Long Live the King - Why Hawaiʻi Celebrates King Kamehameha Day

Taylor Martin

TL;DR: June 11 is King Kamehameha Day, a special holiday in Hawaiʻi where we celebrate the legacy of Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands into the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi and ruled as its first monarch. June 11 is also our birthday here at Hawaiiverse, as we chose this day for its significance of the unification of Hawaiʻi. You can celebrate Kamehameha Day by supporting local businesses at Hawaiiverse.com and in-person across Hawaiʻi.

In Hawaiʻi, we often celebrate holidays and traditions that are unique to Hawaiʻi’s culture and history. Take for example King Kamehameha Day. As the name implies, it’s a day honoring the first king of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. But aside from being just another holiday where state offices are closed, it is a day celebrating the life of a great ruler, who without him, the Hawaiʻi we know today might not have come to be. In this blogpost, we’ll briefly discuss the life of Kamehameha the Great, how he unified the islands, how he got a holiday named after him, and how you can join in on the celebration.

Who was King Kamehameha the Great?

 Kamehameha I, also known as Kamehameha the Great, was originally born as Paiʻea Kalaninui Kamehameha in Kohala on the island of Hawaiʻi, sometime between the years of 1736-1761. Paiʻea Kamehameha was born into a high-ranking aliʻi family: his mother Kekuʻiapoiwa and his father Keōua Kalanikupuapaʻikalaninui were both descended from the lineage of Keaweʻīkekahialiʻiokamoku, the previous ruler of the island of Hawaiʻi. 

As a young child, Kamehameha was hidden away from enemy clans, being raised in seclusion in Waipio until reuniting with his parents in Kailua at the age of five. After the death of his father Keōua, Kamehameha was raised by his uncle Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the current aliʻi nui (ruler) of Hawaiʻi island.

Under his uncle’s care, Kamehameha learned all the necessary skills required to serve as an effective aliʻi, training in subjects such as oral history, navigation, religious ceremonies, and most importantly, warfare. He excelled in athletics and physical feats of strength. At the age of fourteen, he moved the monumental Naha Stone — a sacred stone used by ancient Hawaiians to determine the legitimacy of one’s bloodline. One particular legend states that a person shall be granted the power to unify the Hawaiian Islands if they successfully overturned the stone — a prophecy that Kamehameha would eventually fulfill.

After inheriting the war akua (god) Kūkaʻilimoku from his uncle Kalaniʻōpuʻu upon his death, Kamehameha set off on his conquest by fighting against his cousins and his uncle’s heirs in battles to control the mokus (districts) of Hawaiʻi island. Meanwhile, the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778 brought about an influx of European ships into the islands. Kamehameha realized that these foreigners possessed resources that would aid his goal to conquer all the islands, while also recognizing their own economic and political interests. Thus, Kamehameha engaged in strategic friendships with westerners such as Captain George Vancouver to secure armaments and battleships for his campaign to unify Hawaiʻi. 

Through battles employing both traditional Hawaiian and western warfare tactics, Kamehameha conquered most of the islands in one decade. After gaining control over Hawaiʻi island by defeating his rival Keōua Kūʻahuʻula in 1791, Kamehameha set his sights on Maui and Oʻahu. This culminated in the Battle of Nuʻuanu on Oʻahu in 1795, in which both sides used western firearms and cannons. However, Kamehameha’s warriors were able to bypass enemy cannon fire and successfully forced aliʻi Kalanikūpule’s warriors off the Pali cliffs to their deaths.

Diplomacy was key in winning the remaining islands, as the aliʻi of Kauaʻi, Ka'umu'ali'i, ceded Kauaʻi and Niʻihau to the sovereignty of Kamehameha in 1810 in return for being allowed to continue ruling over his two islands. And so finally, Hawaiʻi was unified under one kingdom — with Kamehameha as its first monarch.

When & why was King Kamehameha Day established?

King Kamehameha Day was first proclaimed by Lot Kapuāiwa (Kamehameha V), Kamehameha the Great’s grandson and the last ruling monarch of the Kamehameha line, on December 22, 1871. It was celebrated the following year on June 11. Accounts state that the holiday was originally meant to commemorate Lot’s legacy on his birthday of December 11, but Lot humbly chose to honor his grandfather instead and set an arbitrary date far away from his own birthday.

Another reason as to why Kamehameha Day was proclaimed was because Lot and some of his ministers disliked Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea, or Sovereignty Restoration Day. Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea was commemorated on July 31, 1843, when the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi was restored after the five month illegal occupation of the British navy. Lā Hoʻihoʻi Ea was and continues to be an important holiday to many native Hawaiians. However, the holiday brought back some unpleasant memories for Lot, hence its replacement with Kamehameha Day at the time.

How is King Kamehameha Day celebrated?

When King Kamehameha Day was first celebrated in 1872, there were many festivities ranging from carnivals and fairs to lots of racing — foot races, horse races, and even velocipede races. Today, Kamehameha Day is celebrated with traditional Hawaiian practices such as hula, along with modern-day music events and floral parades. Many of these floral parades feature paʻu riders — wahine horse riders dressed in beautiful gowns and adorned with leis, who represent a royal court of princesses for each island. 


Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore

The most important and enduring tradition of Kamehameha Day is the draping ceremony of the various King Kamehameha statues. Each statue across the islands is draped with leis and presented with hoʻokupu. Hoʻolauleʻas usually round out the celebrations for the day.

King Kamehameha Day is a holiday celebrating the legacy of Kamehameha the Great, whose unification of the Hawaiian Islands into the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi forever put it on the map. At Hawaiiverse, Kamehameha Day is special to us, as it’s also our birthday! We came together back in 2020 in an effort to unite and empower local small businesses in Hawaiʻi, just as Kamehameha I unified the islands in the 18th century. Here, we proudly showcase brands from each major island:

Hawaiʻi — Laulima

Kamehameha Butterfly Pulelehua Gold Enamel Pin

Founded by a local biologist/artist, Laulima offers a beautiful selection of enamel pins inspired by native and endemic Hawaiian species, such as the Pulelehua — the Kamehameha Butterfly — named after the great king himself.

Oʻahu — Local Kine Tingz

SPAMMM Pineapple Citrus Scent Can-dle Hawaiiverse Exclusive!

From The Gathering Place, Local Kine Tingz offers handmade candles and soaps in familiar scents and recycled packaging to evoke feelings of local nostalgia.

Maui — Kalo Keiki Designz

Hawaiian Coloring Book - English & ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi - Full SheetWith keiki in mind, Kalo Keiki Designz offers sustainable cloth products, as well as children’s toys and educational ‘Olelo Hawaiʻi coloring books and posters.

Kauaʻi — Meli Wraps

Reusable Handmade Organic Beeswax Food Wraps 3 Pack - Coral

Looking to reduce your household waste? Check out Meli Wraps’s reusable beeswax food wraps to replace single-use plastic wrap. They also offer kitchen towels sporting their colorful, marine and tropical plant designs.

Lanaʻi — Hinu Rise


3” Vinyl Pepili "E Ola Ka ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi" The Hawaiian Language Shall Live Holographic Sticker

 Want to personalize things “Hawaiian” style? Hinu Rise has you covered with their wide range of stationery products inspired by all aspects of Hawaiian life — from plants to the ocean, as well as ʻOlelo Hawaiʻi.

Molokaʻi — Iwi Nails

Long-Lasting Gel Nail Strips - ʻĀina Inspired Taro Patch Design

 And lastly, from The Friendly Isle, we have Iwi Nails with their collection of ʻĀina-themed gel nail strips, such as this kalo-inspired pack, to remind us that we all came from the ʻĀina — and of our kuleana to care for it.


As we celebrate Kamehameha Day on June 11, let’s remember and honor a king who, not only was a great military leader, but one whose vision to unite Hawaiʻi came from his desire to protect his people from a rapidly changing world — and to ensure that they continued thriving in it. 







Written by Lori Doctor

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