I like not only to be loved, but also to be told I am loved.
At the place where the underground Kawehaweha Spring meets the ocean on Waikiki Beach, a group of nine couples gathered in a semi-circle one recent Friday to renew their wedding vows. The silhouette of Diamond Head shimmered in the distance.
“Your words are your best gift,” Kumu Kawena said. She was dressed in traditional Hawaiian attire, greenery in her hair, and a ti leaf lei around her neck.
“But if you botch the words, it’s O.K. You’ll still be re-married.”
The key word uttered by Kawena was “re-married.” Celebrating marriages of three to 39 years, these couples gathered from as far as Michigan and Japan to renew their wedding vows on Waikiki Beach.
“This is the most rewarding thing I do,” Kawena would tell me later. “Every morning, I wake up and look forward to it.” Kawena has been participating in the vow renewal ceremony since its inception 10 years ago, then as a hula dancer and today as the officiant. The complimentary ceremony, available to guests of Outrigger Reef on the Beach
and Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach
, celebrated its 10,000th “vow renewal” earlier this year on Valentine’s Day. The ceremony has gained such popularity with guests over the years that it is now offered four days a week. “I really love vow renewals,” Kawena said. “It’s not just a testament of love but of a love that’s sure.”
For some reason, I found myself watching one particular couple. Brenda was wearing a floral sundress, and Alan was wearing a traditional Hawaiian wedding shirt. They were from Michigan and in Hawaii celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Several family members made the journey to Hawaii with them and stood outside the circle, in support.
“You’ve all been here before,” Kawena told the group. “And perhaps that makes this even more special. Today, we’re celebrating the triumph and victory of your love.”
Kawena doesn’t look all that Hawaiian—with her blonde hair and light-colored skin—and she’s not. But she was born on Oahu and has been dancing hula for as long as she can remember. She’s danced professionally for 13 years. Kawena started the vow renewal ceremony with a chant in Hawaiian, and she explained the etymology behind the word, “aloha,” as a compound of the Hawaiian words, “alo” and “ha,” with the former meaning “face,” “presence,” or “share;” and the latter meaning “breath.”
With that in mind, Kawena asked her couples to turn and face each other. “They can be kinda fidgety,” Kawena said. “Then, they turn and look at each other, and it’s only them. I try to make sure they don’t feel like it’s a group ceremony.”
The non-denominational ceremony itself takes about 20 minutes and is complete with a pi kai,
salt water, blessing; exchange of vows and gifts--lei; and the performance of the well-known Hawaiian Wedding Song, accompanied by an ukulele player and hula.
“Remember the first time,” Kawena asked as I watched. “The first time you saw his face. The first time you kissed her. The first moment you were sure, and the first moment you knew your partner was sure, too. Think of your wedding day. And, now, today.”
As I watched Brenda and Alan, I could see what Kawena was talking about. A lifetime of a marriage was passing between them—memories, children, challenges, triumphs. Everything Kawena had mentioned.
Some parts of the vow renewal ceremony might feel familiar to some people—the blessing, the gift exchange, the vows—but one part of the ceremony that is uniquely Polynesian is the honihoni,
sometimes referred to as the Hawaiian kiss. And this reinforces what Kawena shared about the meaning of “aloha.” There was little considered as sacred in traditional Hawaiian days than to honihoni—the pressing together of foreheads and noses and sharing the breath of life. This is aloha at its highest.
A beaming Brenda and Alan, along with the other eight couples, posed for photos after the ceremony, and I understood then why people come up to Kawena after the ceremony and tell her how moved they were. How they had no idea it would be so special. And I knew, too, how the vow renewal ceremony could be the most rewarding thing Kawena does in her day. Because that love circulating around the beach that I saw on everyone’s faces? It's contagious.
"It's good to celebrate the later stages of love," Kawena told me.