The land of Kalikimaka

A “Jingle Bell Rock” sing-a-long is always a little funky. Throw in a few palm trees, add a dash of sand and surf, and toss shorts and flip flops into the mix, and you have a holiday blend verging on the bizarre. But there I was, not far from the beach on the coast of Oahu, happily harmonizing the words, “It’s a swell time … Jingle bell time … To go a riding in a one horse sleigh.”

Alright, before anyone jumps to any dangerous conclusions, a little context might help save what little face I have left.

You see, my mother-in-law (some of you will remember her as dear old “mum,” the bearer of Barbie gifts and the over-the-hill Barbie who challenged the black bear on the trampoline) calls the small Hawaiian town of Kaaawa home. For us, that fortunate turn means free lodging and complimentary poi and masubi once every couple years in the Land of Aloha.

Now I’m the first to admit that the word “Hawaii” conjures visions of lavish hotel rooms, trophy bungalows and maxed-out Visa cards. But not so with Kaaawa. The little burg is a couple dozen miles and a world away from the glitzy beachfront at Waikiki. Home to only a handful of haoles (that’s “white boys” for those who have yet to cross the pond), the town is a mini melting pot personified. Samoans, Filipinos, Fijians, Koreans and other Pacific Islanders hold title to most of the real estate, and for the most part, their houses are squat shacks built on low stilts to avoid tidal surge. Klunkers clutter the driveways, and feral chickens wander haplessly from yard to yard. Midwestern travelers know Kaaawa only as the place where their rental cars tend to accelerate en route to Oahu’s North Shore. For us, the rustic little town is the only reason we keep going back.

And so last Christmas, we once again ran the United Airlines gauntlet (a perilous journey that included three bonus nights in lovely Albuquerque, one case of food poisoning and two episodes of lost and damaged luggage). When the Sands fam finally touched down on Christmas Eve, we promptly motored out of the metropolis and toward sleepy Kaaawa, only to find a party invite waiting on the front door. It was the last thing we expected, but a neighboring family of locals was throwing a Christmas bash that night, and my then 4-year-old, Skyler, had made her way to the top of the guest list.

With my better half still recovering from the Friendly Skies Flu, I had no choice but to dig deep and find my inner ali’i (look for a Hawaiian language primer in a coming edition). Holding tightly to my child’s hand, I strolled across the potholed street, past two hens and a rooster and toward a tin and waferboard hut.

Waiting at the door was a pair of 250-pound Polynesian men, who gave us assertive nods of greeting (the Hawaiian equivalent of “Welcome to family”) and pointed toward the common room and the party’s host. Clad in basic shorts, flip-flops and a tourist T-shirt (no doubt picked up off the clearance rack), Gwen, a shorter Chinese woman, was all hugs and smiles. She offered us up a big “Mele

Kelikimaka,” showed us to our seats next to six other elementary-aged local kids,, and handed us a ragged songbook containing every Christmas carol known to humankind. Like a conductor orchestrating an elaborate movement, Gwen then raised her hands, everyone opened to the first page, and the singing began with “Little Drummer Boy.”

I’ll admit I took a little warming up. In fact, I was still lagging when we hit the second “pa rum pum pum pum,” prompting one of the 250-pounders to give me a firm but friendly nudge in the ribs. He released the pressure and smiled only after my voice grew louder and more melodious. Pinched next to the enforcer, I then happily joined the chorus as we burned through “Silent Night,” paid visits to “Frosty” and “Rudolph” and, yes, busted out our best “Jingle Bell Rock.” And as the final “That’s the jingle bell rock …” sounded, actual bells jingled from outside the hut’s thin walls.

From nowhere, the front door was flung open and a giant Santa Claus appeared (the other 250-pounder had gone missing when Santa asked Rudolph to get the shine going). Sweltering in a thick red and white poly suit and replete with a heavy, white beard, the man also sported Santa’s customary island footwear – black plastic flip-flops. And following a few “Ho, ho, ho’s,” the Samoan Santa started handing out gifts to an eager audience.

As the only official guest (Dad was little more than a prop at this point), Skyler got the first crack at the wrapping paper and opened a box that contained a Barbie cell phone (an item that continues to haunt Sands family road trips and regularly inspires the question, “When can I get a real cell phone, Dad?”). Santa soon hit his stride and a flurry of Chutes and Ladders, My Little Ponies and G.I. Joes flew out of the bag and into happy hands. In quick time, every child was glowing and happily playing with their new toys.

But the bag wasn’t empty.

It was then that Braddah Claus called out two more names, and the biggest surprise of the evening hit me head-on. Throughout our extended caroling, through the gift giving and through my holiday skepticism, two other children had been quietly laying in an adjacent room. Victims of the ultimate misfortune, the bodies and minds of the fraternal twins had been twisted in the womb. The two had spent their lives confined to beds and wheelchairs, living in a shadow world. Still, there were never two happier faces than when they were carried out and put gently on the jolly old elf’s lap.

Those smiles quickly cut through the Barbie cell phone, the phony mystique of the Hawaiian beach vacation and my Albuquerque hangover. A big dose of the real life had just walked through the door, and it was shining. Call it Christmas or call it Aloha, but far from home and on that most unusual of Christmas Eves, something I can only describe as spirit finally made an overdue appearance.

– Will Sands



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