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Holidays in hard times

In honor of her plantation camp roots, the Christmas tree featured in Ethel Nagata’s barbershop window was a bare citrus limb spray-painted white and decorated with garlands of folded gum wrappers and simple homemade ornaments.

This was about 25 years ago, back when Nagata’s Kahului Barber Shop was one of the favored gathering spots at busy Kahului Shopping Center. Patrons loved Ethel as much for her playful good humor as her talent with scissors and razor. One year she decided to show folks what Christmas was like on Maui when times were tough.

If memory serves, Ethel got her husband to cut and paint a multiforked limb while she made decorations recalled from her youth. Unpainted tuna and beer cans hung from strings next to Popsicle sticks and pictures snipped from magazines. She said her family could not afford gifts and ornaments. They had to make do with what they could recycle or find.

Christmas during a global pandemic may feel and sound like a dystopian movie, but this is far from the first time island residents have had their joyous holiday tempered by challenges and hardship.

Maui residents of a certain age can smell the sweet scent of orange when they remember the small brown paper bags of fruit they received each Christmas Eve — one apple, one orange and a handful of unshelled nuts. Neighbors and families hosted modest parties, often with Santa making an appearance to give a gift to each child.

Baldwin High School Class of 1943 graduate Yaeko Kobayashi, 96, can cast her mind a little farther back. One of six kids raised by a single mom after her father died when she was 2, Kobayashi says she does not recall having a tree.

“I don’t remember Christmas. We were Christians, but I don’t remember having a Christmas tree. We were so poor.

“They had soup kitchens and we used to help distribute food. During World War II, I attended Baldwin High School. We all had gas masks and we used to have drills at school. The masks were ugly, but they save your life. The bell would ring and we would stand in a row and then run outside and jump in a trench.”

Living under the threat of attack was sometimes unnerving.

“We had blackouts,” Kobayashi said this week. “We had to cover our windows and turn off all our lights. We studied with flashlights under a Japanese futon. Oh, it was awful.”

For some of us, today’s biggest challenges will be missing family and having our holiday traditions disrupted. Others on Maui are wondering how they are going to pay for food, let alone buy gifts for their children. Some families are grieving beloved members whose lives were lost this year.

We wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season. The pandemic may be wrecking havoc with our wishes, but for most of us, there is much to be thankful for.

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