How the Merrie Monarch Festival came to be

Posted by Staff Writer on Friday, March 22nd, 2019 at 9:49am


As the Christian missionaries flooded the Hawaiian Islands in the 1800s to spread their churches’ teachings, Native Hawaiians’ beliefs and traditions were oppressed. But King David La’amea Kalākaua, who was elected king of the Hawaiian Nation in 1874, did not ascribe to their beliefs.

Instead, he and his queen, Kapiʻolani, lived by the motto, “Hoʻoūlu Lāhui,” — increase the nation. They supported a renewed sense of pride in Hawaiian culture and sovereignty. Patrons of the arts, they promoted Hawaiian art forms, especially music and dance.  And they worked to preserve the expression of native knowledge — by documenting the ancient storytelling of chanting and hula.

Photo: Public Domain

Fast forward decades later — Kalākaua is the inspiration for the world’s most celebrated hula competition and Hawaiian cultural event. Kalākaua, called the “merrie monarch” for his cheery and joyful demeanor, is the namesake of the weeklong festival dedicated to the perpetuation, preservation and promotion of the art of hula and the Hawaiian culture, according to the festival’s website.

Started in 1963, the Merrie Monarch Festival has become the most prestigious hula competition in the world, attended by thousands of fans who crowd into the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium on Hawai'i Island each spring. This year, the celebrated festival spans from April 21 through 27, offering an invitational arts fair, cultural demonstrations, hula performances and a parade that showcases the many cultures of Hawaiʻi. The Merrie Monarch Festival’s mission is to perpetuate the history and culture of the Hawaiian people in a way that respects and preserves their teachings, according to the festival’s website.

Prior to colonization, ancient Hawaiians used oral communication forms like chanting and hula to chronicle history, including genealogy, mythology and religion. They had no written language. But the arrival of colonizers suppressed those traditions, until leaders like Kalākaua promoted a cultural resurgence. As Hawai’i became one of the most literate nations in the world at that time, the king compiled knowledge from kūpuna and elders into a book, ensuring that future generations would understand their people’s history and relationship with the world.

Photo: Public Domain

But education wasn’t the only way the king sought to preserve Hawaiian culture: For his 50th birthday, he hosted a celebration on the grounds of ‘Iolani Palace called the “Silver Jubilee,” the first festival of its kind. The two-week celebration sought to showcase the Hawaiian nation, featuring chanters and hula dancers who performed in public for the first time in years.

The scene from the celebration that took place more than a century ago is not unlike the one found each spring in Hilo, Hawai’i, where the spirit of the SIlver Jubilee is alive and well. Today, the Merrie Monarch Festival exemplifies the best of the efforts to preserve hula and Hawaiian culture — and perpetuate the islands' rich history.

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