Monday, June 2, 2014

Whatever Happened to May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii?

On a bright, startlingly cloudless day in Haiku, I watched the royal court step onto the grassy field at Haiku Elementary School. It was sunny, unlike the May Days of my childhood. I could hear the relief from the parents and spectators next to me. It wasn’t going to rain this year!

Haiku Elementary's May Day King and Queen,
with part of their royal court, 2013.

But something about a rainy May Day instantly transports me back to the past.

The May Days of my childhood were extravagant affairs, with months of planning, practice and looking for the right costume pieces. It is no small feat to find a pair of white gloves in a small, pineapple plantation town in Hawaii when 90 other children’s parents are looking for the same white gloves! This was in the days before the internet.

May Day is like Hawaii’s equivalent to a Christmas pageant that has a role for every single child.

We had a royal court, with a king and a queen of Hawaii surrounded by the royal princes and princesses from each Hawaiian island. The teachers handpicked the royal court from the graduating 6th grade students at my elementary school. Being selected was an honor and either reaffirmed one’s existing popularity or gave a less popular kid a little more klout.
The prince, princess, kahili bearers (holding the colored posts), and attendants.
Haiku May Day 2014.

The royal court, in other words, was a HUGE deal in grade school.

Each grade performed a dance or song, often to a pop music tune with a Hawaiian flavor. The entire school performed a school song in Hawaiian, using Hawaiian musical instruments: hollow gourds, special sticks, or rounded river stones, depending on one’s grade level. The royal court performed a special hula, dancing barefoot on the gravelly tarmac courtyard. And it always rained. I recall parents and family members standing around the tarmac court with umbrellas overhead. May Day was a day for getting drenched.

Haiku Elementary May Day 2013. Notice the umbrellas in the background!

May Day was also a day for torture. As an uncoordinated, pudgy little girl, I dreaded May Day for months. I was not the smiling, dimple-faced girl who beamed and waved to the audience nor the bouncing boy who showed off for his parents. I wriggled a lot in my seat and prayed that I didn’t totally screw up. It was almost cathartic watching some of the school children on May Day – I could see the shiny, happy kids and the shy, awkward ones. I wanted to tell the awkward kids that they’ll get through it, and once you grow up, no one cares how well you performed on May Day.

Everyone's doing their own thing.

I kept comparing Haiku's May Day to my memories of May Day.

At Haiku Elementary, the royal court was dressed much more simply and was at least twice as big as the royal court of my youth. Each island had the requisite prince and princess but also several attendants. The royal court did not do much dancing, except for the queen and the king. What a lucky royal court! I wouldn’t have minded being on the court if it meant not dancing.

Lots of leis and aloha shirts and dresses for this May Day dance.
Every school does May Day their own way, with their own traditions.

Haiku has the tradition of the teachers performing a hula. Also, the ceremony opened with a Hawaiian blessing in English and in Hawaiian. Iliahi Elementary, named after the Hawaiian sandalwood tree, every year tells the story of how the sandalwood trees were cut down and sold to China for their fragrance. It’s actually a heartbreaking story of how the Hawaiians decimated their own native forests. We also had traditional songs that we sang every year. 

Here are two instagram clips for May Day: opening blessing and conch shell blowing. For some reason, they are not embedding correctly.

But some things are the same, no matter what the school. Parents are so excited to see their children perform and rush up as close as possible to take pictures. Haiku Elementary parents circled around the performance area until they identified their child and snapped pictures or took iphone videos. Watching May Day now, I can say it’s so much more fun as a spectator.

I’ll always think of May Day as a celebration for children, even if there are public festivities for adults and tourists. Generally, elementary schools in Hawaii observe May Day, but intermediate and high schools do not. Some towns and cities in Hawaii also observe May Day.

May Day is considered a tradition in Hawaii.

May Day celebrates Hawaiian culture with flowers, song and dance. On a deeper level, it also pays homage to the defunct Hawaiian Kingdom, once ruled by a monarchy. Like other May Day celebrations all over the world, it’s held on the first of May. It is so beloved that there are songs like “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii.” Websites and travel guides extol May Day as a wonderful experience of Hawaiian culture. Some authorities suggest that you plan your trip to Hawaii to coincide with May Day festivities.
But… this isn’t all true.

Some children really are into May Day.

What’s really true about May Day?

To my surprise, May Day is not always celebrated on the first of May.

Many schools which celebrate May Day, have moved to year round schooling and standardized tests often take place close to or around May 1st so it’s an inconvenient time to celebrate. Private schools like the Waldorf School on May still celebrate it on May 1st or close to it.

Most school celebrations are not publicly advertised and are not marketed to tourists. If you go, you’ll experience the kind of May Day that I grew up with (and suffered from : ). 

These are real "grass skirts" by the way. The original Hawaiian grass skirt was made of ti leaves, not grass or palm leaves. That's what all my sources have told me, until I find out otherwise!

Also May Day is not as widely celebrated as some people may think. I actually had to do some research to find out where or if May Day is still being celebrated because I didn’t hear of any May Day festivities on Maui in 2014 (except for paid concerts).

Update: May 2015: May Day is on a Friday and so there are a LOT of May Day events. I guess it depends on whether May Day falls in the middle of the week or not. See my May 2015 event listing.

Is May Day an official state holiday? Maybe it used to be, but no longer. Banks, stores and government offices do not have special hours because of May Day. According to one Hawaiian history source, May Day was an invented holiday first observed in 1929

Is May Day still celebrated on all the islands?
On Oahu, there is a May Day Waikiki celebration and on the Big Island, there is a May Day Lei Day celebration in Hilo.  On Kauai, there was a lei contest on May Day and a separate May Day celebration over a week later.

On Maui, I originally thought there was nothing going on, except at the schools, since I didn't see any listings. If there was a public Maui May Day Festival, one sponsored by the Maui Visitor’s Bureau, it wasn’t well advertised.

But Maui has so many other festivals in the spring, like the Maui Agriculture Festival, Earth Day, the East Maui Taro Festival, the Haiku Flower Festival, that there is no shortage of fun events for the family and visitors.

So I decided to find out whether any Maui hotels and resorts observe May Day.

Good news! Many of them do. All of the hotels which offer a May Day celebration, said they are free and open to the public.
Beautiful May Day photos at the Wailea Marriot by Makena Zayle on Flickr
Creative Commons license.

Grand Wailea – No May Day celebration this year, but they have had it in past years.
Wailea Marriot – Celebrates May Day every year, but not always on May 1st. This year, it was May 3rd.
Four Seasons – This year was the first May Day at the hotel, and it was actually celebrated on May 1st. They plan to host it next year.
Hyatt Regency – Yes, May Day was celebrated on May 2nd. Lei contest, storytelling, hula.
Kaanapali Beach Resort – Yes, but it was celebrated on May 9th.
Sheraton – No May Day celebration.
Honua Kai – No May Day celebration.
Travaasa Hana – No May Day celebration.
Fairmont Kea Lani –Yes to May Day. Lei making contest, hula dance in lobby. In the past, May Day was always celebrated on May 1st. This year it was on May 2nd.
Ritz Carlton – No May Day celebration.

Tip: If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii so that you can participate in May Day festivities, make sure you check which island you’re visiting. That island may not have a major public May Day event. Also some of the hotels mentioned that they do not announce the date for May Day until early spring.

Are May Day celebrations at hotels, resorts and other public places the same as school May Day festivals? Is one better or more authentic than another?

I don’t know. Since I’m not a tourist in Hawaii, I wouldn’t normally attend a May Day at a hotel or resort. And I’ve never attended Waikiki May Day or the May Day celebration on the Big Island. I suspect that most May Day festivities at resorts or public locations do not have a Hawaiian royal court representing all the islands.

Parents and family relatives love to take May Day pictures of their children!

Also, in terms of which is “better” or more “authentic,” I think they are just different experiences. School May Days are hopelessly cute because the star performers are the children. They are for the children and their families. Public or hotel May Day celebrations may feature professional entertainers and hula dancers, including children who have practiced hula for years.

A brief aloha to Frank Hamm in Germany. He recently visited our social media group on Maui and later asked about where to celebrate May Day on May 1st. You would think that if anyone on Maui would know about where to celebrate May Day on May 1st, it would be the people in social media, but our suggestions weren't ideal for May 1st!  I wish I had had the time to research this more fully before he had to fly back to Germany.

This is one of the few May Day photos I found from my childhood days.
It's kind of blurry, just like my memories.

A fun post on May Day at Haiku Elementary is by Jennifer Poppy of Island Gypsy Hawaii.

Did you grow up in Hawaii too? What are your May Day memories? If you grew up elsewhere, what school productions were similar to May Day? If you attended May Day at a hotel or at a county park, what did you think?


  1. This was a totally amazing post Courtney! The stories and the photos just kept coming and coming! Thank you and Aloha!

  2. Mahalo Roxanne! I really appreciate you stopping by and commenting! Aloha!

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