By Léo Azambuja

Elizabeth Freeman, founder and director of the Festival of Lights, inside the Historic County Building in Lihu‘e. Photo courtesy of Festival of Lights/Ron Kosen

The Festival of Lights in Lihu‘e turns 21 this year. Starting on the first Friday of December, thousands of Christmas lights brighten the Historic County Building. Inside the 104-year-old building, a spectacular art installation of dozens of Christmas trees and displays, made mostly of recycled materials, completes the festival.

“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.

The Festival of Lights opened Dec. 1, and will remain open — with Santa and Mrs. Claus — every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 6-8 p.m. through Dec. 24, and then again on Dec. 30.

But if you want to beat the crowds, this upcoming weekend is the best time to take your ‘ohana to visit the festival and get into the Christmas spirit.

The Clauses and the Festival of Lights lady, 2011. L-R: Michael Patton as Santa; Elizabeth Freeman, festival head; and Jewels Tidwell as Mrs. Claus. Photo by Danny Hashimoto

Michael Patton as Santa; Elizabeth Freeman, festival head; and Jewels Tidwell as Mrs. Claus in the 2011 festival. Photo by Danny Hashimoto

Freeman said the festival’s attendance increases each year. Last year, during Christmas Eve weekend, about 400 people showed up each night for the display. While Freeman is happy with the excellent turnout, she is encouraging families to come early to avoid the lines and huge crowds of Christmas Eve weekend.

The festival is open this Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The smaller turnout on the weekend before Christmas allows for more time appreciating this unique event that has become part of the island’s Christmas folklore. If you miss it this week, and cannot make it on Christmas Eve weekend, you still have a chance to catch it on Dec. 30.

Contact Elizabeth at 639-8564 or at to request assistance or auxiliary aid to view the festival.

The Festival of Lights

Kolotita Fonua points to the flower she created from a recycled water bottle for the Kaua‘i Rainbow Tree at the Festival of Lights. Photo courtesy of Festival of Lights/Ron Kosen

Since 1997, Elizabeth, an artist and a designer, has been meticulously putting together an 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.”

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.

The late Aunty Josie Chansky and Elizabeth Freeman, Festival of Lights founder and art-director. Photo by Tim DeLaVega

The late Aunty Josie Chansky and Elizabeth Freeman, Festival of Lights founder and art director. Photo by Tim DeLaVega

The festival’s inspiration traces back to the late Josie Chansky and her “Christmas House” in Kapa‘a, an event that started in the late 1970s and lasted for 18 years. Each holiday season, “Auntie Josie” and her husband, Joe Chansky, would open their property to the community. 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. Their three-car garage was filled with dozens of 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.

The “Christmas House” was a gathering place for many who would bring their children to see Auntie Josie’s creations each holiday season.

Elizabeth loved to bring her son to Auntie Josie’s house. When Auntie Josie’s husband died in 1996, she decided to not continue the tradition. Elizabeth 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 Elizabeth 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,” Elizabeth said.

But Elizabeth doesn’t do it all by herself. During November, her “Santa’s Workshop” at the Pi‘ikoi Building hosts 120 students and a couple handfuls of artists and even volunteers from Kaua‘i Community Correctional Center. Other artists who have participated include Rizalyn Llego Ogata, Laura Schronen, Terry Sullivan, Skip Forrest, Nancy Williams, Suzie Leonard and Jill Kosen.

The lights in the park are put up by Kaua‘i Fire Department volunteers. Service Rentals and Toolmasters donate the Genie lifts for the job. Tevita “Manu” Fonua volunteers for the lighting — as he has done for 21 years — and works with several volunteers from different businesses and organizations.

“There’s so much community contribution to make it happen,” Elizabeth said.


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