Operation Christmas

Story by Noel Nicholas. Photo by Ron Slauson

Every Christmas, Santa comes to town—from Pearl City.

On a clear winter’s night, the merry old toymaker, the Mrs. and a band of penguins, bears and elves are strapped onto flatbeds and escorted by police on H-1 toward downtown Honolulu. The caravan is the first step in the massive undertaking that is Honolulu City Lights. And, as tends to be the case with massive undertakings, Honolulu City Lights has experienced its share of comical calamities.

Started in 1985 by Mayor Frank Fasi, the event has become Honolulu’s equivalent of New York City’s Christmas at Rockefeller Center. A fifty-foot tree is placed outside of Honolulu Hale, city hall, bedecked with ornaments and surrounded by larger-than-life sculptures. They include Shaka Santa and Mrs. Claus lounging atop a fountain and the Snow Family enjoying an ironic Hawaiian vacation. Altogether more than a dozen figures must be transported from their warehouse in Pearl City and arranged on the front lawn of Honolulu Hale by crane. “You have to understand that these things are heavy,” says Sherilyn Kajiwara, director of the city’s Department of Customer Services. “Each of the sculptures has a Styrofoam core topped with a fiber-glass coating, then a cement-based coating and then automotive paint.”

To give you a sense of just how heavy we’re talking, Shaka Santa measures about twenty-one feet high and weighs two tons. A few years ago the method of transportation involved forklifting the sculptures onto flatbed trucks and simply strapping them down. “The problem with this is that ropes, strained over miles of bumpy road, you know … tend to loosen,” chuckles Alex Ching of the Department of Parks and Recreation. Ching has directed maintenance and production of the sculptures since 1998. “One year they loosened just enough that Mrs. Snowman’s head rolled right off the truck bed onto the highway.” Luckily the several-hundred-pound head rolled off the road and into a ditch, but Mrs. Snowman ended up in serious need of a new bonnet. Another year the crane operator moving Mrs. Claus maneuvered her too close to Santa; her hand hit Santa’s knee and her pinky popped off.“It was pretty funny for the team,” says Ching. “We had no idea Mrs. Claus had joined the yakuza!”

“The biggest complaints we get are that the decorations don’t change enough and that we’re changing them up too much,” laughs Kajiwara. “People get excited for the arrival of a new sculpture and upset if an old favorite is absent, so we try to keep everyone happy with a good mix of old and new each year.” Kajiwara didn’t get a single complaint, though, about a gender-bending accident involving Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer several years ago. “His antlers are very tall and thin and certainly not the sturdiest part of his body,” Kajiwara says. “A driver got too close to a light pole, and one of Rudolph’s antlers snapped right off! It was too difficult to reattach the antler on-site, so we removed them both and had a red-nosed doe that year. Thankfully, nobody noticed.”

In 2010 culinary students at Kapi‘olani Community College volunteered to build a life-size gingerbread house for the interior of Honolulu Hale. “It was incredible,” recalls Kajiwara. “Large enough to walk through, with two windows and covered in icing, candy and cookies. The smell was heavenly.” The house was a huge hit, with lines out the door most nights, but by the end of the season, Kajiwara and her team noticed something strange. “I walked through the house one day, and the walls were stripped bare, down to the cardboard center. But the funniest thing was the damage only went up to around three feet high. All the kids had gone full Hansel and Gretel on the thing!”

Despite the mishaps, Kajiwara, Ching and all of Santa’s helpers manage to pull off some serious magic every year. “It’s a lot of work,” says Kajiwara, “but it’s an honor to keep the holiday tradition going for everyone out there who enjoys it.” HH HH