Celebrate King Kamehameha Day in Hawai‘i Nei
Kamehameha Day is a colorful state holiday in Hawai‘i celebrated annually on June 11th to honor King Kamehameha the Great, the legendary Hawaiian monarch who unified the Islands in 1810.
On a bright summer’s morning in June, the normally busy, hotel-lined beachside strip in Waikiki called Kalakaua Ave has not a car in sight. Rather, locals and tourists alike line either side of the wide one-way street, sitting in lawn chairs with coolers and breakfasts for an optimal view of the show. Surfers, still dripping wet from a session at adjacent Canoes or Queens, walk up to sidewalk, stop with their boards, and wait in the mix with the others.
Then suddenly, you hear the faint sound of music. The distant tune of a cheery marching band, the sound amplifying from down the avenue, now bouncing off the high rises, echoing through the blockaded side-streets. Men on white horses in brilliant red and yellow royal Hawaiian regalia clip-clop evenly down the asphalt holding signs that read: “King Kamehameha Celebration Day Parade” announcing their arrival. Onlookers clap, cheer, and let out supportive “Chee-hoo” calls into the air.
A brilliant parade follows, a concession of people that takes nearly 30-minutes to pass, from flower lei garlanded floats to colorful pa’u riders (traditional ladies in waiting that represented the queen and princesses of Old Hawaii). This parade — one of many across the Hawaiian Islands — celebrates Kamehameha the Great, the Hawaiian monarch who first unified the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and all its eight islands (Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. A public state holiday happening every June 11th since Hawaii’s statehood in 1959, the day has actually honored this great king for many decades before that (over 150 years now).
Who was King Kamehameha I?
Kamehameha I, or, Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea, to be exact (also known as Kamehameha the Great) was the conqueror and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Born in Kohala on Hawaii Island in 1758, the island was divided under two ruling leaders, Kīwalaʻō, and Kamehameha. The two men went to war over control of Hawaii island, and Kamehameha came out the victor. He’d go on to take control of surrounding territories, and would go on to conquer every island in the archipelago, uniting the Hawaiian people as one.
Born into Hawaiian royalty, Kamehameha seemed destined to unite the Hawaiian Islands since birth — an ancient prophecy that spoke of a “light in the sky with feathers like a bird” would be the sign that a great chief was born. Thusly, historians believe that Kamehameha was born in 1758 when Halleyʻs Comet passed over the Hawaiian Islands. Kamehameha grew to become a great warrior and leader, though, one who used Western technology to gain strategic advantages over his opponents on the battlefield. He is celebrated as a Mō‘ī (King) who ruled with compassion and intelligence, embracing foreigners and technology.
After coming into power, Kamehameha became friends with foreign allies. Using these relationships, the king traded the Islands’ sandalwood resource in exchange for Western weapons. It was with that very firepower, that he and his armies were able to take conquer the Islands and by 1810, he became the first actual leader to rule over all them. He would remain in power until he died in 1819 and beyond being remembered as the one who conquered the Islands, he established many unique laws in the Kingdom, such as “Kānāwai Māmalahoe,” (Law of the Splintered Paddle) which protected defenseless travelers, elderly and children.
So Began “Kamehameha Day”
It was Kamehameha’s grandson, Kamehameha V (Lot Kapuāiwa), who instituted the very first Kamehameha Day with a royal decree on June 11, 1872. This first celebration included carnivals, fairs, and races — both by horse and foot. Then, in 1959, when Hawai‘i became the 50th State of the U.S., Kamehameha Day was one of the first holidays to be adopted.
These days, Kamehameha Day is celebrated with a state holiday that features parades, lei-draping ceremonies at the four Kamehameha statues (located in Hawaii, Oahu, Maui, and Washington D.C.), hula performances, beach park BBQs, free street parking, and a day off for many businesses.
Often, these lei are crafted by volunteers and the members of local royal societies, then carried by city and county workers in Honolulu who lift the decorations with a bucket truck to place on the statues of the king and his outstretched arms.
This year, the 106th King Kamehameha Celebration Floral Parade will take place on Saturday, June 10, 2023. Like years past, the parade route begins in front of ʻIolani Palace, then heads down Punchbowl Street to Ala Moana Boulevard, then eventually down Kalakaua Avenue, ending at Queen Kapiolani Park. With free admission for all, it’s a lovely way to honor Hawaii’s greatest king.