Mele Kalikimaka: it's Hawaiian for Christmas nonsense

Update – 29th Jan 2024: long story short – Atlas Obscura retracted this article—and many other—as the interviews were faked! Like AO, I’m gonna keep this up but mainly because it gets traffic every Christmas and Mele Kalikimaka is a real song that really is nonsense. Welcome to the desert of the real and all that!

An enlightening piece from Blair Mastbaum, for Atlas Obscura, about a song I had never heard of. The question: Is ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ Really the Thing to Say on a Bright Hawaiian Christmas Day? The answer: no.

So, what does it mean? “Nothing,” says Holton. “It’s basically gibberish.” Technically, it’s a borrowed phrase: a term in a foreign language, in this case English, transferred into Hawaiian using what linguists call the rules of phonotactics, or sounds available in that language, Holton explains.

“Hawaiian has just eight consonant sounds and nothing like a consonant cluster, where multiple consonants come together to form a new sound, like in the English word ‘strength,’ which starts with three consonants and ends with a four-letter cluster,” Holton says. He adds that the two syllables in “Christmas” became five in “kalikimaka” because of the Hawaiian language’s syllable structure: A consonant sound must be accompanied by at least one vowel sound. “When you borrow an English phrase into another language, it has to follow the rules of the receiving language, which adapts and integrates the word to fit more easily,”says Holton. In the case of “mele kalikimaka,” no one knows for certain who made these linguistic decisions.

De Silva says there’s not even a linguistic need for the phrase: “Hawaiian words could easily be chosen. Hauʻoli, meaning happy, and ʻahaʻaina, meaning festival, would accurately capture the sentiment, and be more respectful of the Hawaiian language and culture.”

I’ve gone this far in life without hearing the song and I think I’ll keep that up. Just say Merry Christmas or ‘Hauʻoli ʻahaʻaina’ if that’s acceptable.

Become a Patron

Since 2015, the site has remained mostly ad-free. I post affiliate links from time-to-time but I try to post alternative links where appropriate. I also write most of these blogs myself. If you read this and enjoyed the content you've so far, why not consider pledging to my Patreon.


  • Brick – $1/month
  • Concrete – $3/month
  • Steel – $5/month
  • Glass – $7/month
  • Bronze – $10/month

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.