For more than a decade, Adam Kolesar has hosted an annual Mele Kalikimaka party in his Brooklyn home. As the proprietor of Orgeat Works, which makes syrups for cocktails, of course tropical cocktails prepared in a bar carved out of an old Airstream are part of the draw. But it’s also a relaxed, inclusive way to greet the holiday season—one that guests (including this one) look forward to each year.
“My wife and I are avid collectors of vintage Christmas gear,” explains Kolesar, who’s also known as “Tiki Adam.” “So, the template for us is it’s a celebration of vintage Christmas collides with a tropical party. Everyone dresses the part; it centers on mid-century.”
“Mele Kalikimaka” is Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas,” a phrase popularized by a song written by Hawaii-born composer R. Alex Anderson and covered in 1950 by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. But the holiday celebration itself developed over centuries.
To be clear, the evolution of the holiday is fraught, as it’s tied into the colonization of Hawaii. It wasn’t part of Hawaii’s Indigenous traditions and was introduced after Christian missionaries arrived from Europe and the American mainland, in the 1820s. Yet, Hawaiians transformed it into something that reflects their unique culture and vibrant spirit. The resilience of the Hawaiian community is an ongoing theme—underscored yet again after wildfires devastated Lahaina and parts of Maui in August.
“In Hawaiian culture, Christmas didn’t exist until the missionaries came,” explains Tim Rita Jr., a Las Vegas-based mixologist and O’ahu native. “So, when we did adopt it, it was the same Christmas that people on the mainland celebrate. Maybe we have Santa Claus in beach attire, or instead of a sleigh, Santa’s in a canoe. We have the Honolulu City Lights, it’s the equivalent to lighting the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.”
Starting around the mid-19th century, Hawaii’s sugar industry attracted immigrants from around the world —China, Portugal, Japan, the Philippines, Korea and Puerto Rico, to name just a few— resulting in a “melting pot of flavors” that make up Hawaiian food and drink today, Rita notes.
That diversity of cultures means every family celebrates the holiday a little differently, says Mari Howe, bar manager at the former landmark Pacific’o on the Beach in Lahaina (which sadly was destroyed by the tragic wildfires that ripped through the island this summer).
“If you want the true Mele Kalikimaka essence,” she says, “make the dishes that are true to your family and give them a tropical spin.”
Today, the beauty of hosting a tropical-inspired party is that it can embrace a wide range of cultural influences—and it doesn’t need to be a strictly Christmas fête, either.
“To me, Mele Kalikimaka means a spirit of welcome during the holidays that’s nonsecular and suggestive of a tropical escape, in what will be the beginnings of winter,” Kolesar explains. It’s also about setting a mood, he continues: “At a traditional Christmas party, you probably won’t serve a Mai Tai.”
A few pointers from the pros on what—and what not—to serve.
Add a tropical touch
Add thoughtful tweaks like pineapple, coconut or other tropical fruit; spices like cardamom or ginger; or decorative (non-poisonous) flowers to your usual holiday favorites.
“It’s not always roasted pig and pineapples!” exclaims Bancaco. “In 42 years, we’ve never done a pig for the holidays.” Instead, his family’s holiday table tends to include whole fish, a whole roasted prime rib or whole duck. This nods to Chinese traditions: “Whole represents wealth, knowledge and longevity.”
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Consider “lū‘au food”
That means “celebration food,” Rita says—“festive, far-from-everyday food for Hawaii.” He recommends laulaus, bundles of food wrapped in taro leaves. “It’s almost like a tamale, filled with pork and fish, or shrimp—it depends who is making it. It’s from the land and sea, blended together and cooked.”
Take a page from Kolesar’s playbook: “We’re lucky to have a Chinese restaurant across the street, and they’re put on notice to deliver pupu platters about every half hour once people start arriving.”
Ask guests to contribute dishes. This isn’t a uniquely Hawaiian tradition, but it reflects the value of giving during the holidays. “The idea of sharing, and the idea of wholeness and wellness and family is the most important ingredient in your celebration,” Bancaco says.
All you need to keep the drinks flowing and the festivities going.
Don’t get stuck behind the bar
“Punch bowls are the way to do holiday cocktails without spending your time shaking drinks all night,” Howe says. “You can have it pre-set, it’s communal, everyone has their punch cup, and you can spend more time socializing.” Try the Malihini Punch, recipe at left.
Flavor drinks with fruit
Whether muddled, juiced, simmered into a syrup or infused into a spirit, tropical fruit is the ideal way to add flair to drinks. “There are so many variations to choose from,” Rita says. “Pineapples, coconuts, guava is really popular in Hawaii, or passion fruit, which we call lilikoi.” For example, the On Cloud Wine freshens up holiday-appropriate mulled wine with pineapple and fresh citrus.
Skip the tiki mugs
Often the imagery depicted is problematic and can even be racist.
Help guests keep an even keel
Tropical drinks can be strong, and if they’re made well, guests may not realize just how strong they are. “Be mindful and have something easygoing,” Kolesar advises. Consider offering a lower-proof drink option, like a spritz or a highball, and make sure no-alcohol options are available. “I now always offer a non-alcoholic cocktail; that’s critical,” Kolesar says. And a fun, eye-catching option like a zero-proof Blue Hawaii means everyone feels like they’re part of the fun.
Go with what’s authentic to you. Think: your usual holiday treatment, but with a little extra tropical, escapist flair, like flowers, birds, palm trees or nautical trappings.
In the sunny spirit of inclusivity, be sure to skip tired or offensive stereotypes: no hula girls, no totems. (If you need a little guidance, Google “Doom Tiki” or “Doommersive,” a project by Indigenous bartender and hospitality advocate Chockie Tom devoted to de-colonizing the tropical genre.)
Try adding these titles from beloved Hawaiian artists to your usual holiday playlist, alongside exotica, surf music and vintage holiday tunes.
- “O Holy Night” by Willie K
- “Winter Wonderland” by Ka‘au Crater Boys
- “Blue Christmas” by Robi Kahakalau
- “Christmas Lu’au” by Kimie Miner and Paula Fuga
I’m Not Hawaiian. Is It Ok to Celebrate Mele Kalikimaka?
Short answer: Yes—just be respectful and appreciative of Hawaii’s culture.
“Hawaiians are very proud and happy people. But we welcome everyone,” Rita says. “Christmas for us almost seems like the closest thing to sharing the aloha spirit, which is very alive and true and what Hawaii’s all about.”
The Spirit of Giving
The holidays are “always about giving,” says Isaac Bancaco, executive chef at Maui’s Pacific’o on the Beach, whether that means cooking or helping out by bringing a dish or drink, or contributing to charitable organizations.
For those seeking to support Hawaii, consider donating to organizations such as the Hawai’i Community Foundation, Project Hawai’i or Make-a-Wish Hawaii. To directly support the employees of Pacific’o, contribute to the Pacific’o on the Beach Employee Fire Relief fundraiser on GoFundMe.
Recipes to Try
On Cloud Wine
Courtesy Mari Howe, bar manager, Pacific’o on the Beach, Maui, Hawaii
Tropical fruit and tiki bitters add island interest to this holiday cocktail. About the tequila: Howe specifically recommends 3 Tres because one of the founders, Keli’l Heen Becker, is from Hawaii.
- 1 ½ ounces blanco tequila (Howe suggests 3 Tres Blanco Tequila)
- ½ ounce Dolin Blanc vermouth
- 1 ounce mulled wine syrup*
- ¾ ounce fresh pineapple juice
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- 2 dashes tiki bitters, such as Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters
- Orange peel, fresh-grated cinnamon, for garnish
Combine all ingredients (except garnishes) in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake hard, so the pineapple juice will cause the drink to froth. Strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Twist the orange peel over the drink to express the essential oils, then use the peel to garnish the drink. Grate fresh cinnamon over the top of the drink.
*Mulled Wine Syrup
Use a muddler to crush 4–6 cinnamon sticks (25 grams) into small pieces. In a saucepan, combine cinnamon, 6 whole cloves, 6 star anise (2 grams) and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 1 bottle of 750 ml red wine and 12 orange peels (peel of one orange), and simmer for another 10 minutes.
Strain out peels and spices through a fine-mesh strainer. Measure the remaining liquid—likely it will be somewhere between four and five cups. Return the liquid to the pan and add the same amount of granulated sugar (about 4–5 cups) while the liquid is still hot. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. When cool, store in a bottle or container with a lid. Keeps, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.
Blue Hawaii (non-alcoholic)
Adapted from Lilo & Stitch: The Official Cookbook by Tim Rita (Insight Editions, 2023)
This drink originated at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort and was created by Waikiki bartender Harry Yee for the Bols company in 1957 (fun fact: Yee also popularized tiny umbrellas in drinks). “It is still the most famous and favorite drink to have at a lu’au,” Rita says. The traditional boozy Blue Hawaii is made with rum, vodka and blue curacao.
- ½ cup fresh lemon juice
- ½ cup simple syrup (1:1 sugar:water)
- 1 ½ cups pineapple juice
- 1 cup coconut water
- 2 teaspoons blue vanilla syrup
- Pineapple slice, with the rind left on; 2 maraschino cherries, for garnish
Combine everything but the garnishes in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well, then strain into a tropical glass or highball glass, over fresh ice. Spear the pineapple on a long toothpick, with a maraschino cherry on each side, and use to garnish drink.
Adapted from Jessica Everett, Managing Partner, Esters Fair Prospect, Maui, Hawaii
“This is our holiday-inspired play on a French 75,” Everett says. “It’s lighter than most holiday drinks, but still very festive in flavor.” The finishing, playful touch: a rosemary sprig dusted with powdered sugar to resemble “a Christmas tree branch covered in snow.”
- 1 ½ ounces pink peppercorn-infused vodka*
- ¼ ounce Pierre Ferrand dry curacao
- ¼ ounce lime juice
- ½ ounce cranberry-ginger syrup**
- 2 ounces sparkling wine Rosemary sprig and powdered sugar, for garnish
Shake first four ingredients with ice, then double strain into a chilled coupe glass. Top with sparkling wine. Dampen the rosemary sprig, then roll it in powdered sugar, and use it to garnish the glass.
*Pink Peppercorn Vodka
Add 1 cup pink peppercorns to a 1 liter vodka (Everett recommends Pau Maui vodka). Steep for 24 hours, then strain.
Combine 1 cup whole cranberries, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, grated zest of 1 orange, 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger, and a pinch of salt in a pan and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes, or until most cranberries have burst open. Let cool, puree and then fine-strain.
Adapted from Tim Rita, Las Vegas, NV
“A punch that welcomes all visitors to your land, home, or just neighboring bar!” is how Rita describes this festive, fruity rum punch. The drink is built on a 50-50 mix of white and aged rums: The former provides lively tropical fruit notes, while the latter adds vanilla and spice. Just a couple of tablespoons of berry liqueur adds holiday-appropriate dark fruit tones (save the rest to make Kir Royales!).
- ½ cup aged rum (Rita suggests Ron Colon Salvadoreño Red Banana Oleo Rum*)
- ½ cup white rum (Rita suggests Royal Standard Dry Rum)
- 2 ½ tablespoons dark berry liqueur (Rita suggests Rothman & Winter Orchard Elderberry Liqueur; crème de cassis or blackberry liqueur also works)
- ½ cup watermelon juice
- ½ cup pineapple juice
- ¹⁄₃ cup lemon juice
- Prosecco or soda water, to top
- Lemon wheels and mint sprigs, for garnish
Combine all measured ingredients in a punchbowl or pitcher. Stir to combine and add a large chunk of ice to chill. Garnish with mint sprigs and lemon wheels (poke the mint sprig through the center of the lemon wheel so it will float).
To serve, ladle or pour into punch cups and top each up with prosecco (or soda water, if preferred). Yields 4-5 four-ounce servings.
*Ron Colon Red Banana Oleo Rum is a Salvadoran rum infused with banana and sweetened with cane syrup. It’s widely available online, but if you can’t find it, sub a quality aged rum—possibly even one from Hawaii; our pick: Kuleana Hokulei Rum, which includes rum aged up to 18 years in its blend.
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Last Updated: October 30, 2023