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The Country's Coolest Springtime Festival (That You Probably Haven't Heard Of)

Posted by Ted Sturgulewski on

Last month, Alaskans celebrated two of their most iconic traditions, The Fur Rendezvous Festival and The Iditarod Sled Dog Race. They exist to remind us of the history that shaped us as a state, and to pass those customs down to future generations. While these traditions might be unique to Alaska, the idea of shaping a festival around a cultural practice or event is common, with festivals popping up all over the country that celebrate everything from Greek cuisine to Johnny Appleseed himself. There’s one celebration, though, that stands apart as a local touchstone; Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch Festival.

What’s the Merrie Monarch Festival?

We’re glad you asked! To sum it up simply, it’s a cultural festival that highlights all sorts of Hawaiian traditions, but its main focus, far and away, is hula dancing. It takes place every year in the town of Hilo on the north side of Hawaii, The Big Island, and always begins on Easter Sunday. For a week straight, Hilo becomes the focal point of Hawaiian culture and activity, featuring arts, crafts, cuisine, and entertainment from all over the state.

How did it all get started?

While the traditions the festival celebrates originated thousands of years ago, the festival itself has its roots in the late 1800’s. David Kalākaua, the last king of the Kingdom of Hawaii, reigned from 1874 until his death in 1891, and his rule is often described as “the First Hawaiian Renaissance”. Kalākaua was a huge proponent of restoring Hawaiian values and customs, many of which had been forced underground by the arrival of Christian missionaries in the first half of the century. Hula dancing, in particular, had been outlawed in public, and made a triumphant return as a Hawaiian cultural dance with Kalākaua’s support.

Over 70 years after Kalākaua’s death, a group of local politicians, artists, and dancers came together to create a festival honoring the rich cultural traditions of Hawaii, and the late king acted as inspiration thanks to his reinvigoration of Hawaiian culture. They named their event “The Merrie Monarch Festival” after Kalākaua, as he was well known for his friendliness, joy, and love for his people. The original festival even had a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest! As years went on, the festival shifted more and more heavily towards its hula dancing element, and today the competitions held at the end of the festival are considered the most prestigious hula dancing tournaments in the world. 

Sounds cool! How can I check it out?

If you happen to find yourself in the Hawaiian Islands, you can either check it out in person at the Edith Kanakaole Stadium in Hilo, or on the local TV station KFVE. For those of us unfortunate enough to be elsewhere during the event, don’t worry: they have a livestream! Just follow this link to join in on all the Hawaiian hula action this weekend! 

In case you’re curious, here’s a quick rundown schedule of the festival for the next few days:

Friday, April 21st

6:00 pm: Group Hula Kahiko: Hālau hula perform ancient style dances.

Saturday, April 22nd

10:30 am: Merrie Monarch Royal Parade: One of the festival's most entertaining and fun events for the entire family. The parade begins and ends at Pauahi St. and winds through downtown Hilo.
6:00 pm: Group Hula Kahiko & Awards: Hālau hula perform modern style dances with an awards presentation for all group winners.

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