Quote Unquote: Meet the Woman in Charge of Spreading Holiday Cheer in Honolulu

For the past 22 years, Sheri Kajiwara has labored in the elves’ workshop to put on Honolulu City Lights, the monthlong holiday display and parade that kicks off this year’s event on Dec. 3. Now in charge, the director of customer service for the City & County dishes about what goes on behind the scenes.
Boss Elf
Photo: Aaron Yoshino

THE CHRISTMAS TREE is donated. Norfolk or Captain Cook variety, we go with either one.


OUR OLDEST THING is our gnome. We don’t use it very often; gnomes aren’t very Hawaiian. It costs about $5,000 to create a new display. 


IT’S ALL HOMEGROWN. But it’s evolved; we used to carve these things with an electric meat cutter.


WITH THE JOB COME MISHAPS. You may have heard Rudolph lost his antlers when he hit a light. So, Rudolph was a doe that year. Nobody noticed. With the Snow Family, Mr. and Mrs. Claus and children, the head flew off of the smallest member and went rolling down the freeway. Much to the horror of kids on their way to school.


IN THE EARLY YEARS, the displays were very Caucasian. About 15 years ago, we went for a better sense of Hawaiian place. Santa did not change. We can debate it, but he’s iconic. Mrs. Claus has changed. She’s got a mu‘umu‘u print on her. We blinged her out: Hawaiian wedding band, Hawaiian bracelet on her arm, a shiny black kukui nut lei and a Hawaiian hibiscus in her hair. And we renamed her: Tūtū Mele.


“In the early years, the displays were very Caucasian. About 15 years ago, we went for a better sense of Hawaiian place.”


FRANK FASI WAS MAYOR when Honolulu City Lights was conceived. The shaka sign was a symbol of his campaign. He wanted Santa to do a shaka, but people said, no, too campaign-ish. But, of course, Mayor Fasi always got what Mayor Fasi wanted. The committee’s vision was to put a shaka on and remove it when Fasi was gone. But, after 26 years of mayorship, Shaka Santa was iconic in its own right.


THIS YEAR’S THEME is Neighborhood Christmas. 


THE ORNAMENTS FOR SALE are replicas of the ones three and four feet in length. We design them. We have the Holoholo Series where Santa goes somewhere on vacation. One year it was snorkeling in Hanauma Bay, another he was surfing Waimea, on the Hōkūle‘a, on the Mighty Mo. They’re available at Macy’s and First Hawaiian Bank, our major sponsors. You can also order online: honolulucitylights.org.


PLANNING WITH THE FRIENDS of Honolulu City Lights begins Jan. 1 and they meet every month. Around the end of October, we go into full mode, cleaning and unpacking. By December, there will be times when we go all the time, maybe take a quick two-hour nap on the lawn and get up and keep doing it.


AFTERWARD, EVERYTHING GOES BACK into these 7-foot-high crates and then to Pearl City, where they’re fixed and cleaned. In the warehouse, Santa and Tūtū Mele actually lie on their backs, side by side, very amicably. 


Honolulu City Lights opens Dec. 3 with The Mayor’s Tree-Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. in front of Honolulu Hale, while the parade is starting at A‘ala Park. Everything winds up by 8 p.m.; at 8:30 p.m., the street sweepers arrive.