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OHA: Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Where have all the May Days gone?

May Day once had an enduring presence in Hawai‘i’s schools, but today we see signs of its demise. Still, we can often catch a glimpse of children rehearsing hula in the fields during early spring months, or school marquees announcing upcoming May Day events. This once commonly shared performance experience is changing, but why? Where did it come from, and where is it going?


May Day has its roots in pre-Christian Europe when pagans celebrated the transition from winter to spring.

Roman festivals of flowers gave homage to goddess Flora through ritual offerings of milk, honey and garlands. In Sweden, the spring date corresponds with a ritual performance of battle between winter and summer. English druids marked the half-point for the year by dancing around a fire.

While these rituals began as sacred measures to insure a healthy harvest, they evolved into joyful celebrations, a day of play to usher in a long summer of work.


Early Christians perceived these celebrations as wanton and wasteful, and England even banned May Day in the 1600s.

Later, as industrialism hit the 19th century, May Day celebrations spurred nostalgic remembrances of a simpler, happier time with images of a pastoral past. French Catholics successfully dedicated the month of May to the Virgin Mary, avoiding implications of pagan fertility rites.

The revised holiday began to feature children as symbols of innocence, purity and morality.


Immigrants brought a secular version of Europe’s May Day with them to the American colonies, but the Puritans held it at bay. The social climate changed over time, and by the end of the 19th century May Queen Festivals were introduced on women’s college campuses to reinforce social values and character building.

Today in the continental U.S., one family might bring a bouquet of flowers to another on the first of May, but full-blown community celebrations are rare. May Day plays second fiddle to Easter and Mother’s Day, and communal merriment is cast aside in favor of rituals that honor the family and the individual.

1935 Thomas Square Lei Day

Lei Day 1935 at Thomas Square. – Photo: Hawai‘i State Archives


Unlike the continental U.S., Hawai‘i has a strong relationship with May celebrations as an expression of community.

Hawai‘i’s first May festivals showcased its new multi-ethnic identity at the turn of the century. From 1896 to 1920, the Free Kindergarten and Children’s Aid Association hosted May pageantry, dancing and games among children of various ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

In 1907, Punahou School staged an elaborate May Day celebration with a parade of characters associated with medieval Europe such as fairies, milkmaids and court jesters.

Another annual event in the early 1900s occurred each May with the Social Meeting of the Daughters of Hawai‘i. Hundreds of people came together at Queen Emma’s home in Nu‘uanu to chant, sing, dance on the lawn and reminisce about the old days. While this event does not have formal associations with the Euro-American May Day, its content reflects that of Hawai‘i’s modern May Day.

1928 Lei Queen Nina Bowman

Honolulu’s first Lei Queen Nina Bowman and court in 1928. – Photo: Honolulu Advertiser


An entirely different event gave rise to the spectacle of island princesses; at the turn of the century the Floral Parade, held on Washington’s Birthday, presented displays of American patriotism and paraded the territory’s growing number of automobiles, which were lavishly decorated with flowers.

During the 1907 Floral Parade, pā‘ū equestrians appeared costumed as representations of the different Hawaiian islands. Audiences applauded this narrative and pageantry, and as a result a range of festivals and parades repeated it for years to come.

Don Blanding 1935

Don Blanding and a young performer during Lei Day celebrations, circa 1935. – Photo: Archives of Bishop Museum, Honolulu


Don Blanding, a poet from Oklahoma, is most often credited for May Day’s current form.

In 1928, Blanding suggested setting aside a day to celebrate the tradition of giving and receiving lei. The Bank of Hawai‘i hosted a lei competition and transformed its lobby into a flower decked stage for the court. Soon after, the Governor signed a proclamation stating, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawai‘i.”

Since then, the City and County of Honolulu has hosted an annual May Day celebration featuring a royal court, Hawaiian musicians, hula hālau performances, a flower lei competition and a variety of local craft vendors at Kapi‘olani Park in Waikīkī for audiences primarily comprised of visitors. This event serves as a model for many school May Day programs.


The range of May Day programs in schools today reflects the range of how we perceive our multiple and intersecting cultures in Hawai‘i.

May Day school programs often fall on a continuum of styles, overlapping and combining cultural dances in unique ways.

May Day 1953.

May Day 1953. – Photo: Courtesy of Kohala Public Library Archives

On one end of the spectrum, some May Day programs feature solely Hawaiian protocol and hula. They include both hula kahiko and hula ‘auana, with the modern style more prevalent. Schools featuring this style of program send the message that they prioritize Hawaiian culture, although much of the content comes from a hapa haole era.

The next style of performance reflects local Hawai‘i as a melting pot of ethnicities. Each grade performs a dance, or a medley of dances from a different culture. While hula still has a presence, these programs highlight other styles, such as Japanese fan dance, Chinese lion dance or Filipino tinikling. European and U.S. mainland cultures are also represented by waltzes, square dancing or maypole dancing.

May Day 1953 Kohala

May Day 1953. – Photo: Courtesy of Kohala Public Library Archives

On the far end of the spectrum, other celebrations feature contemporary American dances such as cowboy stepping, square dancing, hip-hop, jazz, sign-language, break dancing, the mashed potato, the twist and anything accompanied by a Disney song. While these programs may not identify themselves as May Day programs, they share common programmatic structure and traits, and usually occur in May.


Beneath the surface, some people see May Day as a way to preserve Hawaiian culture – to ensure all children have an occasion to engage in hula, oli, mele and ‘ōlelo as an expression of culture. To them, it is a day to privilege kanaka maoli.

May Day 1953 Kohala

May Day 1953. – Photo: Courtesy of Kohala Public Library Archives

Others see it as a way to develop a multi-cultural Hawai‘i with an appreciation for all of the people who made Hawai‘i what it is today, especially the plantation era folks who poured their sweat into this soil in order to call it home. They honor keiki o ka ‘āina – all of the children born and raised in Hawai‘i.

Yet others see this occasion as a way for children to express themselves through songs and dances with the moves they love in a modern society. These are children with a shared popular culture in a global society.


Those who have abandoned May Day have done so for various reasons. For example, Hawaiian charter schools tend to emphasize Makahiki, rather than May Day, as an expression of Hawaiian tradition and identity.

Other schools feel so much pressure to perform academically that they have deserted May Day altogether in order to concentrate on test preparation, or demonstrations they perceive as more relevant for developing college and career readiness.

With 100 years of history, Hawai‘i’s May Day is experiencing an era of transition that may very well reflect the values, priorities, and ambitions of Hawai‘i itself.

2016 Lei Queen Carol Ana Makana Lani Yamada

From L to R: 2016 Lady-in-waiting, 2010 Lei Queen Jamie Kaohulani Detwiler; 2016 Lei Queen Carol Ana Makana Lani Yamada; and, 2016 Lady-in-waiting, 2007 Lei Queen Manu Anana. – Photo: Courtesy Dave Miyamoto/Dave Miyamoto & Co.

Jamie Simpson Steele is an assistant professor of performing arts at the University of Hawai‘i. Her dissertation was titled “The May Day Show: Performances of Culture of Hawai‘i Elementary School Stages.”


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