Welcome to The 12 Days of Christmas Songs: an attempt to uncover the forgotten history of some of the most memorable festive tunes. From December 14 through 25, we’ll be tackling one secular song and one holy song each day.
There are two ways to interpret the lyrics of “Mele Kalikimaka,” the 1949 classic Christmas tune that’s been covered by everyone from the Honolulu-born Bette Midler to Seth MacFarlane. The first is to view the song through the lens of aloha, a Hawaiian word that essentially means love, peace, joy, and compassion. That is, the well-wishers are simply sharing their culture with non-islanders.
After all, this feeling of warmth and hospitality comes through in Bing Crosby’s version with the Andrews Sisters, perhaps the most famous and beloved cover (Crosby’s voice is basically synonymous with the sound of Christmas, anyway). It’s there in the slower, sleepier, and lesser-known version by Don Ho, the Hawaiian singer better known for his song “Tiny Bubbles.”
The second interpretation finds a bit more quiet hubris in the lyrics, which have an undeniably humblebraggy component to them:
“Mele Kalikimaka” is the thing to say
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas day
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway
Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright
The sun will shine by day and all the stars at night
“Mele Kalikimaka” is Hawaii’s way
To say Merry Christmas to you
Those words—softened by the gentle, dreamy twang of the ukulele, by the peppy cadence—come off as a challenge, even if unwittingly. What exactly, the song might as well ask, is so great about your “White Christmas”?
Because you know what else is white and many orders of magnitude better than snow? Sandy beaches.
Even if its intent is totally pure, “Mele Kalikimaka” at least lays bare the winter-weather masochism endorsed by other holiday songs—most of which can’t even bring themselves to fully gloss over the unpleasant reality that is subzero temperatures:
“Winter Wonderland” acknowledges that, though snow is “thrilling,” that won’t stop your nose from getting “a chilling.”
“Oh, the weather outside is frightful / But the fire is so delightful.” Translation: Cold is bad. Warm is good!
“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” literally has a line about dying of pneumonia.
Of course, tropical climes aren’t without their problems: mosquitoes, the absence of four seasons, rainstorms, oppressive humidity. “Mele Kalikimaka” is just smart enough to leave those uglier parts out. But more important, the song is a bit of escapism for listeners tired of pretending that it’s an unambiguously charming experience to have Jack Frost nipping at their nose. It’s exactly why Jimmy Buffet, the king of tropical-themed escapism himself, has covered the song. It’s why when Chevy Chase fantasizes about having a pool in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, “Mele Kalikimaka” plays perkily in the background.
The song is a proud musical postcard from a place where the people are, for the most part, perfectly content to not bundle up fleece and thermals, or carol out in the snow. From a land where Santa himself would trade his fur-lined suit for a grass skirt and a lei, and would do it gladly.