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Let There Be Lights

It takes a small village of volunteers to make Festival of Lights happen each year.

True to its name, the annual Festival of Lights features holiday décor — made out of recycled materials — that illuminates Kaua‘i’s Historic County Building during the Christmas season.

The most-anticipated event of the holiday season returns to the Historic County Building, and this year brings to life Hōkūle‘a through the use of recyclable materials. Festival of Lights, founded by Elizabeth Freeman (who also serves as art director), has been shining in the Līhu‘e area for decades. While the underlying message of sustainability has remained a theme through the years, there’s always something new to see in the ornaments and décor that color the event. But it’s not just the adornments that make Festival of Lights special; it’s also the volunteers and their passion for the project that proves it is the most wonderful time of the year.

Jonah Stein, 16, is a voluntary conductor of the event’s train, which he helped start nearly a decade ago. When Stein visited Festival of Lights at the age of 7, he wondered why the train wasn’t operating. He suggested to Freeman that it ought to be running. Needless to say, she took his advice, and he’s been helping her out ever since.

A miniature train adds to the charm at Festival of Lights.

“She sat me down in the chair and let me press the buttons,” Stein recalls. “She’s really cheerful. That’s probably one of my favorite things is coming back to see her again. She’s just so much fun to be around and has kept this thing moving.”

Allison Fraley, another Festival of Lights volunteer, agrees.

“She has such an enthusiasm even after all these years; it’s inspirational to me,” says Fraley, the county’s solid waste program coordinator. Her full-time job also falls in line with the message each Festival of Lights event promotes — sustainability. Ornaments and décor are made of recyclable materials, and Fraley is ecstatic that the celebration encourages people to understand the value of reusable materials.

“This stuff is 50 years old, and people are still enjoying it,” Fraley continues. “I just want to help tell the story.”

This year’s Festival of Lights features the Hokule‘a Aloha Tree, a tribute to the iconic canoe’s recent three-year voyage around the world.

Plastic bottles made into sea creatures, SPAM cans turned into delicate ornaments and CDs made into festive decorations are all part of what makes Festival of Lights such a unique activity every holiday season. Some of the objects are decades old and were originally part of the late “Auntie” Josie Chansky’s Christmas folk art collection. She made decorations with bottle caps and Jell-O cups before recycling was even a thing and created a seasonal display at her home in Kapa‘a.

After her husband Joe died, Chansky planned to end the tradition and sell her artistic belongings in 1996, but Freeman could not bear to think of Christmas without Chansky’s holiday display and purchased $3,000 worth of materials from her at a garage sale.

Inmates from Kaua‘i Community Correctional Center and members of Kaua‘i High School’s Key Club, as well as many individual volunteers, are the reason the tradition has continued for more than 20 years.

The entire process takes Freeman almost a year to organize, which includes designing innovative pieces each season, like lotus and lily flowers made from aluminum cans that hang from themed Christmas trees. Every year, she chooses a different focal point, and this year selected the Hōkūle‘a Aloha Tree.

“I find it so startling that in this day and age, I can’t get to a neighborhood without putting the address in my cell phone,” she says. “And yet, they’re traveling the globe with only the sun, moon, stars and tides. It gives me chicken skin just thinking about it.”

Besides wanting to inspire the holiday spirit, she loves being able to bring out people’s creativity by enlisting volunteers to craft decorations every year.

“My belief is that creating something from nothing is incredibly empowering,” Freeman says.

If a student learns that early in life, Freeman believes they will always carry it with them.

“And at some point, (they) will realize that they can turn their life into anything they want,” she says.

This creativity, coupled with the fact that almost everything is made using materials that would have otherwise been thrown away, are what make Festival of Lights one of the most profound events on the Garden Isle.

“I call this the architecture of light and aloha,” says Freeman.

Festival of Lights is free and open to the public from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 22-24 and 30 at Historic County Building in Līhu‘e. Visit kauaifestivalofl ights.com for more information.

AU Abroad!

Everyone’s familiar with Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer, but did you know about Rudolph the Red-beaked Rooster? If you haven’t, Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School student Jacob Lester can tell you all about him when you visit the Historic County Building’s seasonal Festival of Lights display, which is open from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 22-24 and 30. He’ll also conduct a miniature train exhibition, which has been part of the event for decades. Lester has even created a story for each of the locomotive’s tiny characters, including the roosters that pull the sleigh because the “lazy” reindeer decided to take Christmas Eve o˛ . He’s even got a story for a small snowman standing in front of one of the quaint houses that you might otherwise miss.

“Santa brought him to Kaua‘i because he was so cold at the North Pole,” says Lester of the frozen sculpture.

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