King Kamehameha Day

King Kamehameha Day

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: June 11
Where Celebrated: Hawaii
Symbols and Customs: Floral Parades, Hula Dancing, Statue Decoration


King Kamehameha Day honors Kamehameha I, who unified the Hawaiian islands under the rule of a single monarch. Kamehameha I was born on the island of Hawaii sometime between 1748 and 1761. He died in 1819. The holiday created in his honor is the only holiday in the United States celebrating a monarch who reigned in a territory that is now included in the United States of America.

Prophecy and intrigue surrounded the future king from birth. His father was a high chief, and his mother was the daughter of Alapai, the former king. They gave him the name "Paiea," which means hard-shelled crab. Near the time of his birth, a very bright star appeared in the heavens. Historians suspect that this might have been Halley's Comet, which approached the earth in 1758. Hawaiian prophets declared the star to be a herald, announcing the birth of a great king who would conquer the warring tribal chiefs and reign supreme over all the Hawaiian islands. The former king Alapai grew anxious at this prediction and, when the child was identified as Paiea, the king ordered the infant to be put to death. Local people spirited the child away to safety, however. He was raised as a warrior and took for himself the name "Kamehameha," which means "the one set apart," or "the very lonely one."

When King Kalaniopuu died in 1782, the island of Hawaii was divided up between his two sons. War broke out among tribal chiefs in that same year. Kamehameha took this opportunity to begin a campaign to conquer and unify the Hawaiian Islands. By 1795 he had just about succeeded in this endeavor, with all but the small islands of Kauai and Niihau in his grasp. In 1810, peaceful negotiations resulted in the assimilation of these two islands into Kamehameha's Hawaiian kingdom.

King Kamehameha I was a shrewd politician who won the love of his people by protecting them from the violent retribution of powerful local chiefs. Moreover, realizing that he couldn't fend off European trade, he decided to profit from it. He taxed European ships that docked in Hawaii and established a government monopoly on the production and sale of sandalwood. He also encouraged agriculture and industry and oversaw the importation of new plants and animals. In addition, King Kamehameha outlawed human sacrifice and brought years of peace to the islands by putting an end to the frequent battles between rival chiefs and their followers.

In 1871, Kamehameha's grandson, King Kamehameha V, declared June 11 to be King Kamehameha I Day. Celebrations have taken place on this date since that time. The first King Kamehameha I Day, celebrated in 1872, featured various athletic contests, such as horse races, velocipede races, sack races, foot races, and wheelbarrow races. In 1883 a statue of the former king was erected on the island of Hawaii. In 1901, a small group of people celebrated the holiday by decorating the statue with garlands of flowers (called leis) for the holiday. Since that day, the decoration of King Kamehameha statues with leis has been an important part of the commemoration. The holiday continued to grow in importance until 1939, when the state of Hawaii established the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission. The commission took on the responsibility of planning and managing all the public events that take place during the holiday. The holiday is honored throughout the Hawaiian Islands, but the celebrations are especially fervent in Kohala, on the island of Hawaii, the district where King Kamehameha I was born and where he grew up.


Flower Parades

King Kamehameha Day parades usually feature flower-covered floats and pa'u riders. A pa'u is a nineteenth century, full-length Hawaiian culotte-skirt. These flowing garments, made of twelve yards of brightly colored material, permitted women to retain their modesty while still riding horses astride. The women selected as pa'u riders for King Kamehameha Day prepare for the event by practicing their riding, sewing their pa'u costume, gathering flowers, and preparing the eleborate leis worn by the horses and their riders. Marching units, composed of student and community groups, often accompany these parades.

In North Kohala, a pa'u queen leads a retinue of princesses, representing the various islands that make up the state of Hawaii. Pages, outriders, and attendants accompany the pa'u queen and princesses. The parade passes by the statue of King Kamehameha, where the pa'u riders offer ho'okupu, ceremonial gifts symbolizing respect, to the illustrious monarch.

Hula Dancing

Civic celebrations of King Kamehameha Day usually feature displays of timehonored Hawaiian arts and crafts. Hula dancing to traditional Hawaiian music King Kamehameha

often serves as a focal point of the celebrations. In Honolulu, this custom has turned into an international competition. For the past 33 years, the city has hosted the annual King Kamehameha Hula competition on or around King Kamehameha Day. Hula groups from as far away as California, Nevada, and Japan take part in the event.

Statue Decoration

On King Kamehameha Day, statues of the monarch are draped in full-length leis of various colors and types of flowers. In the town of North Kohala, both individuals and organizations craft twenty-two-foot-long leis to drape over the arms and body of the nine-foot bronze statue. These leis are offered in admiration and respect for the once-powerful king. Some of the local groups that participate in the ceremony are the Royal Order of Kamehameha, Na papa Kanaka 'O Pu'ukohola, and the Kaahumanu Society. A ceremony accompanies the draping of the garlands. The ceremony includes the recounting of historical facts concerning the king, musical performances, hula dancing, and chanting.

North Kohala's Kamehameha statue is the oldest in Hawaii. In 1878, the Hawaiian legislature commissioned a French artist to make the statue, originally intended to stand outside the Judiciary Building in Honolulu. After French sculptors completed the piece, they shipped it from Paris to Hawaii. Sadly, the ship carrying the statue sunk near the Falkland Islands. Another statue was made for the city of Honolulu. The original statue was eventually recovered, however, and installed in North Kohala in 1912. The king's statue in Honolulu is also the site of an important statue decoration ceremony on King Kamehmeha Day.


King Kamehameha Celebration Commission

Library of Congress Local Legacies

North Kohala Kamehameha Day
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009
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