HANAMAULU — It started with a Santa and a snowman.
Then came the manger, which survived two hurricanes.
The rest came piece by piece by piece because its creator, by his own words, is a little off. Not off, more like all in.
“I’m the only nuts one in the family,” Michael Koerte said, describing his obsession of turning the front yard of his Hanamaulu home into Santa’s Workshop every year. “I just love it. I love decorating. I love doing it. My main thing is when the children come around.”
When they do, Michael can hear them scuttling about his yard, taking pictures, telling each other to keep their hands off the hundreds of pieces on display. That part is blasphemy, according to Michael, the hands off part. His own little North Pole is made for interaction.
“You always hear them say, ‘Don’t touch, don’t touch,’” he said as he let out a long sigh to emphasize how wrong that assumption is. “I say, let them touch … let them enjoy it.”
It started when Michael was 15 years old. He bought a Santa and snowman and put it in the front yard at 4307 Hoohana Street.
A couple of years later, he added the nativity scene.
Each year, Michael adds a piece, changes up the display. That’s the other thing, there are more pieces than what he puts out. He has a storage shed of decorations — Easter and Halloween displays as well — and his garage is packed with overflow that didn’t make the year’s cut.
“I’m scared to say,” Michael said on estimating the money he’s spent on decorations.
Shipping fees alone are frightening to think about, he said. Most purchases must be done online because finding new products on Kauai can be scarce.
“The biggest mistake I ever made was teaching him how to use the computer because he keeps adding more and more stuff,” said Joanne Koerte, Michael’s sister and roommate at their childhood home.
One of the latest pieces Michael ordered was a new nativity scene. It’s the hallmark of the collection, Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men —three to four feet tall — kneel next to Jesus in the manger along with goats, camels and angels. The old one had to be replaced three years ago. During Hurricane Iwa, it was the only thing in the shed that didn’t fly away.
“That was chicken skin,” Michael said of the moment he realized the box with the manager — unlike everything else — wasn’t harmed. “So I couldn’t just throw it away.”
Instead, he gave it to a neighbor and ordered a new set.
“The shipping was my arm and a leg,” the 53-year-old said. “But I figure it’s going to outlast me.”
And it continues the tradition he put on when his parents were still alive. They died around 20 years ago. The star above the wood manger is the one his father made and Michael takes pride when he can hear the kids talking about baby Jesus and what the scene truly depicts.
“Because a lot of time, nowadays, you know, they think Christmas is just about Santa Claus and snowmen,” he said. “So the nativity scene is really deep in my heart.”
But there are more pieces to the display, of course, and each one has a history.
The elves are from when Walmart first opened, the red, white and blue polar bear was from the patriotism promoted during the first Gulf War, one of the snowmen is so old his face has a hole that Michael threw a poinsettia flower in to hide.
Then there’s the white-clad choir angels. They were made in the 1950s. The Hawaiian sun fades and cracks all of them over time, but Michael rebuilds, repaints, rewires them. The pieces stay lighted until 10 p.m. most nights.
“He has such patience,” Joanne said. “He will sit there for hours and take out every light and re-string the whole blessed thing.”
It’s a small sacrifice, Michael said, to see the kids and families enjoy his collection and to keep his parents memory alive all the more.
“I kind of keep on the tradition for them,” Michael said, looking out at the yard of statues and lights. “They all kind of have a little meaning for me.”