By Léo Azambuja
For the last two decades, the Festival of Lights in Lihu‘e has become part of the local folklore during the holiday season, with its creative and extensive display of Christmas trees and ornaments. And if the inspiration for the festival, the former Christmas House in Kapa‘a, is added to the equation, the tradition spans nearly 40 years.
“It’s really the heart of the holidays on the island, we get people coming from every corner of the island (to see the festival),” said Elizabeth Freeman, the mastermind behind the month-long Christmas festival.
Starting on the first Friday of December, an elaborate display of Christmas lights brightens the Historic County Building and the park in front of it. Inside the 103-year-old building, there is a stunning art installation consisting of dozens of Christmas trees and displays made mostly of recycled materials.
Since 1997, Elizabeth, an artist and a designer, has been meticulously putting together a exhibition she says it helps to strengthen the island’s social fabric. It helps to create community pride and fosters a sense of individual and collective well-being.
The festival’s ongoing theme, “Santa’s Gone Kauaian,” reflects a decoration full of island flavor. There’s a Santa paddling a canoe, a Santa surfing, trees decorated with sea creatures, spam cans, tropical flowers, fish, birds and much more.
“When you walk into the County Building, my intention for the space is a transformative experience,” said Elizabeth, adding her goal is to have the people stop at each of the more than 30 Christmas trees, because “each tree is actually a universe,” each one has “an element of surprise.”
A closer look at the ornaments, and you’ll find out almost everything is made out of recyclables. All year, Elizabeth looks for potential materials for her creations. Stripped seedpods become corals, soda cans are reborn as turtles, fish or angels, Slurpee lids and plastic bottles give life to sea urchins and starfish, beer caps turn into jellyfish, salad bowls resurrect as mermaids, and the list goes on. Everything is repurposed and painted to create a beautiful ornament.
“This is the concept of something for nothing. I feel if a human being can create magnificent beauty out of what others just see as trash, it gives them an inspiration that can carry them through their lives in tough moments,” she said.
Elizabeth doesn’t do it all by herself. During the month of November, what she calls her “Santa’s Workshop” opens at the Pi‘ikoi Building in Lihu‘e, hosting 120 students and a couple handfuls of artists and even volunteers from the Lifetime Stance Program at the Kaua‘i Community Correctional Center. She brings tools and raw materials, does a couple samples of her ideas, then lets the volunteers do their art, trusting “their essential creativity.”
“It’s an enormous endeavor,” said Elizabeth, adding it involves a lot of attention to detail.
The new display for this year is the Undersea Mermaid Sand Castle, a concept developed by artist Rizalyn Llego Ogata, who has contributed to the festival in the past. Other artists who have participated include Laura Schronen, Terry Sullivan, Skip Forrest, Nancy Williams, Suzie Leonard and Jill Kosen.
“I call the work I do at the county building, my installation, the architecture of light and aloha,” she said, because she transforms the County Building’s interior through the use of light, and also because many of the student volunteers come back during the exhibit to explain the creation process.
The work behind the scenes is not just about creating ornaments. The lights in the park were put up by Kaua‘i Fire Department volunteers. Service Rentals and Toolmasters donated the Genie lifts used in the job. Tevita “Manu” Fonua has volunteered for the lighting for 20 years, and he works with volunteers from Oceanic Time Warner, Hawaiian Telcom and KIUC. Food for student volunteers was donated by the Hyatt, Duke’s, Keoki’s, Bobby V’s, Subway, Hukilau Lanai and Kaua‘i Beach Resort. Pepsico donated the drinks.
“There’s so much community contribution to make it happen,” Elizabeth said.
The festival’s inspiration traces back to the late Josie Chansky and her Christmas House in Kapa‘a. For 18 years, “Auntie Josie” and her husband, Joe Chansky, opened their property to the community during the holidays. They decorated their property with Christmas lights and handmade displays, including Santa on a sleigh over the roof and a shining crescent moon over an avocado tree.
But it was inside Auntie Josie’s three-car garage that her magic really came alive. It was filled with hand-made decorations; Christmas trees, wreaths and other ornaments made with bottle caps, restaurant jelly cups, egg cartons, flash cubes, punch cards and anything else most people would throw away — at that time, recycling wasn’t really a choice. The Christmas House became a gathering place for many on the island, who would bring their children to see Auntie Josie’s creations each holiday season.
Elizabeth, who took her son Wyatt (now a 30-year-old) to see the Christmas House, said Auntie Josie turned trash into treasure. The first time they met, Auntie Josie took off her lei — made with pink shoe-lace and soda-pop tops — and placed it around the neck of Elizabeth, who still has the lei. The women would become friends over the years, and Elizabeth would return to the Christmas House every holiday season.
When Auntie Josie’s husband died in 1996, she decided she wouldn’t continue the tradition. Freeman then bought everything for $3,000 at a garage sale and donated it to the county of Kaua‘i. In 1997, Mayor Maryanne Kusaka asked Freeman to put up the display.
To this day, about a quarter of the Festival of Lights is made of Auntie Josie’s creations, which have gone through “museum-quality restoration” under the guidance of Elizabeth.
“Having something that continues through generations is very meaningful, very meaningful to what I consider the health of the community,” she said.
The Festival of Lights opens Dec. 2 with a welcome by Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. and a performance by the Kaua‘i Chorale, followed by a special lighting countdown led by Santa himself. The festival will remain open — with Santa and Mrs. Claus — every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6-8 p.m. through Dec. 24. After Christmas, the festival will open Dec. 30.
Additionally, on Dec. 17, the Kapa‘a Middle School Choir and Ukulele Band will perform from 7-8 p.m., on Dec. 18, flutist Rene Janten will peform, and on Dec. 23 and 24, violinist Kimberly Hope McDonough will perform.
The festival is sponsored by the County of Kaua‘i, the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, HouseMart Ace and Crafts, Oceanic Time Warner and the Friends of the Festival of Lights.
Contact Elizabeth at 639-8564 or at email@example.com to request assistance or auxiliary aid to view the festival.