Light Up Kauai

Festival of Lights has brought holiday cheer to Garden Isle residents for the past 20-plus years.

The December night sky will shine bright as Kaua‘i prepares for the upcoming Christmas season with a trio of events.

To experience the magic of Santa’s workshop, all one needs to do is find the nondescript back door of County of Kaua‘i’s Pi‘ikoi Building. In a darkened hallway, there’s a handwritten sign taped on storage doors that reads Santa’s Workshop.

Open the doors and the magic of Christmas comes alive in the most imaginative of ways. Brightly decorated Christmas trees and ornaments line every nook and cranny, but these are no ordinary holiday decorations.

Look closely and discover that the beautifully whimsical tropical fish, flowers and rain droplets were once used water bottles, bento containers, soda cans and plastic spoons. All these materials, even old SPAM cans, have been magically transformed into stunning, culturally significant holiday ornaments.

Volunteers are essential to making Festival of Lights a success.

The architect of all this magic is Elizabeth Freeman, a fiery, red-headed, steely eyed artist determined to carry on the tradition set forth decades ago by the late Auntie Josie Chansky.

For decades, thousands of Kaua‘i residents made the trek up Kawaihau Road to view the elaborate Christmas decorations that filled Chansky’s yard and garage.

Freeman and her son were among those residents.

Having studied art and architecture at University of California, Los Angeles, Freeman was especially appreciative of Chansky’s artistry in transforming everyday objects into folksy Christmas crafts — like creating a Christmas tree from toothpicks.

In the fall of 1996, Freeman asked Chansky if she was getting ready for the holidays. Sadly, Chansky had lost her husband, Joe, and decided to end her Christmas tradition, selling all her handmade decorations.

Blue recycled spoons, representing rain, adorn a festive Christmas tree.

Freeman, however, knew this beloved Christmas custom must go on.

“Tradition here matters, it means something,” she recalls saying.

She attended Chansky’s garage sale, spending $3,000 on various pieces of holiday art — including glitter-trimmed miniature ferris wheels and carousels — and then donating it all to County of Kaua‘i. Then-Mayor Maryanne Kusaka graciously accepted the donation, and, as Freeman recalls, Kusaka said, “You’re an artist. If we find you a space, you’ll be in charge of putting this all on display.”

That was 22 years ago. The space turned out to be the first floor of the historic County Building, and over the last two decades, Freeman and her team of volunteers have transformed that space into a memorable, magical holiday experience.

Lights and Christmas decorations adorn a range of vehicles as part of the Lights on Rice Street Parade, which takes place Dec. 7.

Just as thousands of Garden Isle residents made their Christmas pilgrimage to Chansky’s home, today, their children and grandchildren now make the same journey to experience Freeman’s eco-friendly Christmas magic.

The tradition not only lives on, but it also has grown.

“It takes over 270 volunteers who I contact every year to make the Festival of Lights happen,” says Freeman.

This year, that list includes more than 80 students from the Kapa‘a High’s Interact and Key clubs, Kaua‘i High’s Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, and Aida Evans and her children. There is also Te-vita “Manu” Fonua, who has helped with the project for 22 years. This year, Fonua, his son Kesomi and volunteer Alejo Fernandez-Sosa constructed a new hale for the front of the County Building.

As founder, art director and producer, Freeman is meticulous in planning every aspect of the festival, which she lovingly calls “the architecture of light and aloha.”

“My passion is working with light and space, both big and small, from the entire two-story interior to the tiniest detail on a tree,” she says. “I see my art as creating a transformative experience for those who step within the cocoon of magical light.”

Similarly, the Lights on Rice Street Parade came from equally humble beginnings. One year after the Festival of Lights began, a handful of Kaua‘i residents began casually meeting to discuss creating a parade through Līhu‘e town. The parade was originally meant to be a bridge — something to keep people in town between Kaua‘i Museum’s annual Christmas craft fair in the afternoon and Freeman’s Festival of Lights at night. Today, Rotary Club of Kaua‘i is at the helm.

According to Lights on Rice Street Parade chairwoman Eileen Winters, there are nearly 3,000 participants and 10,000 spectators.

“Our wonderful little parade has gone worldwide. Visitors plan their vacations to come see our lights parade. It has been broadcast in many locations (outside of) Hawai‘i,” she adds. “Almost one-quarter of the island’s population is involved in one way or another with our holiday parade.”

Meanwhile, Freeman is also working on new creations for Festival of Lights, including The Fabulous Fish Tree, which is made from plastic salad togo containers; The Hawaiian Shirt Tree made from paper and cardboard; and The Fire and Rain Tree, which features rain made from plastic spoons and a hand carving of Madame Pele by Rizalyn Llego Ogata and her husband Randy Ogata.

In past years, the parade, festival and craft fair were held on the same weekend. This year Festival of Lights opens from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 1-2, with Santa and Mrs. Claus on hand to greet keiki. The following weekend, Lights on Rice Street Parade starts at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7, with Kaua‘i Museum’s Christmas craft fair happening the same day from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information on the events, visit kauaifestivaloflights.com, lightsonrice.org or kauaimuseum.org. All events are free to the public.