3 Ways to Celebrate King Kamehameha Day

In Hawaii we honor the first king of the Hawaiian Islands, King Kamehameha, who in 1810 was able to unite the Hawaiian Islands under one kingdom. The consolidation of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha into one kingdom is considered by many to be one of the greatest achievements in Hawaiian history. Kamehameha had all the qualities of a strong leader: He had a powerful physique—tall and statuesque—and he was fearless, with an incredibly strong will and many followers. Lot Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V) instituted the holiday to be celebrated on June 11, a day to honor his grandfather, Kamehameha I, and the first holiday was celebrated in 1872.

3 Ways to Celebrate

In the early years, Kamehameha Day was celebrated with carnivals and fairs, foot races and horse races, and a gunshot salute to remember the warrior king. Kamehameha Day has since evolved into a festivity of events, including:

  • Flower lei-draping ceremonies on Kamehameha statues
  • Floral parades
  • Ho`olaule`a (celebration; festival)
  • And more

Although the manner in which the event is celebrated has changed, the honor remains the same. On June 11, Hawai`i remembers Kamehameha I for his work as a fearless warrior and a noble leader, just as his grandson intended so many years ago.

You can celebrate the bravery, determination, and legacy of King Kamehameha in a few fun ways:

1. Visit the Statues

There are four commissioned statues of King Kamehameha, two of which are on Hawai`i Island:

  • One in Kapa`au, North Kohala
  • One in Hilo
  • One on Oahu in downtown Honolulu fronting Ali`iolani Hale
  • The fourth in the Emancipation Hall at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The statues depict King Kamehameha with his right hand extended outward toward the sky. In his left hand he holds a spear. Every year on King Kamehameha Day, the statues in Hawaii are bedecked in flower lei that are 40 feet in length and are draped and extended from his arms. Protocol dictates that the flower lei cannot be draped upon a feather cape, whether it be real or the bronze depiction on the statue.

A statue of the king can also be found at the Las Vegas Hawaiian Marketplace on the Las Vegas Strip and one at the Grand Wailea Hotel and Spa on the island of Maui.

2. Go to the Parade!

The largest of the King Kamehameha Celebration Royal Parades is held in Honolulu and starts at ‘Iolani Palace, making its way through Ala Moana and Waikiki and ending at Kapi`olani Park. However, if you are in Kona or Kohala on the island of Hawai`i, Lahaina on Maui, Lihu`e on Kaua`I, or Kaunakakai on Moloka`i, you will be able to catch one of the parades in honor of King Kamehameha. 

One of the unique things about the Kamehameha Day Celebration Floral Parades is that in addition to the floats, marching units, and bands, you will be able to see Pa`u units made up of women and men who travel the parade route on horseback. Adorned in the colors and flowers representing the eight islands of Hawai`i, the regal pa`u riders are led by a princess representing each of the Hawaiian Islands. The women are outfitted in a long-flowing pa`u or skirt that is made from a single piece of fabric that can be up to 12 yards long. The pa’u skirt starts at the waist and cascades beautifully down past the horse’s stirrups, almost until it touches the ground. A riding unit representing the Island of Hawai’i, for example, will be adorned in lei made of red lehua blossoms and donning red attire, the official color of Hawai`i Island. In recent years, riders have been allowed to use flowers that are meant to depict the red lehua, like the bottlebrush, since it is taboo to pick lehua blossoms due to the plight of Rapid Ohi’a Death, an unfortunate new fungal disease that is killing the ōhiʻa flowers.  

Preparing a mounted unit involves weeks of work, from training and bonding with your horse to gathering flowers for your lei, sewing your clothing, making the lei, and wrapping the pa`u. Strong and confident equestrian skills are essential, as a pa`u princess should be proficient to exude and display aloha while on top of her mount and throughout the parade route. People steeped in the pa`u tradition feel it’s their kuleana (privilege and responsibility) to teach this part of Hawaiian culture and tradition to future generations. 

In 2021, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, all Kamehameha Day events were canceled for the public, including the parade. The annual lei draping ceremony at each of the commissioned statues took place as a private ceremony.

3. Watch the Festivities from Home (with Delicious Snacks)

Even if you can’t join in on the Kamehameha Day celebrations in person, you can still take part from home! In 2021, head to the King Kamehameha Celebration Facebook page to see a new video each day from June 7-11.

The year 2022 will be the 150th anniversary of the King Kamehameha Day holiday. While we look forward getting to celebrate in person, in the meantime, head to YouTube and search King Kamehameha Day Parade to watch videos from local news outlets and community organizations, featuring prior years’ festivities, or search King Kamehameha Day Pa`u Riders to learn how one prepares for a ride along the parade route.

Since the events of King Kamehameha Day are held outdoors, and taking into consideration Hawaii’s warm and humid tropical summer weather, we recommend celebrating with snacks that you will not have to worry about melting, like

Don’t forget water for hydration and lawn chairs to truly make it feel like you’re on the parade route. And happy Kamehameha Day! 

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