Hawaiian Christmas and New Year's Words and Phrases

Christmas in Hawaii

Hawaii, Maui, Olowalu, Christmas tree, with glowing lights ocean, moon in distance
••• Ron Dahlquist/Getty Images

The Hawaiian people did not celebrate Christmas prior to the arrival of Captain James Cook in 1778. It was, however, the protestant missionaries from New England who first arrived in 1820 who first introduced Christmas to the Hawaiian people.

The missionaries reduced the Hawaiian language to written form, enabling the Hawaiian people to read and write in their own language. Many words for which there were no clear Hawaiian language equivalents were translated phonetically.

Holiday Phrases and Words

Let's look at some key phrases that you may hear in Hawaii during the Christmas and New Year's Day holiday season.

  • Mele Kalikimaka - Merry Christmas. The words "Mele Kalikimaka" are a phonetic translation. When the missionaries and other Westerners first brought the custom of Christmas to the Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaiians had difficulty pronouncing Merry Christmas and turned it into words that rolled more easily off their tongues. A great way to remember this phrase is to remember the famous Bing Crosby Christmas song by the same name, Mele  Kalikimaka.
  • Hau'oli Makahiki Hou - Happy New Year. The western Christmas and New Year fell during this same time of the year that the Hawaiians traditionally honored the earth for giving them plenty to eat. This period of resting and feasting was called Makahiki (mah-kah-HEE- kee). It lasted for 4 months, and no wars or conflicts were allowed during this time. Because makahiki also means "year", the Hawaiian phrase for "Happy New Year" became "Hau'oli (happy) Makahiki (year) Hou (new)"(how-OH-lee mah-kah-hee-kee ho).
  • Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou - Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
  • Mahalo Nui Loa - Thank you very much. When you receive a nice gift or are treated to a special meal or beautiful song, you'll want to express your appreciation for the kindness.

Here are a few individual words that you may also see in Hawaii during the Christmas season:

  • Angel - Anela
  • Candy - Kanake
  • Christmas Eve - Ahiahi Kalikimaka
  • Christmas Tree - La’au Kalikimaka
  • Elf - Menehune
  • Garland - Lei
  • Gift - Makana
  • God - Akua
  • Holly - Kawa’u
  • Jesus Christ- Iesu Kristo
  • Joy, Happy - Hau’oli
  • Love - Aloha
  • Mistletoe - Kaumahana
  • Ornament - Wehi
  • Peace - Malu
  • Reindeer - Leinekia
  • Santa Claus - Kanakaloka
  • Snow - Hau Kea
  • Snowball - Popohau
  • Snowflake - Hau puehuehu
  • Star - Hoku
  • Wreath - Lei

Once you have learned these words and phrases, you're sure to enjoy your own Hawaiian Christmas.

As Bing Crosby sang:

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That's the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii's way
To say "Merry Christmas to you."

When planning your next visit to Hawaii be sure to check out these other Hawaiian words that will help you enjoy your trip and fit right in with the locals.