Hawaii is the only American state that was once a kingdom with its own monarchy. One of the greatest kings was King Kamehameha I, also called, appropriately, Kamehameha the Great. His name means “the very lonely one” or “the one set apart.” A statue of him can be found in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
King Kamehameha I probably was born some time around 1758, the year when Halley’s comet became visible over Hawaii. A courageous warrior, the king conquered and united the entire Hawaiian islands into one kingdom. During his reign, which lasted from 1782 to 1819, Hawaii became an important center in the fur and sandalwood trades.
The last king in the Kamehameha dynasty was King Kamehameha V, who ruled from 1863 to 1872. During this time, the king proclaimed June 11 as a day to honor his grandfather, King Kamehameha I.
The most important ritual of the celebration dates back to 1901 after the Territory of Hawaii was established. It is the afternoon draping ceremony in which the Kamehameha Statue in front of Aliʻiolani Hale and ʻIolani Palace on King Street in downtown Honolulu is draped in long strands of lei. The same is done at the Kamehameha Statue on the former monarch’s home island, the Big Island of Hawaii. Outside of the state, a similar draping ceremony is held at the United States Capitol where the Kamehameha Statue there is also draped in lei in the company of federal officials.
Late 19th century celebrations of Kamehameha Day featured carnivals and fairs, foot races, horse races and velocipede races. Today, Kamehameha Day is treated with elaborate events harkening back to ancient Hawaii, respecting the cultural traditions that Kamehameha defended as his society was slowly shifting towards European trends.
The King Kamehameha Hula Competition attracts hula groups from all over the world to the Neil S. Blaisdell Center for the two-day event. Prizes are awarded on the second night.
A floral parade is held annually at various locations throughout the state of Hawaii. On the island of Oahu, the parade runs from ʻIolani Palace in downtown Honolulu past Honolulu Harbor and the Prince Kūhiō Federal Building through Kakaʻako, Ala Moana and Waikīkī, ending at Kapiʻolani Park.
June 11 is also the anniversary of the dedication of Kapiʻolani Park. The floral parade features local marching bands—including the Royal Hawaiian Band (the oldest municipal band in the United States)—and artistically designed floats using native flowers and plants. Many local companies enter floats for their employees.
A favorite floral parade feature is the traditional royal paʻu riders. They represent a royal court led by a queen on horseback, followed by princesses representing the eight major islands of Hawaii and Molokini. Each princess is attended by paʻu ladies in waiting. Paʻu women are dressed in colorful and elegant 19th century riding gowns accented with lei and other floral arrangements.
After the parade, the state celebrates a Hoʻolauleʻa, literally celebration, or block party with food and music. Cultural exhibitions are also scattered throughout Kapiʻolani Park—arts and crafts, games, sports, and other events planned by the Bishop Museum, the premier Hawaiian cultural institution.
On the Island of Hawaii, there are three floral parades held. One between the towns of Hawi and Kapaʻau and one in the town of Hilo. There is a King Kamehameha Day Celebration Parade and Ho`olaule`a in Kailua Kona on Ali`i Drive each year. There is also a lei draping ceremony in Kapaau at the statue of King Kamehameha there.