About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

From a Willie Nelson song to a luau in Oregon, the spirit that animates the holidays can be found in unexpected places.

Here are four quick stories that have much to say about the holiday season. But be patient. They’re not about the holidays.

They are about a family Bible-reading; an adult son coming home to visit his mother; a New York deli get-together; and the Pacific University annual luau and ho’ike.

In “Family Bible,” Willie Nelson sings about a family that stays at the table every night after dinner while the father reads passages from an old, tattered Bible.

“I can see us sitting ‘round the table,
When from the family Bible dad would read.
And I can hear my mother softly singing
Rock of ages, rock of ages cleft for thee.”

That’s a lovely American gothic image, the well-worn table as the center of family life — a concrete, visible spiritual centerpiece. ‘Round the table.

But that’s pretty rare these days, and not just the dinner-time Bible-reading part. Families are more spread out now, more diverse, less likely even to have dinner together regularly.

The table may still be there, but there are often many empty chairs.

The Son And The Sandwich

One night, sometime in the 1980s during my once-a-year visit with my Milwaukee parents, I went out with some old friends.

I got home well past midnight. The house was silent. I did not want to wake anyone, so I turned on no lights and started to walk quietly through the small house from the front door to my bedroom in back.

“Can I make you a sandwich?” my mother called out from her bedroom.

This offer was only a little about a sandwich. It was about many things — a message that she had waited up for me until the late hours just as she had done before I left for college and never moved back home.

It was a mother-refined, subtle criticism that there was no reason for me to be out this late, an implicit “I was worried.”

My mother would have been delighted to make me that sandwich. Fill me with salami, fill her with joy. Just like old times. Well, not really, but the best she could do with a much older, wayfaring son at least at the same old table.

If I had said yes to the sandwich, she’d have sat with me. (“I’m not hungry. You eat. I’ll just talk. So, how was your night?”)

It’s a graceful, indirect reminder of love with the table as the venue.

Turning down the sandwich, what a schmuck I was!

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi assists workers as they put up a Christmas tree at Honolulu Hale. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The Second Avenue Deli

The easiest way for my wife Joy and me to visit my son and his family in Brooklyn was to take a non-stop flight from Honolulu. But that really wasn’t easy at all — 11 hours overnight sitting in “extra comfort” but still economy. You know what flying is like these days.

We’d arrive at JFK at 7 a.m., totally zonked. Then an hour ride through rush hour traffic to our friend’s Manhattan condo where we stayed.

The rest of that day, we tried to find the right combination of naps and exercise to fight jet lag. Hungry but really not ready to go out for dinner.

But we did. The three of us made the short walk to Second Avenue Deli for a late dinner and reunion with my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

Why the deli? None of the six of us ate deli food anymore. My Brooklyn family hardly ever ate meat. Neither did I.

The Brooklyn group had to travel an hour one way, on a school night yet, to get to a restaurant they would never choose.

Why the deli, then? Sure, there was some guilty pleasure involved. Just the smell of a deli is enough to get a cardiologist to stray. Chopped liver — the love you swore off forever until she came to town again.

Really, though, this first night dinner had become a ritual. What was just fun the first time became a cozy, sentimental place commemorating being together again.

We did it because we always did it. It was a borrowed table for an ad hoc group reuniting there for the occasion. Our table but not “our” table.

Pacific University Luau and Ho’ike

Twenty per cent of the 3,500 students on Pacific University’s campus in Forest Grove, Oregon, are from Hawaii. That’s a larger percentage than any other college on the mainland.

Every year the school’s Hawaii club has a luau followed by a show featuring island-style entertainment. Here’s a video of the 2023 performance.

Around 2,000 people attend the luau, and not just people from the college. They come from all over.

That’s a lot of tables. The venue would hold 50 Second Avenue Delis. A Willie Nelson venue rather than a Willie Nelson song.

But really, it is intimate. Or at least as intimate as you can be with your children so far from home, their absence making you happy and proud at the same time it makes you sad.

The luau is a very self-conscious, very island way to maintain community by creating a new community for Hawaii students “seeking a mainland experience with the comfort of knowing there will be a familiar community waiting for them.”

No surprise, the parents are involved from the get-go. I’ve been on the Honolulu-Portland flight with parents on the way to the luau. Picking up the luggage, the carousel is like air freight. Boxes and boxes of foodstuffs and thin ones that look like they hold lei.

Altogether, those are all a Christmas story — also a Hanukkah story, a story of Kwanza and any other holiday in any other religion.

It’s the same story for everyone: How do we hold ourselves together when so many of us are so far apart?

“I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams” may be a sappy song, but it touches a universal nerve.

Happy holidays. And good luck with your family.


Read this next:

John Pritchett: The Polar Bear Express


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Thank you for taking the time to share these. We can all use the positive and encouraging at all times of the year! Mahalo! Happy Christmas to you and yours.

NanPC · 2 months ago

A personal mahalo to you Mr. Milner. These vignettes are very much appreciated as they themselves are a sort of "Comfort food" for the soul especially during this time of year.

TheAdvocate · 2 months ago

Lovely. Merry Christmas!

Kai · 2 months ago

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