do!  After our chanting, we piled into the waiting vans for the ascent up Mauna Kea.  At the 9000 foot level, we stopped at the visitor’s center for acclimatizing to the elevation and more chanting.  Our group also included members of the Royal Order of  Kamehameha I, a sort of Native Hawaiian version of the Freemasons, dedicated to good works and the preservation of Hawaiian traditions and cultural practices.

When, at last, we went on to the summit, at 13,000 plus feet, and did our final chants, the members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha led the final ascent to the very highest point on Mauna Kea.  Mind you, it is December 21, at 13,000 feet.  It was COLD, and these men were dressed in capes, malos, and sandals.  And that was all.  I was freezing in jeans, sweater, coat, gloves, heavy socks, and hiking shoes. I was also taking hits from the oxygen that was provided.  I didn’t do the final ascent, as it seemed more respectful to leave that bit to the participants of Native Hawaiian descent, but remained with the group in the parking lot and kept silence and observed.  The leaders went up the steep hillside to an ahu (altar) that had been constructed the previous day, and left gifts and offerings (which include two lei I had brought from Dennis and my vow renewal that we had done the previous day.) We stood and watched as the procession wound its way up the steep sides of the pu’u to the altar and chanted and offered the gifts to the gods.  We had been told that this same ceremony was being done on all the other mountain tops across the island chain at noon.  It was, as they say here, a ‘chicken skin’ moment, and many of us were openly weeping.

After the ceremony offering the gifts to the gods and goddesses of Mauna Kea,  we made our way back down to the visitor’s center, to share our food and relax a little after the drama of the event.  I was chatting with another participant who was a paniolo from Parker Ranch, born and raised on the slopes of Mauna Kea and he told me that tradition held that the 21st of December was the birthday of the mountain – I’m not sure how one measures the birthday of a volcano, but perhaps it is the day it broke through the ocean and into existence as new land in the middle of the sea, but ever since, I have felt a kinship with Mauna Kea.

Every year since then, I’ve looked to see if the event was to be repeated, but so far it hasn’t.  I feel so fortunate to have been able to share this experience, and at such a significant time in my own life’s journey as well.  So, tomorrow, be sure and wish Mauna Kea a happy birthday!

More “only in Hawaii” Christmas moments

efd2ee01cdd7231ddbcf7ba03e05de5c[1]First off – we make our snowmen out of sand – like this dapper fellow.

Next – Santa doesn’t necessarily get here by sleigh.  More often than not, he’ll arrive by canoe, or on a surfboard, or sometimes, on dolphin back.

santa canoe

santa surfboard







Then, of course, there are our Christmas songs.  One of the older favorites is Mele Kalikimaka  – originally recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters – here’s a video with some nice scenery and their version of this old favorite:


A Day That Will Live in Infamy

Interestingly, this year the 7th of December is also on a Sunday, as it was all those long years ago in 1941 when the peaceful Hawaiian Sunday morning was shattered in a hail of bullets and bombs and the United States was dragged kicking and screaming into World War II. It is hard to imagine that world where the majority of the citizens of the U.S. had no interest in being involved in the wider world, much less in serving as the world’s police force, and where it was believed that ‘Fortress America’ could stand against any threat. Clearly a much different and more innocent age.

Pearl Harbor Day is as much a part of the holiday season here as the Honolulu Parade of Lights or Santa arriving on a surf board, odd as it may seem. Stories of the holiday season, and appeals to adopt needy families or lonely seniors, sit cheek by jowl with interviews of the ever decreasing numbers of survivors of the sinking of the Arizona – only six this year and they have declared it the last official reunion – or interviews of other veterans or citizens who remember the bombings.

This year is  also sadly plagued with stories of  scandal and mismanagement at the Arizona Memorial. Evidently there has been collusion between some of the tour operators and the employees of the Memorial to sell free tickets and take up all the available slots at the Memorial. The story broke a few weeks ago and has gotten additional attention with the upcoming Pearl Harbor Day observance, so news of the scandal has been interspersed among the interviews with the last survivors.  Tickets to the Arizona Memorial are supposed to be first come first serve and free, but the tour companies have been ‘reserving’ blocks and charging for spaces.  It isn’t really clear whose pockets are being lined in all of this, but the situation there is clearly out of control.  Here’s a report from back in September when the story originally broke:

Washington, DC — An internal review has found that most of the free first-come, first served passes for the USS Arizona Memorial are snapped up by commercial tour operators before visitors can obtain them, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The review panel concluded that the total absence of any “written policies, standard operating procedures or operational plans” governing ticket distribution created “ample opportunities for abuse” in which the availability of tickets is “determined primarily by demand from commercial tour operators.”

The USS Arizona Memorial is Hawaii’s most visited site, drawing nearly 1.8 million people per year. The USS Arizona’s maximum capacity is 4,350 per day, with visitors ferried to the sunken battleship in Pearl Harbor that holds the remains of nearly 1,000 sailors who perished in the December 7, 1941 attack. The National Park Service (NPS) operates the Memorial under a statute that forbids charging an entrance fee.

Early this year, NPS assembled a three-person team to examine the Memorial’s ticketing practices. They wrote on many days “very few first-come, first served tickets were available to visitors” under a system which park staff and others admit was not “transparent, fair and equitable.” Their report describes how –

“The park has created a secondary market for the ticket inventory” in which tickets reserved for various purposes are corralled by tour operators and exchanged or resold with no controls;
“Currently the Park does not track how many of the first-come, first served tickets are actually distributed to individuals and how many go to commercial operators. Neither does it track the breakdown between various commercial operators”; and
“[T]here are no management controls in place for operations within the park gates. The reviewers reported a ‘Bazaar like’ atmosphere” as park staff “expressed concerns related to degradation of the visitor experience due to over commercialization and lack of control of the interpretive messages being shared with visitors.”
“The USS Arizona Memorial should be the last place you’d expect to be ripped off,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained the report under the Freedom of Information Act, noting commercial tours cost between $50 and $130 per customer. “Reading this report makes clear how the moneychangers have reoccupied the temple.”

Despite these findings, the review team declared that its “purpose was not to investigate individual conduct” but did note several “allegations of misconduct reported during the review” including:

“A number of interviewees believe that park staff and the park association (PHP) [the park friends group called Pacific Historic Parks] are involved in actions related to tickets that may be unethical” such as receiving “gifts from commercial operators”;
“Some employees, both within the NPS and PHP, expressed fear of retribution for speaking out;” “[m]ultiple interviewees stated being told to ‘mind your own business’”; and
NPS did release a “Corrective Action Plan” to address the “Deficiency Noted” that “Ticket Reservation and Distribution Practices are not in compliance from NPS Policies and Standards.” Many of those actions were slated for completion on June 30, 2014, although several remain under development with the notation that “June workshop are anticipated to impact some park policies.” In a press release issued right before the Labor Day weekend, the park posted the review it had released to PEER and announced it was “seeking your comments on ways to improve how reservations are made for the USS Arizona Memorial.” This announcement suggests no changes have been made.
“It is simply astonishing that the Park Service did not follow up on the acts of misconduct described in this report,” added Ruch, pointing out that the NPS identified no record of any disciplinary action but instead appears to be treating the situation as a breakdown in “internal communications” with team-building exercises, and making employees view a 30 minute “ethic video with a ‘site specific’ skit (i.e. ethical dilemmas most commonly experienced here).” “Inside the Park Service, accountability appears to be in much scarcer supply than free passes.”

NPS is still withholding from PEER an undated law enforcement “briefing statement… because it contains speculative opinions and allegations about job performance, behavior and/or activities of both NPS employees and individuals outside the NPS.” The agency also refuses to release “an administrative inquiry to assess the work environment at the park.” PEER has filed a formal administrative appeal seeking both documents.


The Original Hawaiian Holiday

It seems that just about every culture has some kind of agricultural festival and some kind of mid-winter festival. In pre-contact Hawaii, these two came together in the several months long Makahiki Festival. It was a time of peace, ruled by the god Lono, and also a time for the chiefs to collect their taxes and for wars and conflicts to be suspended and games and feasts to be held. The Makahiki runs from October or November through February or March – four lunar months, signaled by the rising of the Pleiades in the Hawaiian skies.

The Pleadies
The Pleiades

There were three phases to the Makahiki – the first was a time of spiritual cleansing and making offerings to the gods.  There was no currency in pre-contact Hawaii, so the offerings were made in the forms of agricultural goods, domestic animals, fish, or in the form of products such as woven mats and kapa (tapa) cloth, or forest products such as the prized red and yellow feathers used to make the elaborate helmets and cloaks worn by the warriors and ali’i.  The offerings were made at the temples (heiau) dedicated to Lono, such as the one in Kealakekua Bay where, in 1778, Captain Cook arrived, during the Makahiki, and was, according to some, mistaken for the returning Lono, or at one of the ahu – altars – marking the boundaries between land divisions (ahupua’a.)


Artist rendering of banner of Lono and Cook’s ship’s sails


Banner of Lono in contemporary Makahiki celebrations

One of the rituals involved a circumnavigation of the island along a footpath encircling the island – moving in a clockwise circle – carrying the symbol of Lono – the Akua Loa – a long pole with a strip of white kapa carried by the priests.  At each boundary of an ahupua’a the elders and caretakers of the community presented their offerings – ho’okupu – to the image of the fertility god Lono, praying for prosperity and plenty for the coming season.  During the Makahiki, all war was outlawed in order that Lono’s image could proceed around the island unimpeded.



Young holua rider today

In the second phase of the celebration, gatherings were held with feasting and exhibitions and competitions of hula dancing and sports such as boxing, wrestling, surfing,  javelin throwing, canoe racing, swimming, and, a favorite – holua sled racing.  Long courses were laid on steep lava slopes and covered with grasses and wooden sleds were raced to the bottom.  One of the towns on Hawaii island – Holualoa – is named for a famous sled racing course; the name means Long Holua.


Holua in ancient times
Holua in ancient times

The final phase of the Makahiki consisted of loading a canoe – the wa’a ‘auhau or tax canoe – with offerings and taking it out to sea where it was set adrift as a gift to Lono.    To signal the end of the Makahiki season, the chief would go offshore in a canoe, and on his return, a group of warriors would stand on the shore opposing him, throwing spears at him.  He would have to deflect or parry the spears to prove his continuing worthiness to serve as the chief.  Following the Makahiki, the next eight lunar months belonged to the god Ku.

Another Hawaii Holiday Tradition

dancing_water honolulu_hale

This is the 30th anniversary of the Honolulu City Lights Festival. Starting on the First of December, Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele make their appearance, and shortly thereafter is the big parade, culminating in the lighting of the tree – traditionally a Norfolk Pine – the only locally indigenous conifer.

Here’s the history and timeline from their website:

Mayor Frank F. Fasi created a free event that included a lighted tree on the main lawn, decorated tree display in the courtyard, holiday concert and displays of light on the trees and buildings from downtown to the civic center.

The first 50-foot Norfolk Pine was decorated with wooden white doves and gold balls and illuminated by flood lights. The official tree lighting ceremony was held on Thursday, December 12, 1985.


Conceived when more downtown/civic center businesses began participating with light displays on their buildings. A public wreath contest and display were added to the holiday celebration.


The month-long holiday event is named “Honolulu City Lights”. The City Christmas tree was originally decorated with strings of colored lights and a traffic signal control box was used to change the colors. You could hear the box clicking from green/yellow/red but no one cared. They were happy because the big tree would change colors.


Ornaments were made for the big tree and the first of many large outdoor displays were created to make Honolulu City Lights unique among city holiday displays.


Standing 21-feet high and weighing 2-tons, Shaka Santa was the first of the large displays to debut. Sculptor Kurt Nelson took Ho’s design and brought it to life. The Shaka Santa is now an integral part of the display and has sat on the outdoor fountain every year since then.


In the years following Shaka Santa’s addition, the Snow Family, Mrs. Claus (now called Mele), the alphabet blocks, gnomes, bears, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were added.

The “corridor of lights” was extended from downtown to Thomas Square.


One of the most popular elements—the Public Workers’ Electric Light Parade—was added thanks to the efforts of the Parade Man Nelson Fujio and city employee Eddie Oi. Families came to see the decorated city work vehicles (refuse truck, cherry picker, ambulance, fire truck, vector truck) bringing Christmas delight to the crowds.


While the monkey pod trees on the City Hall grounds had been illuminated for years as part of the “corridor of lights,” the lighting of the front of Honolulu Hale was not added until this year.


After 9/11, a huge, lighted American flag was installed on the front lawn by the big tree and all the outdoor display figures wore red, white and blue ribbons.

Over the next decade, more outdoor displays were added (Bear Band and Lanakila train) and new ornaments were created every 3 years for the big tree.



A limited edition commemorative silver ornament was created in honor of the event. A special four-panel display was created to highlight the history of Honolulu City Lights, Shaka Santa, Tutu Mele, and the Snow Family.


A limited edition commemorative gold ornament was created in honor of the event.