It's the time of year to anticipate a feast of ground lights when the sun sets. Hawaiians called sunset ahiahi, the time of burning clouds. The ao were important harbingers for those living in deep valleys, particularly in East Maui where the land hid the sun's final dip into the sea, leaving only the red and orange clouds overhead to signal the arrival of po, the night and the next day. Hawaiians measured their days from sunset to sunset.
For hundreds of years, the islands' only light at night came from the moon, the stars and the flickering flames of fires and kukui nut lamps and torches. Then came candles and oil-burning lamps. And finally, electricity created islands of light in the darkest nights.
At this time of year, the islands of light are augmented by fanciful creations that have evolved from traditions and celebrations begun a world away in northern climes. It's the season for Christmas, a day set aside to celebrate the birth of a Messiah. Never mind the fact Dec. 25 may have little historic accuracy. Never mind the fact "Christmas" is trumpeted for more than a month.
The whole idea of associating Christmas with lights has its origins in lands where winter meant cold days of snow and even colder nights. Light in the night meant warmth and survival. At this time of year, Christmas was synonymous with warmth and survival.
The islands, anchored securely in the tropics, are far from the lands that gave birth to snowscapes peopled by the likes of Santa Claus, elves and workshops at the North Pole - a tradition that can be traced to the 1820s, the same time New England missionaries and their message of Christianity first arrived in the islands. Christmas followed almost immediately, needing only the arrival of a few more haole to become a community affair, smack in the middle of makahiki. The Hawaiians' four-month-long celebration of the new year was a time of sports, religious observances and maluhia. Peace reigned because warfare was forbidden.
Where torches might have lit the night for royal parties, islanders have elected to create elaborate fantasies on and around their houses. Electric icicles drip from roofs that have never known a freeze. Snowmen, Santas, elves and reindeer coexist with nativity scenes depicting wise men, a stable, Joseph, Mary and a baby Jesus.
It's possible to guess the age of the fantasy-land creators. Old-timers cut characters out of wood and lit them with blue, green and red bulbs. For years, St. Joseph's Church in Makawao was overgrown with extension cords and old-fashioned lights. The 1974 oil embargo, subsequent higher electricity costs and concerns about safety ended the display. Today, Makawao's major contribution to seasonal festivity is a giant star in the top of the town's tallest tree, plus the ubiquitous icicles on stores.
There was a time when ornaments and lights were not that easy to come by. In the 1960s, local ag officials were excited when they learned of a Christmas tree decorated entirely with the painted shells of snails. Not so today. Maui retailers have all manner of decorations, including complete, plastic and metal trees that require only a nearby outlet.
In recent years, yard decorations have become dominated by wire armature figures and inflatable characters that take on any kind of life only when lit. There's been one household on Makawao Avenue that included a big sport-fishing boat with a Santa on board under a canopy of white lights.
Slide along any residential street on any night, and it's possible to enjoy the creativity and Christmas exuberance of many householders. Some displays grow from year to year with the addition of new characters. Pick a few favorites to revisit and when the lights are no more, mourn the passing of a dedicated Elf.
Many equate darkness on our sunny island with a kind of emptiness. At this time of year, that emptiness is filled with lights celebrating a season of hope. The displays can be elaborate or simple.
Two favorites, not far from home in Waiakoa: The relatively new house sits on a rise overlooking an intersection. The house itself is unadorned. West-facing windows frame a tall, well-shaped tree holding what appears to be a galaxy of tiny stars. Not far away is a house hidden by trees. High above the roof shines a simple three-dimensional star that is more than enough to light the night.
Travel the island after sunset and you will see.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.