May Day in Hawaii, a Cultural and Historical Celebration

May Day in Hawaii is more than a spring celebration; it is a history lesson through song

By Cara Fasone

Spring is celebrated on May Day—May 1st—all around the world, but only in Hawaii is Lei Day a cultural and historical celebration. For elementary school kids, May Day is a day where parents come to see their children perform songs, race in relays, and represent the islands of the Hawaiian chain in the school court. Even though it’s a carefree day, it is also a history lesson through song.

Elementary kids performing a hula number (1993)
Photo courtesy of Cara Fasone

Memories of May Day

I was a shy kid, the one hiding and lip-syncing in the back. I wasn’t very athletic either, always last! Nor was I the popular kid in class, so I was never picked for the prestigious Lei Day court. Although I hated it back then, looking back, I realize how special and unique May Day in Hawaii was.

I got to participate in my first May Day program when I was a 6th grader at Kipapa Elementary in Mililani. I attended Kuhio Elementary in my younger years where we celebrated Kuhio Day instead.

Our Kuhio Day, March 26, was very similar to a Hawaiian May Day program
Photo courtesy of Cara Fasone

The musical numbers were pretty much the same, Hawaiian mele and songs from Polynesia and all the countries that make up Hawaii’s diverse population. Unfortunately for me, the relay races were also the same; baton races, hurdles, basketball dribbling.

Relay races were not my favorite part of Kuhio Day
Photo courtesy of Cara Fasone

Crafts and Culture

Although most of the curriculum the month before May Day consisted of song and relay practice, which I dreaded, I enjoyed the lessons in class that would accompany our program. We made leis out of construction paper and cut out cardboard mats for us to sit on during the performances.

We also learned the background of the songs and dances in our lineup. We did the Maori poi dance from New Zealand, the Filipino stick dance, the Samoan slap dance and of course a variety of hula, chants, and songs on the ukulele. I wasn’t much of a performer, but I liked watching the different grades do their song.

May Day King and Queen at Kipapa Elementary School (1994)
Photo courtesy of Cara Fasone

History of the Islands

May Day also celebrates Hawaii’s rich history, teaching kids about the royal monarchy of the past. Each year, a boy and a girl from the graduating class is voted by their classmates to represent each island of the Hawaiian chain.

On May Day, the King, Queen, prince and princess—each representing one island--marched in colorful costumes with feathers and flowers representing the royalty and the their island. In class we learned about the different islands and how King Kamehameha united them.

Kipapa's 6th Grade May Day Court (1994)
Photo courtesy of Cara Fasone

Hawaii Aloha

One of my favorite May Day songs is Hawaii Aloha, an anthem in Hawaii. The chorus says, “E hauʻoli e nā ʻōpio o Hawaiʻi nei, ʻOli ē! ʻOli ē!,” which translates to “Happy youth of Hawaii, rejoice! Rejoice!.” It’s a rousting song that represents everything that May Day in Hawaii is about and shows love and appreciation for our state and home.

When I hear Hawaii Aloha I am taken back to my childhood and I remember May Day. Although I never appreciated May Day as a kid, I feel lucky to have experienced it. It was history and culture lesson that allowed us to experience the majesty of Hawaii’s rich past.

What are your favorite memories of May Day?

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