The US Holiday Celebrating a King, Started by Royal Family: Kamehameha Day

The Honolulu statue of King Kamehameha, a central point of focus for the American holiday unique to Hawaii.

The Honolulu statue of King Kamehameha, the center point of focus for the American holiday unique to Hawaii.

If you only had one day to visit Honolulu, Hawaii, you are hopefully there today or about to arrive.

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A poster for the big day on the big island.

June 11 is one of those rare holidays in the American Pop Culture which manages to serve as both a solemn remembrance and a festival, a little New Year’s Eve and a little Veteran’s Day. It is a state holiday in Hawaii, set aside to honor the “father” of Hawaiians, and the only one in the United States to honor a royal leader, a King of a sovereign land that is now the state of Hawaii.

It’s Kamehameha Day, and this year marks the 142nd year its been celebrated. And while, like all popular holidays be they based in ethnic, religious, regional or professional cultures, Kamehameha Day is marked by colorful events and ceremonies which have not changed and evolved. In a curious way, this fact alone marks it as the highest form of respect for the legendary figure which the holiday was originally created to honor.

A participant in the Lahaina, Maui parade for Kamehameha Day in 2012.

A participant in the Lahaina, Maui parade for Kamehameha Day in 2012.

The holiday’s creation and then its survival, through cultural shifts, a colonial seizure by the American government, and succeeding waves of immigrants from lands far outside the realm of the Pacific lands can also be credited to several other Kings, who did so for the everyday people.

King Kamehameha the Great.

King Kamehameha the Great.

Not unlike George Washington of the United States and Peter the Great of Russia, even though he was flesh and blood, the tall and commanding physical presence of Kamehameha made him a legend in his own time, indeed like a living god to the people over whom he ruled, after he united the people of the eight distinct islands of Hawaii into a kingdom in 1810.

Born on what’s known as the “Big Island” of Hawaii around the year 1758, his iron will, seemingly superhuman strength, wisdom and skill for devising an organized society despite the separation of his nation by water, “Kamehameha the Great” struck all onlookers with respect, awe and sometimes fear.

The young Kamehameha I.

The young Kamehameha I.

The later Hawaiian King, David Kalakaua, while admitting that Kamehameha was “less given to smiles than frowns…more feared than loved…barbarous, unforgiving and merciless to his enemies,” was also “sagacious and considerate in dealing with his subjects” and “accomplished what no one else could have done in his day.”

A depiction of Kamehameha the Great before a battle.

A depiction of Kamehameha the Great before a battle.

He even began his life shrouded in drama, born while Halley’s Comet was making its rare appearance to earthlings below. When his grandfather, King Alapai (a tribal, rather than national leader) was warned by a soothsayer that the child was  a “rebel infant” who would be able to overcome even military chiefs, an order went out to kill the baby. Priests hid him in a cave, and then gave him to be raised by a childless couple, thus sparing his life. His name, in native language, means “the one set apart.”

When King Alapai later discovered that his grandson, now a teenager, was alive, he was permitted to live and brought into the leadership on the “big island.” He became a loyal and resourceful guide for his uncle King Kalaniopuu, but following the man’s  1782 death, Kamehameha battled the king’s son, his cousin Kiwalao for control of the “big island” and defeated him.

A painting showing a range of Hawaiian tribal chieftans before Kamehameha united the islands as one kingdom.

A painting showing a range of Hawaiian tribal chieftans before Kamehameha united the islands as one kingdom.

After winning wars with leaders of the other islands, he unified them all under his control. Kamehameha initiated a thriving sandalwood trade, profited by enacting duties on foreign ships conducting commerce with the islands, created a system of governors to rule each island, outlawed all human sacrifice rituals and legislated a new measure to protect all citizens from physical cruelty, regardless of their status.

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Kamehameha III.

Following the death of the “father of Hawaii,” he was succeeded by two of his sons. His eldest, Kamehameha II (1797-1824) reached out to the western world, treated with the honors accorded to royalty by the British Royal Family but died in London before his scheduled meeting with King George IV.

His younger brother became the third Hawaiian king, Kamehameha III (1814-1854), who established a formal Hawaiian government, increased trade and defended the kingdom against foreign takeovers.

Kamehameha who created the holiday honoring his grandfather to be first celebrated in 1872 and helping preserve ancient Hawaiian cultural customs.

Childless, he designated his nephew Alexander Liholiho (Kamehameha IV, 1834-1863) as successor. Kamehameha IV died at age 29,, having had no children, succeeded by his younger brother Kamehameha V (1830-1872). Although not a direct generational progenitor of the kingdom, Kamehameha V was a grandson of the”Great.” With a growing sense of the Hawaiian culture’s value and the need to preserve it, this “Fifth” king thus established the holiday to honor him,  creating King Kamehameha Day by royal decree on December 22, 1871.

Six months later, on June 11, 1872 the first Kamehameha Day was marked through the islands, with the largest festival taking place in the capital city of Honolulu. There were parades, food booths, craft demonstrations, hula contests, canoe races, among other activities. Six months later, however, Kamehameha V died as a bachelor and, as the constitution decreed, the next Hawaiian monarch was actually voted to the throne, a blending of democratic and constitutional forms of government that is quintessentially Hawaiian in many respects.

A grandson of Kamehameha the Great’s half-brother, William Charles Lunalilo (1835-1874) was elected and thus became the next King of Hawaii. Lunalilo (sometimes identified as Kamehameha VI) ruled for just over a year, wrote the national anthem and did away with property ownership requirements for voting but died a bachelor.

King David Kalakaoa.

The next king was thus also elected. While distantly related to all the royal lines of the islands, King David Kalakaua (1836-1891) was the first Hawaiian monarch not in direct line from Kamehameha the Great. He built the famous Iolani Palace, and was the first Hawaiian king to be honored at a White House state dinner, hosted by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Kalakaua also revived native pride in many older customs which had fallen out of favor once the Hawaiians began copying westerns clothes, diets and other habits. Among the ancient native customs he restored to popular practice was the hula dance, in which hand movements were used to tell stories.

American businessmen with growing and lucrative investments in pineapple and sugar cane on the islands, however, forced Kalakaua into accepting a “bayonet constitution” which robbed him of real power and reduced him to a monarchical figurehead. While visiting San Francisco, he died in that city’s famous Palace Hotel.

It was Kalakuaua’s younger sister Liliuokalani (1838-1917) who then succeeded to the throne as Hawaii’s only reigning Queen but also last monarch.

Lil, as the last Hawaiian monarch and its only queen was popularly nicknamed.

Lil, as the last Hawaiian monarch and its only queen was popularly nicknamed.

When Queen Lil’s lobbied in Washington,. D.C.  to have the monarchy’s power restored she gained President Cleveland’s support. Fearful of having to turn over their firm control of island commerce, American businessmen trumped up claims of their property being threatened with seizure by the monarchist supporters. U.S. Marines were sent in to protect their land interests. The Queen was put under house arrest, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by President McKinley in 1898, making them a U.S. Territory.

Yet even after the overthrow of the monarchy, Kamehameha Day continued to be known as a holiday, but there were no longer any type of celebratory pride in the Hawaiian culture permitted. Within a few short years, however, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalanianaole organized old kingdom loyalists into the Royal Order of Kamehameha I  and the group managed to revive the holiday, again first being celebrated on June 11, 1904.

For the next eight years, the small band of royal loyalists kept it going as practically a small party until, by 1912 enough individual chapters of the Royal Order worked in unison in towns and villages on all the islands to restore the meaning of the day.

Hawaiians on Kamehameha Day recalling the past Kings of a sovereign nation that was essentially stolen.

Hawaiians on Kamehameha Day recalling the past Kings of a sovereign nation that was essentially stolen.

While evidence suggests there no longer exists anyone who can claim that all their ancestors are from the Polynesian Island tribes who first settled Hawaii, marriage over the last two centuries between those with British, Japanese, German, Filipino, Scottish, Chinese, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican ancestries created the genuine Hawaiian identify which is quintessentially American. The gusto with which Hawaiians annually celebrate Kamehameha Day proves to any non-islander just how blended yet united they are in pride for their regionally unique culture.

Continuing the customs from the very first 1872 Kamehameha Day, there are parades with floats which have been elaborately created from the colorful and diverse flowers known to only grow in Hawaii.

A parade float.

Among the expected number of marching bands is also the appearance of the oldest municipal band in the United States, the Royal Hawaiian Band.

Another popular feature of the long Kamehameha Day parades is a battalion of  Royal Paʻu Riders of women in native costumes on horseback, led by a designed Queen, and followed by princesses, all dressed in the riding habit styles seen in the first, mid-19th century parades.

Demonstrations of dance on a parade float.

Now largely moved to indoor auditoriums onto well-lit and roof-covered stages are demonstrations of the traditional hula dances, both female and male dancers and native story interpreters performing in the two-day King Kamehameha Hula Competition.

After the parade, on the grounds of local parks and in neighborhood streets, there are food festivals and block parties, where native foods are dished out and native crafts are demonstrated by masters, there to teach younger generations and encourage their maintaining the custom.

A boys footrace on Kamehameha Day.

A boys footrace on Kamehameha Day.

Civic associations and local schools alike also sponsor various sporting competitions, the most famous being the traditional canoe races, but also footraces and horse races.

Although Kamehameha Day is celebrated in cities and towns all through the eight Hawaiian Islands, the largest is in Honolulu, the state capital.

And among the most anticipated of all the day’s events is the one which reminds participants and spectators, natives and visitors, of the very reason for it all, the man who united the islands into a kingdom and first helped define the Hawaiian culture.

Draping leis on the Great One.

Draping leis on the Great One.

This particular ritual dates back to 1901 when officials first draped yards and yards of native flowers sewn into the traditional leis, around the neck of the larger-than-life statue of the larger-than-life King Kamehameha the Great, across from the Iolani Palace.

Barack Obama, a proud Hawaiian.

Barack Obama, a proud Hawaiian.

An evening event, the lei ceremony is conducted at other statues of the first Hawaiian King throughout the islands.

A smaller version of the lei ceremony also takes place on June 11, at the smaller statue of Kamehameha in the U.S. Capitol Building’s Emancipation Hall in Washington, D.C.

Given the crises he faces every day at the other end of town, its not hard to imagine that a certain chief executive born in the 50th state would rather be at that annual ceremony less than a mile from where he grew up.

Then again, it need not be June 11th and one need not be President to long for a bit of Waikiki.

Here’s some more pictures of Kamehameha Day celebrations in recent years:

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Hawaiian girls at the holiday celebration in Lehaina.

A parade float.

men’s hula demonstration.

The Honolulu parade, 2011.

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Float participants recreating a scene from the days of Kamehameha the Great.

Children learning traditional native Hawaiian weaving.

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A hula competion.

A float with girls performing native Hawaiian music.

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Children stage an historic scene from Hawaii’s past.

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The Hawaiian Queen of a P’au Parade.

Hawaiians taking in a concert of native music.

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A woman in the Kamehameha Day parade with native-grown roses.

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The Kamehameha Day canoe races.

Celebrating the King on his holiday, in front of the palace.


Categories: Diversity, Holidays, Kamehameha Day

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4 replies »

  1. Longing for a bit of Waikiki: I can identify with that! With a little Kailua beach and Princeville, Kauai while I’m at it.

  2. Thank you for this post. I live on the Big Island of Hawai`i and love Kamehameha Day. The music and flowers are always great. The post says the King Kamehameha IV was childless. However, he and Queen Emma did have one son, Prince Albert. He was named after Prince Albert of Great Britain and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were his godparents. Unfortunately Prince Albert died at age 4. Also the last picture of the girls from the Kamehameha School identifies the building in the background as the palace. The building behind them is the state judiciary building which is opposite the palace in Honolulu. This was the parliament building during the days of the monarchy. Thanks again for the great post and I am looking forward to Kamehameha Day tomorrow!

    • I so greatly appreciate your taking time to write, not only for liking the article but also for those important clarifications, which I will make in the article as soon as I’m able to. I also fully appreciate all that is Hawaii, not only the land buts its people and truly beautiful culture. My first trip there coincided with Kamehameha Day and I’ve never forgotten it. Thanks again.

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