The Brightest Tradition
Elizabeth Freeman is seeking help to keep a beloved tradition alive
While some might argue the holiday spirit has nothing to do with its decorations, that doesn’t really hold true for Elizabeth Freeman. As Kaua’i Festival of Lights coordinator and art director since its onset, she has proven that if the holiday spirit is about embodying peace, love and goodwill toward others, she’s got just the collection of decorations to demonstrate it.
“I have memories of the beautiful lights I saw as a child during the holiday season,” she says. “It still makes me smile. I wanted to offer that to the children, to the community.”
Freeman accomplished that 15 years ago when she took it upon herself to save an island Christmas tradition that was threatened into extinction, namely, the “Kapa’a Christmas House” on Kawaihau Road.
The house’s owner, Josie Chansky, was selling the dazzling, over-the-top décor that made it revered as an annual holiday staple, following the death of her husband Joe in 1996. The couple’s house drew in hundreds of visitors of all aged for 18 years, ranging from students of the nearby Catholic school to kupuna and tourists. Joe was such an integral part of turning the house into that fantastic wonderland, his death meant Josie couldn’t continue the decorations on her own. Instead, Josie, who died in 2009, opted to have a garage sale and sell the collection.
Fearing the end of an era, Freeman purchased the majority of the pieces to keep the collection together.
“I was so saddened when I ran into Auntie Josie and she told me she was going to sell everything in her home,” Freeman says. “So many people had gone there, and basked in the glow of her lighted decorations and warmth.” Freeman tried to interest a few other groups in acquiring the display, but she wasn’t successful. “There were no takers,” she says. “So I made it to the second day of the sale and bought everything I could.”
Freeman then donated her purchases to Kaua’i County so the Christmas tradition could be kept alive. Former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka helped find a venue, the Historic County Building, and the County Council agreed. Kusaka then asked Freeman to handle the installation, an annual task she has voluntarily tackled ever since.
“I said ‘yes,’ and to this day I have tried to do it to the best of my ability, and to make it a display of magical beauty that will live on in children’s memories,” she says.
Morphing the tradition of the Kapa’a Christmas House into a new holiday tradition was no easy task, but it’s been successful thanks to the several volunteers and partnerships Freeman has made over the years. Proudly showing off an enormous storage space in the
Pi’ikoi Building housing all the decorations, which she calls “Santa’s workshop,” Freeman points out with pride all the historic little treasures the festival has amassed, from the SPAM can tree to the toothpick tree, Auntie Josie’s creation made of 7,500 green toothpicks.
Of course, it’s much more now than just Auntie Josie’s creations. Thanks to Freeman’s vision, the festival has evolved during the past decade and a half, growing to include displays from other community groups integrating a “Santa’s Gone Kauaian” theme, including Santa steering an outrigger canoe and origami ornaments from the Kaua’i High School Japanese Club. Freeman says this year’s tree is decorated with recycled water bottles morphed into flowers created by the students of the Academy of Hospitality and Tourism at Kaua’i High. Last year’s ornaments sent to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s office in Washington, D.C., will be on display at the festival this year, too.
Though it’s been a great run so far, as with any tradition that spans decades, Freeman is looking for a successor. While it won’t be easy to pass the proverbial torch, it’s her hope that what has become an island institution for folks both young and old will not only continue, but thrive.
“Although my age is an ‘unlisted number,’ it has been many moons since I began coordinating and artdirecting the Festival of Lights,” she says. “My goal is to make sure that this unique and special tradition can be carried into the future for generations to come. This year I’ve begun reaching out, inviting others to take on fun and simple tasks.”
Those tasks include everything from scheduling Santa and elf greeters to grant oversight and database updates.
New volunteers will become a part of the overall vision that perpetuates the “holiday aloha,” accomplished in part by preserving Auntie Josie’s work and partnering to add Kaua’istyle creations from throughout the community.
It’s with that vision that Freeman has been able to make such a long, successful run for the festival that pays homage to the wistful bit of nostalgia one gets from experiencing the same treasured event year after year.
“I love teaching others that, just like Auntie Josie, they can make something fabulous out of seemingly nothing,” she says. “What made (Josie’s) decorations so special was that she was able to turn ‘trash’ into treasure. She was a folk artist of the highest order. Toothpicks, beer caps, soda cans, restaurant creamers, jelly containers and egg cartons, coral pieces and pine cones all came together to create masterpieces of design.”
An artist herself, Freeman not only has a trained eye, but has exhibited her work at impressive venues, including the Smithsonian. Born and raised in Los Angeles, her father, a screenwriter and producer, wrote, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which received an Academy Award nomination.
That keen eye also has helped her spot talent over the years, as she did with one of her chief collaborators, Tevita “Manu” Fonua. The man behind the festival’s Wailua fern grotto tribute piece, Fonua has an adept ability to create lighted, life-size holiday displays.
“A few years ago I saw Manu contemplating some bare hog wire, our raw material for constructing lightweight because it’s easily transportable, and I asked him what he was planning,” Freeman says. “He said that he had been ‘out fishing over the weekend and thought that if Santa visited Kaua’i, he would surely like to go fishing.'”
Freeman’s act will be a tough one to follow, green economist and longtime friend Ken Stokes says. Stokes’ wife, Sue Dixon, will help the cause this year by coordinating Santa’s schedule. “Elizabeth is contagiously thoughtful and enormously motivated,” he says.
Still looking for “a few good elves,” Freeman says the work she’s put into the festival has been well-worth it.
“I love meeting young couples who come in with their little ones and say that their families had taken them to see Auntie Josie’s house when they were little, and they’re so happy to share it with their children,” she says. “My happy meter goes off the scales.”
The Festival of Lights is at the Historic County Building in Lihu’e, 6-8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday Dec. 1-24. Admission is free.