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In Hawaii, Thanksgiving moves to the beach

Families take advantage of the abundance of scenic coastline to make the day that much more fun.

November 22, 2009|By Tom Koppel

Reporting from Honolulu — Earl Chang's left hand slides smoothly up and down the frets of his acoustic guitar as he fingers the soft chords of a traditional Hawaiian song. His brother Kona picks rhythmically at the lilting melody on the ukulele. Behind them, the Pacific swell crashes on a reef that shelters the nearby beach.

Both frequently play gigs at Waikiki clubs and hotels, and Kona also is a well-known DJ with his own radio show. But this is no concert. There is no stage or sound system. These two young guys are just relaxing, sitting on folding chairs in the shade of a blue canvas canopy, jamming and playing their hearts out. And the only audience privileged to enjoy the mellow sound is a small group of their immediate family, plus my wife, Annie, and I, who have the quirky good fortune to be here that day.

It is Thanksgiving, and we are vacationing in Honolulu, as we do each November. We have come to spend the afternoon lying in the sun and swimming in the ocean at lovely Ala Moana Beach Park, which fringes a sweeping crescent of sugar-like sand and a calm ocean lagoon. The park is a manicured expanse of lawns, palms and leafy shade trees, bisected by narrow waterways with whimsical Art Deco footbridges. Situated on the leeward side of Oahu between Waikiki and downtown, it is a commerce-free magnet attracting laid-back local residents.

Spread out around the park's extensive grassy areas are clusters of open-sided portable shelters, where Hawaiian families have gathered for their annual holiday celebration and seaside picnic. Each family has brought everything it will need for the day: folding tables, chairs, barbecues, Coleman stoves, pots and plates and utensils, and coolers full of food and drink. There are bright inflated beach balls for the kids and musical instruments galore. The aroma of barbecued meat wafts across the grass. It is a cheery, sun-drenched carnival, but we are not really part of it, just visitors from Canada, outsiders observing the scene.

We lay out our beach mat and towels near one group of shelters with long picnic tables that groan under a cornucopia of delicious-looking platters of food. Several guys in matching T-shirts begin to fly an amazing battery-powered model helicopter, which buzzes and does loops in the air practically over our heads. We start talking with them, and lo, it turns out that they and their relatives eating at the nearby tables all belong to one of the most distinguished of Hawaii's many large ohanas, or extended families. It is the Kamakawiwoole ohana, as their T-shirts proudly proclaim. Their fame is because one late family member, Israel Kamakawiwoole (or "Iz," who died in 1997), was one of Hawaii's most beloved musicians and singers, with 15 bestselling albums to his credit. This gigantic man sang with angelic sweetness. His biggest hit on the mainland was a rendition of "Over the Rainbow." The state flag was flown at half-staff when he died.

In the spirit of aloha, one of the family elders, Ed Chang, invites us to join their feast and introduces us. There are about 130 in the clan, from grandparents Ed and his wife, Trudy, to tiny tots. All are wearing distinctively colored T-shirts -- in red, blue, black, orange and green -- with their ohana name and logo printed on the back. Each branch of the family -- uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces and grandchildren -- has been assigned a different color, which simplifies keeping track of who is who, especially among the children, and to which shelter and picnic table they belong. Trudy, Ed, their children and many grandchildren make up much of the blue team -- all 40 or so -- and we settle in at one of their tables.

I mention that we are accustomed to family events in private venues and that we have never known such large groups choosing to celebrate in a public place. They explain that they are not at all unusual and that many ohanas are observing the holiday that day at beaches all around the islands. It has, in fact, become a tradition. Hardly anyone, they say, has a backyard large enough. And besides, in a place with Hawaii's balmy climate, why not gather at the beach and in a spacious park, where swimming can be part of the fun, along with throwing a football and playing tag? It makes perfect sense.

The food is a mix of the usual Thanksgiving and typical Hawaiian fare. Along with turkey and ham, there is smoky kalua pig, gooey poi and refreshingly cool shaved ice. The kids smash a piñata, play Trivial Pursuit and head off for swims in the ocean. The adults bask in the sweet tones provided by Earl and Kona, and we exchange stories about our jobs, education and how and where we live. To them, Canada is slightly exotic, and we want to know what it means to be a native Hawaiian in the 21st century.

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