My publisher and I have decided to add a preface to the short story, “Mele Kalikimaka, Ginger Croom.” I am also posting it here.
The Use of “Mele Kalikimaka” in This Story
“Mele Kalikimaka” is generally understood to be a Hawaiianized version of the English words, “Merry Christmas.” According to Māmako Kaiao—A Modern Hawaiian Vocabulary (2003, bi-lingual third edition, xix), “many English words have been Hawaiianized since earliest contact with the English language…Lexical borrowing is not limited to English, however.” “Mele Kalikimaka” is not included in Māmaka Kaiao, however. That may be because “kalikimaka” is already defined as “Christmas” in the Hawaiian Dictionary: Hawaiian-English, English-Hawaiian by Mary Kawena Pukui and Samuel H. Ebert (1986, p. 123).
I’d also like to note here that the Hawaiian language is called ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi (and “Hawaiian” is not a word found in ʻOlelo Hawai’i). “Native Hawaiians” are called “Kanaka ʻŌiwi” or “Kanaka Maoli.” I will use Kanaka ʻŌiwi in this preface.
How is “Mele Kalikimaka” used and situated in this story?
The Dire Deeds, and its sequel The Witching Work, are set in Hermitville Farm & Arts Collective, an intentional community located in the ahupuaʻa of Nanawale, near the town of Pahoa in Puna District of Hawaiʻi Island. These are the first two books in The Guild of Ornamental Hermits urban fantasy series. I began writing these books when I lived in the neighboring ahupuaʻa of Waiakahiula. An ahupuaʻa is a traditional district that typically runs from the ocean to the uplands. Prior to the establishment of the Hawaiian Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy, each ahupuaʻa was under the rule of a chief and/or chiefly family.
Hawaiʻi Island is “Moku O Keawe”—the Island of Keawe. The name honors Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku, a seventeenth century chief of the island. The Puna district is about thirty miles sound of Hilo.
This story takes place around the Christmas holiday, six years before The Dire Deeds, which is set in a “not too distant future” when the Hawaiian Kingdom has regained its independence and sovereignty and is in the process of re-organizing its government. People who are not Kanaka ʻŌiwi or descendants of naturalized Hawaiian Kingdom subjects (dating prior to 1893) are being asked to either apply for naturalization as Kingdom subjects, or prepare to return to their country of origin. In The Dire Deeds, this necessary choice will affect Ginger Croom and her “Hermits” of Hermitville.
But all that happens long after this particular story takes place, when Ginger Croom and her Elven lover, Professor Almond, meet for the first time in several years after a long estrangement. Their love affair is secret and Ginger has chosen a room in the former Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay Hotel as their meeting place. They may make peace. They may make love.
Ginger’s location of her intentional community in Hawaiʻi is one of the reasons she and Professor Almond have quarreled. Because of this, this is the Professor’s first trip to Hawaiʻi (though he is familiar with other parts of The Mortal Coil) and he arrives from the Elven Realm looking like a well-to-do tourist. At the hotel, someone wishes him a “Mele Kalikimaka” and he asks the meaning of the phrase. It is apparent to him that this is a phrase that is used frequently during this time of year but he is ignorant of the context described below.
Later, as a tourist speaking to a settler (Ginger), he uses the phrase himself. This scene is loaded with personal relationship subtext and meaning and some of it will only be understood after reading The Dire Deeds.
Necessary history (though not all of it).
“Mele Kalikimaka” became popularized beyond Hawaiʻi as the title of a song composed in 1949 by Robert Alex Anderson (1894-1995). Anderson was born in Honolulu (though not of Kanaka ʻŌiwi parents) and attended Punahou School. He became well known as a composer of hapa haole songs (songs which are Hawaiian-themed but composed partially or entirely in English). His first song was called “Haole Hula” (published in 1927). Anderson also wrote “Lovely Hula Hands” and “Punahou.”
Anderson did not create the words “Mele Kalikimaka”, however. The first known record of the phrase dates from 1906, published in the ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi newspaper, Ka Nupepa Kuokowa. (The original and traditional meaning of “mele” is song or chant.)
Christmas became an official holiday in Hawaiʻi in 1896, three years after Queen Liliuʻokalani was forcibly “overthrown” through an insurrection led by the American minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom, John L. Stevens, seven American businessmen, and six naturalized Kingdom subjects (who were not Kanaka ʻŌiwi), and troops from a US naval ship, the USS Boston. The so-called “provisional government” which followed, was the government which made this holiday “official.” In 1898, the United States, ignored widespread protests against annexation, including the Kuʻe petitions signed by 21,269 Kanaka ʻŌiwi (and possibly some naturalized Kingdom subjects). There was never a treaty between the Hawaiian Kingdom and the US, as would have been appropriate under international law, but the US took Hawaiʻi anyway, using an internal domestic resolution (which is as illegal as Congress deciding to simply take England).
So Robert Alex Anderson, the composer of the jaunty tune, “Mele Kalikimaka,” spent most of his life and career in a Hawaiʻi in which Hawaiian people, language, and culture were severely oppressed. Americans in charge were relentless in their attempts to Americanize and forcibly assimilate Kanaka ʻŌiwi children, banish ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi, steal land and resources, and otherwise restrict, distort, and or commodify the host culture (particularly through tourism). Hapa haole songs are part of that legacy and yet many Kanaka ʻŌiwi musicians and hula dancers have performed and recorded them.
I also speculate that the provisional government’s designation of “Kalikimaka” as an official holiday may have been both an Americanization of the islands and a means to obscure and diminish the important cultural tradition of Makahiki, a festival of harvest and peace which starts mid-November and ends around late January or early February.
While we understand now that this phrase and the song is problematic, given the above history and context, let’s also note here that the oppression of Kanaka ʻŌiwi continues, the Hawaiian Kingdom is still not restored, and that Kanaka ʻŌiwi activists and cultural practitioners are fighting on many, many fronts.
In titling this story, and in using this phrase, I have not intended harm or perpetuation of cultural appropriation beyond what has already taken place. Rather, I have used the phrase to evoke a sense of Hilo in December, as experienced by a tourist in this century. And sadly, that includes many things about visiting Hawaiʻi that are inauthentic. If my vision of “the not too distant future” ever takes place, “Mele Kalikimaka” may become one of those phrases that fall out of favor and are seldom used.
The diacritical mark known as the ‘Okina, which looks like a “6”, and indicates a glottal stop,
is used here for all ‘Olelo Hawaiʻi words.
The line over the vowels is called a Kāhako and lengthens the vowel.
The English apostrophe, which looks like a “9”, is used for English words.
Header: Illustration for the story. The hotel room.