History of the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo on the Big Island

Jul 26, 2017 | General Information

The Merrie Monarch Festival has a fascinating history. The festival honors King David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king, who reigned from 1874 to 1891. Nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” Kalakaua is credited with reviving Hawaiian cultural practices and arts that had been suppressed for many years by missionary teachings. During his reign, more than 300 ancient hulas were recovered! Kalakaua himself was a talented musician, composer and creator of hula. His love of celebration and having a good time earned him the nickname of “the Merrie Monarch.”

Kalakaua not only supported public performance of hula, he advocated pride in everything Hawaiian including chant. Since Hawaiians had no written language, everything about Hawaiian’s culture and history had to be passed down through generations with hula and chant. Hula and chant also expressed and affirmed the importance of everything in the natural world flourishing in Hawaii.

But the contemporary “Merrie Monarch Festival” owes its creation about a half century ago on the Big Island to the fact that the island was struggling economically. The Hamakua coast had been hit by a tsunami and in addtion its sugar plantations were declining. Helene Hale, County of Hawaii Chairwoman at the time, came up with the idea of attracting tourists to the coastal area. Inspired by the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui, Hale launched the first Merrie Monarch Festival in 1964. It included events such as a King Kalakaua beard look-alike contest and a recreation of King Kalakaua’s coronation.

By 1968, however, support for the festival had declined. Dottie Thompson took over as Executive Director of the festival. Under Thompson, the Merrie Monarch Festival shifted its goal to replicate the ideals of King Kalakaua who had sought to revitalize the culture of the Hawaiian people. The revamped festival gathered the best hula dancers from all the islands to showcase Hawaiian artistry and serve as a celebration of King Kalakaua, Hawaii and its people. The rest is history.

The original Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island aimed to replicate what Kalakaua himself had started on his 50th birthday. Kalakaua created a two-week “Silver Jubilee” celebration of Hawaiian culture on the grounds of Iolani Palace (which he had built). Besides hula and chant, there was a parade through downtown Honolulu. Every year the festival honors the king by selecting a “mo’i kane” (king) and “mo’i wahine” (queen) to portray the royal court which presides over the competition. A large portrait of Kalakaua hangs in the hula venue during the event. The king’s own words on every Merrie Monarch Festival program embody the purpose and spirit of the occasion: “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”