lighting up the holidays

Michelle Liu
December 20, 2023

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Trees decked out with twinkling lights, neighborhoods lit up with colorful displays, and there’s an extra dose of aloha spirit and joy in the air.

Honolulu City Lights is one of the most elaborate displays of holiday cheer. Honolulu Hale transforms into a winter wonderland with a 50-foot holiday tree and larger-than-life Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele welcoming visitors to view the dazzling lights and displays.

Shaka Santa, Tutu Mele, and the holiday tree at Honolulu Hale.

Simply magical beginning
The joyous holiday tradition is in its 39th year. It started in 1985 under Mayor Frank Fasi, who wanted to create a holiday celebration for the keiki of Hawaii. The first tree was simple with wooden white doves and gold balls. There weren’t any lights on the tree; instead, floodlights illuminated it from the ground. Santa Claus sat on King Street, waving to everyone who passed by.

Mayor Fasi speaking at the first Honolulu City Lights celebration. Photo courtesy Friends of Honolulu City Lights

“It was such a big hit that it just grew from there. Mayor Fasi wanted to ensure that every keiki had an opportunity to kick off the holiday season by seeing Santa and a beautiful tree,” says Loretta Jardine, vice president of Friends of Honolulu City Lights, a nonprofit organization.

The organization partners with the City and County of Honolulu every year to host the holiday event. It’s become a month-long celebration of light displays, a wreath competition open to the public, and decorations invoking the spirit of the season.

Holidays with a local Hawaiian flair
A lot of hard work goes into this kickoff to the holidays. Everything from Shaka Santa to the smallest ornament is stored in Pearl City. The city’s dedicated elves drive the decorations on flatbeds to Honolulu Hale, where they’re assembled. Shaka Santa alone is 21 feet tall and weighs 2 tons.

Shaka Santa is made out of styrofoam. Photo courtesy Friends of Honolulu City Lights

“Santa has become an iconic part of Honolulu City Lights,” says Jardine. “He’s not the traditional big guy in a red suit. He fits our Hawaiian style with his shaka, open jacket, and toes in the water.”

Tutu Mele sits beside him on the fountain. While Santa has always had his tropical vibe, his better half was originally Mrs. Claus before she was renamed and given a makeover.

Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele, along with their penguin friends.

“She was a bit too fair. We have sun, we have color. We wanted to make her look like a local lady, so she wears a muumuu, kukui nut lei, and traditional Hawaiian bracelet. And we all call our grandmothers ‘tutu’ in Hawaii,” explains Jardine.

There are also holiday exhibits inside the Honolulu Hale courtyard, including a mini magical woodland of two dozen trees. It’s a spectacle of unique creations, bright lights, and festive themes that range from Hawaiian culture to cartoon characters. A different department in the City and County of Honolulu builds and designs each one. This year, for example, the Department of Parks and Recreation’s trees are modeled as volcanoes after the Disney-Pixar short movie, Lava.

"We lava Hawaii!"

“It’s their gift to the community,” says Jardine.

Plaques next to each tree detail the inspiration behind each department’s creation. There are messages of love, family, community, and diversity throughout the exhibit.

Deck the halls (and trees)
The 50-foot holiday tree sits on the lawn in front of Honolulu Hale. This magnificent centerpiece is its own festive statement with multicolored blinking lights, smiling gingerbread people, huge lollipops, and oversized snowflake and star ornaments.

The centerpiece tree sparkles with green, red, and blue lights.

An annual keepsake ornament is available for the community to purchase, which supports Honolulu City Lights and keeps the event free to the public. This year’s design features Santa with lifeguards after a local lifeguard was named champion of the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in January.

“We’re so proud that a local boy won and we wanted to honor all lifeguards for keeping us safe,” says Jardine. “There’s always something we need to recognize and significant moments of the year we want to remember. That’s what we put on these keepsake ornaments.”

Designs have also included Santa visiting places iconic to Hawaii, including Waikiki, Hanauma Bay, and Makapuu.

“We didn’t want to leave Santa just at City Hall, so the ornaments have featured him going holoholo,” says Jardine. “We’re so proud of being in Hawaii and we have so many cool places. This is just one way of showcasing them.”

Shaka Santa and Tutu Mele visited the King Kamehameha statue in the 2018 ornament.

Celebrate the season
Honolulu City Lights runs through Dec. 29 this year. It’s open daily 8 a.m. through 10 p.m. Expect crowds if you visit! It can get busy, especially at night and on weekends. 

Exploring Honolulu City Lights
Come along with Team HMSA as we take you on a tour around all the holiday decor:

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