11/12/2013 11:59 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Pam Chun: 5 Ways to Honor Christmas, Hawaiian Style

By Pam Chun

One winter long ago when Hawaiian children still ran barefoot to school, my father's family rode a horse-drawn cart from their taro fields in the back of Manoa valley to the local church. They were enthralled with the Christmas carols and the nativity play, but were confused when the people who had invited them gave each child a gift bag with two things my father and his siblings had never seen before: candy and a nickel. Perplexed with the coin, they played with their nickels until they disappeared through the cracks of the floor to the dirt below. Thirty years later, my father celebrated the season with Christmas trees lit with bubble lights and glass balls, home-made presents wrapped in glittering bows, church services with full choirs, and potlucks crowded with family.

Over three thousand miles away, my husband's father, born to a large land-owning family in Arizona, made sure everyone knew how much he hated Christmas. Pom Pom grumbled about holiday dinners, frivolous decorations and presents, and the jolly moods of everyone, especially his friends.

"Why does he dislike the holidays?" I asked Fred. His mother started planning the family holiday gatherings in August, gave out pot-luck assignments in September, and enjoyed making and giving gifts.

Fred shrugged. "No one knows."

"Has he always complained this much about Christmas?"


Yet we looked forward to the journey to their snow-bound home in the Sierras with food and presents for all. Throughout the week, we'd often turn around and ask, "Where's Pom Pom?" We knew better than to look for my father-in-law or ask when he'd reappear.

Widowed at 95, Pom Pom's health failed dramatically as his first holiday season alone approached. Our family and friends had gathered at our house for Christmas Day dinner when my husband, who sat alone at his father's sick bed, called with the news. We were stunned to silence, then sobs. The man who hated Christmas had died on Christmas Day.

We didn't know then that Christmas Day is the number one day of the year for cardiac deaths, followed by December 26th and New Year's Day. Overindulgence and emotional stress are two cited factors. Especially with seniors, the holidays bring memories of what might have been and those they have lost.

My father, widowed in his 60s, took the bright view. He remembered the warmth of past family joys and wanted to share it with everyone he knew. I flew home when he sent me the schedule of Christmas parades throughout Honolulu and the list of homes with the most elaborate lighted displays we could visit. No one does Christmas like the Hawaiians who deck their city hall with gigantic decorated trees spewing 'snow' lit after an electric light parade. We joined the throngs at Hawaii's creative craft fairs every weekend and sauntered under brightly lit decorations on balmy tropical nights. Up to the time he died at 97, he enjoyed it all.

I look at the holiday season differently now, aware that this time means different things to everyone. Although a time of love, it can be a time of stress. Although a time of giving, it is a time of want. Although a time of sharing, it is often a time of loss. Our own families are scattered across the globe, too far to return for a week or the weekend so we've had our share of lonely holidays. Here's what keeps us happy and healthy during the season.

We expand our circle of family and friends each year.
We take more time with those who have had a difficult physical or emotional year. For friends who can't get around well, we make a point of seeing them for a special meal, taking them to their church or temple for a special event, or bringing a gift of homemade food. Time is the best gift.

We especially delight in random acts of kindness.
These can be simple, thoughtful actions, such as greeting everyone we meet with a smile or an unexpected gentleness. Before we left last year for two weeks, I cut all my blooming orchids and proteas. My neighbors gasped in surprise when I handed them armloads of exotic blooms. Their sons were flying in with their families that day and now they had a stunning centerpiece for their Thanksgiving feast.

We write and create an annual Christmas card.
Writing and designing the annual Christmas card is the best way to think back on the year, the highs that made it special, and the good memories we want to share. Signing each and personally addressing the envelope tells our dearest friends and family that we're thinking of them. For our older friends and relatives, or those living alone, we enclose a personal letter. Often, we call. The lift in their voice--they're always surprised you remembered them--is like receiving a thousand kisses.

We make sure we keep up our energy and spirits.
We go to the gym or for long walks to keep up our energy and spirits. The holidays are stressful despite (or perhaps because of) all we do. This is especially true for caregivers or those in strained family relationships. I have found that sad memories often return and I'll tear up with loss. In our case, we'll forever remember my Christmas-hating father-in-law on December 25th. But we have made a point of remembering the best and the most wonderful memories of holidays past, such as my father's delight in getting his first candy and nickel.

We honor the spirit of the holiday season.
Even in pre-Christian days, the months of the year that coincide with our holiday season are a time for all cultures, all religions, to celebrate the completion of the harvest and renewal of ties for the New Year. We join friends and family in their churches, temples, and gatherings to share what we call "Aloha," which is our sincere feelings of charity, compassion, affection, and love.

The joy and happiness of simple kindness is wonderful to share throughout the holidays.
We can create new memories to share with family and friends and draw upon old rituals that bring us peace. I wish you all a fond Aloha Christmas.

Pam Chun is the author of The Seagull's Gardener and The Money Dragon, named one of 2002's Best Books in Hawaii. Born and raised on on the island of O`ahu, she has been featured on NPR and has spoken at the Smithsonian. To learn about her work, and to read her blog, visit Pam on Red Room.