In Hawai‘i’s best known Christmas song, “Mele Kalikimaka,” swaying palms take the place of the snow-dusted treetops in “White Christmas.” The closest thing you can get to a winter wonderland in the Islands is the Festival of Lights, a luminous and whimsical interpretation of what it would be like if Santa spent Christmas in the Islands—specifically on Kaua‘i. Every year for the past twenty years, the Kaua‘i County Building in Līhu‘e has been set aglow with Christmas cheer. “When people walk in, they feel like they are enveloped in a cocoon of magical light,” says Elizabeth Freeman, the festival’s art director. “People just soften and say, ‘It’s so beautiful.’”
The Festival of Lights is as much a celebration of sustainability as community: Every ornament is handmade by Kaua‘i residents using salvaged items from homes and restaurants. What results is an eco-friendly winter wonderland where Slurpee lids become sea urchins and Spam containers feature in a tableau of Santa digging into Hawai‘i’s favorite canned meat. Though the materials are reused, the festival’s intricate, floor-to-ceiling decorations look nothing like the rubbish from which they were made.
The Festival of Lights is a tradition within a tradition, begun more than fifty years ago by a woman named Josie Chansky. Born and raised during the plantation era, the late Auntie Josie loved inviting strangers and friends into her Kapa‘a home, which she transformed each year using holiday-themed folk art made from egg cartons and bottle caps. “She just created for the joy of creating, using the things that were already around her and her ingenuity,” Freeman says. At a time when Kaua‘i lacked an official Christmas event, Chansky’s annual homespun festival was a hit.
Chansky’s husband died in 1996, and when Freeman learned that his passing had weakened her Yuletide spirit, she purchased Chansky’s folk art collection at a garage sale for $3,000. By the following December, Freeman had negotiated a new arrangement: Chansky’s holiday creations—and many, many new ones—would adorn the most stately of Kaua‘i’s government buildings. This year’s twenty-first annual Festival of Lights is free and open to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from December 1 to 24.