Talk Story — Elizabeth Freeman

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Elizabeth Freeman checks on the pineapples and palm trees created by Aida Roslin and Angeline Roslin from recycled bento box covers at Santa’s Workshop.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Elizabeth Freeman explains how the boats need to be secured on the featured tree at Santa’s Workshop.

The Festival of Lights opens its run Friday with opening ceremonies starting at 6 p.m. The light extravaganza is open on weekends through Christmas and open to the public.

Elizabeth Freeman has been busy for the past two weeks, spearheading the effort to get the lights and displays ready for the public’s enjoyment — just as she’s done for the past 21 years.

What is the Festival of Lights?

The Festival of Lights is not only the glorious lights in the historic County Building park, it is also the breathtaking hand-crafted display inside the historic County Building. I tell people “Step inside and let the magic begin.” The Festival of Lights is a Kauai-style holiday wonderland at the historic County Building.

When guests step into the beautiful two-story space, they will see a forest of the most dazzingly beautiful trees like the Spam Can Tree, the Rainbow Tree, the “Bling It On” Peacock Tree, and the Beautiful Kauai Tree filled with handmade decorations created out of recycled materials.

Everyone loves Santa’s Cane Train, the Surfin’ Santa, and the Kauai Mermaid Kingdom.

The decorations are so beautiful we have docents who come from the Kauai High School Academy of Hospitality and Tourism, and the Key Club as well as the Kapaa High School Interact Club standing by the trees to share what they are made of.

Is there a theme?

This year, our new feature tree is dedicated to the Hokulea homecoming earlier this year. Our tree is filled with “boats” made from African tulip seed pods and paper plates. Talented teens from Kauai and Kapaa high schools have placed the most adorable tiny bears inside each boat, creating bear outfits and designing a unique scene in each boat.

Other teens have used their artistry creating sails and hand-cut words like “Hokulea Aloha” out of recycled plastic water bottles … so beautiful and intricate. Other groups used the tops of recycled bento boxes to create gorgeous pineapples and palm trees, and others crafted delightful gingerbread people using beach sand and old cardboard boxes.

And, of course, the Festival of Lights showcases the fabulous decorations created by Kauai’s beloved Auntie Josie Chansky.

Do you work in recycled materials like Auntie Josie?

I have kept up Josie’s tradition of turning “trash into treasure.” But I have always used what’s on hand to create my art. When I was in the fourth-grade, we were studying the California missions which were built out of adobe bricks. I decided to build a mission using the small boxes of matches which had a sliding drawer as my “mold” to form tiny adobe bricks out of mud mixed with dried grass.

Using recycled materials makes sense. I have close to 80 teen volunteers each year so using recycled materials is the most economical way to go. And the results are so gorgeous. I also like to bring the concept of “creating something from noting” to the students. I find that idea very empowering and I want to share it.

Where can one see your art?

Over the years, I have worked both as an artist and designer. I have had my work displayed as part of an exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York, and later by the Smithsonian. Now, I just tell people to go see the Festival of Lights at the historic County Building.

How did you become involved in getting the Festival of Lights launched?

I think many people on Kauai remember Auntie Josie’s Kapaa Christmas House on Kawaihau Road. For 18 years, she turned her home into a holiday destination. What made her home so special was that Josie knew how to turn “trash into treasure,” creating her remarkable decorations out of what most people throw away — toothpicks, Styrofoam cups, flash cubes, bottle caps, egg cartons and more. It became a holiday tradition for generations of families.

Auntie Josie’s husband Joe died in 1996. In grief from her husband’s passing, Josie did not have the spirit to continue putting up her display. She planned to sell it all at a garage sale.

I moved to Kauai with my young son Wyatt 31 years ago. I took him to the Christmas House many times over the years. I loved what Josie was creating and knew it fell into the genre called Folk Art as she was an untrained artist.

As well, she was the most warm and generous person. Back in 1996, I ran into Josie in the Kapaa Big Save and asked her if she was getting ready for Christmas. She said, “No,” explaining that her husband Joe had died and she told me about her upcoming garage sale. I was saddened that Kauai was going to lose such a special tradition. I went to the garage sale. Spending $3,000, I bought everything I could. I next called former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka to donate Auntie Josie’s decorations to the county. Knowing that I was an artist and designer, Maryanne asked, “If we find a special building, will you put them up?” Kauai’s historic County Building was chosen and I founded the event in 1997 christening it “The Festival of Lights.”

I have art-directed and produced the Festival of Lights ever since. Following our first year, I realized that Auntie Josie’s decorations filled less than a quarter of the two story interior. Over the years, my goal has been to transform the interior of the historic County Building into a Magical Holiday Wonderland. I call my vision for the Festival of Lights “The Architecture of Light and Aloha.” I was trained in art and design and my passion is working with light and space both large and small from the entire two story interior to the tiniest detail on a tree. I see my art as creating a place of wonder for those who step within the cocoon of magical light.

From 1996 on, Auntie Josie did not make any more decorations, but she loved my vision for the historic County Building interior and she was there every evening we were open greeting old friends and making new ones until her passing in 2009.

What was Christmas for you before the Festival of Lights?

When I was very little I remember loving it when my parents would take me and my sister and brother out to see all the houses decorated with Christmas lights. But my most special memory was lying under the Christmas tree at night and looking up. I’d make a cozy place underneath to lie down. I wanted to sleep underneath the tree.

I was 12 years old when President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.” I was inspired then by those words. I am still inspired.

I also recognized from a young age that I was a fortunate person … no matter what struggles I was having … there were so many that were having a much harder time.

In my 20s, I realized that the holidays can be tough for a lot of people. I contacted the main home for abused children in Los Angeles to see if I could volunteer. They said they were covered but that I should call another home for abused children in Pasadena. When I called, I learned that they had no holiday program for their children that remained on site over the holidays. When I went out to meet the director, I was told that some of the children are able to return to their families over the holidays.

But there was another group of children which had very dire family situations and they had to remain at the facility over the holidays. This made me sad so I decided to do something. I told the director that I would bring a Santa and elves, provide music and small presents and other treats on Christmas Eve. I rented Santa and elf costumes from Western Costume and rounded up all my friends — one to be Santa and others to be elves. I called our group the Santa Patrol. I was told that the children and the staff loved our annual holiday visit so much and looked forward to it that I continued organizing the Christmas Eve visit for 11 years until I moved to Kauai.

On Kauai, I produced The Christmas Fantasy Faire at Kilohana for 14 years. One of the most special features of the Faire was a huge tent that had about 10 stations where children could come in and make wonderful crafts, all for free. Each station had volunteers that worked with the children and families. It was great fun, and the children loved it.

What are some of the memorable moments during the fun of Festival of Lights?

I love to see the look of wonder on people’s faces when they enter the historic County Building and see the dazzling display.

One of the great moments was when a mother and child came in and told me that her mother had taken her to Auntie Josie’s house when she was little, and now, she was bringing her daughter to the Festival of Lights. I love that continuity between generations.

I also love watching our volunteers who started volunteering as young children grow up at the Festival of Lights. Jonah Stein was only 7 years old when he suggested to me that the Santa Train needed someone to run it. He became the first Train Conductor and has continued in that role for the last 9 years. Other youths who have stepped into that role include Connor Kosen and Jacob Lester.

Who are some of your volunteers and how do you organize the creation of new decorations?

As an artist, very year I envision the new feature tree, new displays and how to make everything more beautiful. I work on Festival of Lights over a five-month time period. All my time is donated. During that time, I make samples of the new decorations and sketch the new displays. I gather all the art materials and recycled materials needed to make the new decorations. Annually, I transform the storage area in the Piikoi Building where the county generously houses our display into a fully functioning art studio. At my annual “Santa’s Workshop,” I give detailed tutorials to the teen volunteers from Kauai High and Kapaa High. I am always amazed by what they create. Kauai is blessed with fabulously talented students!

We are also blessed with great volunteers who decorate the park including the Kauai Fire Department, Spectrum, HawaiianTel Com and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. To help the fire department get the lights in the giant monkeypod trees, Service Rentals and Toolmaster generously donate Genies to hoist the men into the trees.

Another group of volunteers whose help we couldn’t do without come from the Lifetime Stance Program at the Kauai Community Correctional Center. Very talented and hardworking men, they not only install and take down the display, they also light check and repair all Aunite Josie’s decorations and create new decorations and displays. We literally could not do the Festival of Lights without them.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the restaurants and hotels that donate lunches to our more than 200 hardworking volunteers who contribute their time over a two to three week period. Lunches come from Duke’s Canoe Club, Mark’s Place, The Marriott, Hukilau, Hilton Garden Inn, Subway Lihue, Grand Hyatt Kauai, Po’s Kitchen, Subway Kilauea, Fish Express, Smiley’s Local Grinds, Keoki’s Paradise, KFC, and the Kauai Beach Resort.

And, bottom line, I could not do the Festival of Lights without the help and support of Tevita “Manu” Fonua. He has helped me for 21 years. An extremely talented and creative man, Manu is the Park and Interior Logistics coordinator. His children, Teili, Kesomi, Kolotita and Kami have helped throughout the years!

The Festival of Lights is sponsored by the County of Kauai, the Hawaii Tourism Authority, Spectrum and HouseMart Ace.

Are there any suggestions for people to be able to enjoy the Festival of Lights?

My suggestion is to beat the crowds, and don’t wait until the final weekend when it gets very crowded. Come in early — Santa and Mrs. Claus will be there every evening we’re open —and get in the spirit.

To encourage people to come in on Dec. 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10, we are offering a free handmade decoration to each family. In fact, our talented teen elves have been making adorable butterflies out of aluminum cans as our gift.

The opening ceremony for the Festival of Lights is Dec. 1 from 6 to 6:30 p.m. featuring the Kauai Chorale and a lighting countdown led by Santa Claus. Following the lighting, the Lights on Rice holiday parade comes up on Rice Street fronting the historic County Building lawn.

The Festival of Lights is open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through December, and including Christmas Eve. It will be open for a last run, Dec. 30. All for free.

To request an auxiliary aid, or more information, call 939-8564, or email:

  1. Jean Neal November 28, 2017 5:58 am Reply

    What a GREAT event! We had the pleasure of visiting several years ago and enjoyed the Lights on Rice parade and the Festival of Lights at the County Building. LOVED the Santa in Canoe made from Spam cans! Wish I was there to enjoy it this year! Job well done, Elizabeth!

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