A Hale Koa Christmas Gift

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - December 13, 2006
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Cheryl Apo creates a winter wonderland at the Hale Koa Hotel
Cheryl Apo creates a winter wonderland at
the Hale Koa Hotel

The Christmas gift Cheryl Apo remembers most from her childhood was not one that was wrapped and left under the tree.

“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money,” says Apo, assistant general manager of the Hale Koa Hotel. “Each year my brother and I were taken to see the Christmas decorations at (the) Marshall Fields (store in Chicago), and that was our gift.”

Joyful memories of those festive trips have stayed with Apo and, for the past 21 years, she’s been re-creating the gift at the Hale Koa Hotel.

“We looked forward to those trips and that gift so much,” says Apo, “that I think it made me want to re-create the feeling of joy I had when I was a child, and share it with our guests.”

What started with a few Christmas decorations and a couple of trees has turned into a display that delights thousands of guests and visitors who stop by the hotel just to wander through Cheryl’s winter wonderland.

“To see the faces light up and to see the joy makes this all so worthwhile,” says Cheryl, who begins decorating more than 35 artificial trees in September, then adds dozens more in December when the first shipment of live trees arrives in the islands.

Each tree has a theme, and each year Cheryl is plagued with requests from tourists who want to know where they can buy her unusual decorations. Theme trees are decorated to celebrate everything from pineapples and malasadas to the beach and Waikiki. There’s a Victorian Christmas setting that guests can walk through, and this year one new addition to the lobby is a lifelike, automated reindeer. Apo believes the trees and their themes provide much needed moments of escapism for many of the Hale Koa’s guests and their families.

“Sometime we just look at an older couple enjoying the lights, and you can see the memories right there in their eyes as they’re looking at the trees,” she says.

“It seems especially important during these rough times for the military.”

And if you’re looking at your own collection of lights and decorations, wondering where they’re all going to go in January, spare a thought for Cheryl and her helpers. The Hale Koa Christmas decorations include enough twinkling lights to make Aloha Stadium sparkle, and are stored in containers at Schofield Barracks.

“It’s a lot of work putting this together,” Cheryl admits, “but worth every minute.”

And it’s not just tourists and hotel guests who benefit from Cheryl’s talents during the holidays. She does a tree for each staff department and each office.

“We look forward to seeing which tree we’re getting every year,” says director of marketing Lucy Lau. “Cheryl’s trees are good for morale.”

And in that great tradition of silent giving, inspired by the most famous gift-giver of all, Cheryl delivers her trees after dark, when all the office workers have gone home.

“It’s nice that they can come in to work in the morning and see their tree,” she says.

Decorations have grown over the years to include hundreds of items donated by hotel guests.

“A large part of the joy for people is coming back each year and looking for their own decoration hanging on a tree,” says Cheryl.

She’s not sure she has a favorite decoration - once you get into the thousands it’s hard to choose - but if you ask Cheryl to pick one that means the most, she pauses for a moment before pulling out a tinsel-covered black-and-white photograph of Marshall Fields at Christmas time, circa 1960.

“Someone gave this to me recently,” she says, looking fondly at the picture, “and it just takes me back to those wonderful childhood Christmas days.”

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