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Only-On-Maui Holidays

Article by Shannon Wianecki

Hawaiians celebrate holidays with particular relish - and a holiday from just about any culture equates an excuse to celebrate. Thanks to the state's rich cultural history, Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese traditions are all honored in addition to nationally recognized holidays. Rounds of red firecrackers noisily usher in the New Year, exploding late into the night. Soon after, bright red banners and lion dancers fill Front Street for Lahaina's Chinese New Year festival. Children line up to feed the lions lettuce or good luck envelopes with a new dollar tucked inside. Fruits are left on the shiny altar upstairs at Wo Hing Temple. Visitors snack ongau (steamed pudding) and jai (a stew filled with vegetables that each symbolize good fortune).

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May first, also called "Lei Day," is a beloved, if unofficial, holiday. Flower-decked students compete in song and hula contests during all-day pageants at school, complete with May Day king, queen, and court. It's worth making friends with a parent whose grade-schooler is performing in one of these charming processions, so you can tag along. And if you find the flowers for May Day irresistibly festive, you should catch a whiff of a high school graduation! Grinning grads are nearly buried beneath hand-sewn lei of every conceivable sort: flowers, silk, candies, dollar bills, stuffed toys, and even inflatable swim rings are draped over cap and gown.

Memorial Day, or any long weekend for that matter, requires hauling out the blue tarpaulin, hibachi barbeque, and fishing poles. Just try to squeeze onto the Olowalu beach campground on March 26 (Prince Kuhio Day) or June 11 (King Kamehameha Day) - state holidays recognizing Hawaii's former monarchs. Don't bother trying to visit a bank, school, library, or public pool, either. Instead, sidle up to that barbeque and offer to share your teriyaki steak.

Maui's O-bon dance season kicks off in June, with nighttime dances held every other weekend at each of the island's Buddhist temples. The Japanese festival pays homage to deceased relatives and encourages those among the living to indulge in carnival-like gaiety. Dancers wearing beautiful kimono wave decorative fans while taiko drummers beat away into the night. On the Fourth of July, paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys) and pau riders (lady equestrians dressed in floor-length skirts) show off fine horsemanship during a colorful parade through Makawao town.

Halloween in Lahaina has earned a worldwide reputation for its creative and bawdy costume displays. Often celebrants arrive dressed in imaginative group themes: a table and six settings, or an amphibious vehicle with separate individuals acting as wheels, windows, and driver. Contests ramp up the competitive factor, resulting in rowdy fun.

Hawaii's admission to statehood on August 21, 1959, is both celebrated and protested on the third Friday of August. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, is remembered with particular reverence.

One of Hawaii's most special celebrations isn't tied to a civic or religious event, however: baby's first luau. Parents save up all year (or longer) for a massive party acknowledging their child's first birthday. Jumping castles, magicians, musicians, and enough food to feed the island twice over are requisite features of this occasion. By now you should know that making friends is a good way to get invited to one of these unique and delicious local events.

Finally, as the year comes to a close, twinkle lights illuminate island resorts one by one. The Ritz-Carlton hosts a lovely tree-lighting ceremony and the palm-lined entrance to the Grand Wailea is suddenly aglow. Someone flicks the switch, and a single star shines brightly in the Norfolk pine above Makawao town. Kula flower growers supply wreath-makers with multi-hued protea flowers and fragrant eucalyptus and cypress cuttings. And before you know it, the firecrackers once again burst across the star-speckled sky.

Shannon Wianecki investigates the often-contentious territory dividing her two passions: sustainability and luxury travel. Her articles on food, travel, social dilemmas, and the environment have been published in magazines throughout the US and Australia. As Food Editor for Maui No Ka Oi Magazine, she takes the pulse of the Pacific dining scene in "Gossip Gourmet." She's the author of several travel books, most recently Fodors Maui 2007. Read her work at

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