Story by Tom Stevens | Illustration by Matt Foster
Every year at this time, no matter where I am, the scratchy phonograph inside my head plays and replays a certain hapa-haole holiday song. You know the one I mean. Relentlessly cheerful, it’s so buoyant you can almost see the little red ball bouncing along the staves. It’s also eminently singable:
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright!
The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night!
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
to say Merry Christmas,
a very Merry Christmas,
a very Merry Christmas to you!
Singability aside, there’s much to admire in Alex Anderson’s 1949 Christmas ditty. Written between two horrific Pacific wars, it injected much-needed levity into an otherwise somber time back in the old Territory of Hawaii.
I was only three in 1949 and so don’t recall the song’s debut. But I can attest that when I reached first grade at Aina Haina School on Oahu, “Mele Kalikimaka” had become a yuletide fixture. Wearing the green cellophane skirts of the day, we accompanied our class rendition with a lively faux hula.
The song swept the territory like wildfire then, and has since shown what the music industry calls “legs.” Even now, decades after it was penned, Anderson’s tune can be found in carolers’ dog-eared song packets the length and breadth of Christendom.
In the hapa-haole canon, only “Tiny Bubbles” rivals “Mele Kalikimaka’s” crossover appeal. In fact, if you were to ask a random cross-section of global citizens to utter any Hawaiian word, “mele” and “Kalikimaka” would probably trail only “aloha,” “mahalo” and “mahimahi.”
Reasons for its ubiquity range from a catchy rhyme scheme to the song’s sunny melody and peppy march tempo. And don’t forget the punchy “to you!” tag — a finale that practically begs for an adorable youth chorale in elf hats and hula skirts.
So: Lively tune, fun dynamics, pop-lock cadence, appealing dance options. All bulletproof assets for any holiday hit.
But I attribute “Mele Kalikimaka’s” longevity to another factor as well: the “green and bright” subtheme. Now that the song has gone viral, it’s useful to remember that in much of the English-speaking world — the northern hemisphere, especially — those hearing or singing the lyrics at this time of year are deeply morose. Tradition holds that caroling is supposed to spread hope and joy, but by mid-December, it’s almost too late for that. By then, northern peoples huddled around their vitamin D lamps have cultivated a dark, foreboding gloom. Anything “green and bright” is still months away, and a “land where palm trees sway” is scarcely imaginable. The sun to shine by day? The stars at night? Forget it.
As a result, northern carolers unfairly overlook “Mele Kalikimaka.” Shivering in sleet-pelted Dickensian misery, noses dripping and fingertips reddening through cut-off mittens, they clutch their trembling song packets. In mournful voices, they croak out lugubrious carols like “In the Deep Midwinter” and “We Three Kings.”
I know this from having caroled my North American neighborhood one cold and foggy night last winter. There were six of us, and we sounded as doleful as an Ingmar Bergman film score. Doors closed discretely in our faces after a few bars.
“‘Mele Kalikimaka,’ page seventeen,” I suggested. “And move those hips.”
Well, sort of. As we circled the neighborhood, belting out the song’s peppy cadences and joyful lyrics, the doors closed a little later each time. I don’t know if we sang any better, but we certainly felt greener and brighter.
So, Mele Kalikimaka, wherever you are.