Hawaii floating lantern ceremony inspires awe
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
With a peach-colored sunset as a backdrop and aided by gentle trade winds, more than 2,000 candle-lit lanterns representing the souls of the departed made their way from the Magic Island end of Ala Moana Beach Park into the Pacific.
More than 40,000 people attended yesterday's Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony, the 12th year in a row it was held on Memorial Day.
Sponsored by Na Lei Foundation and officiated by Shinnyo-en, a Buddhist sect with about 2,000 members in Hawai'i, the uplifting ceremony continued its tradition of inclusion and harmony.
Young and old, Christians, Buddhists and people of all other religions filled the beach from Magic Island all the way to a point across McCoy Pavilion.
Steve Fuller, 63, of McCully was attending his first lantern festival and was moved by the event.
"When you see these lanterns, there's a spiritualness to it," Fuller said. The afternoon's events triggered a series of emotions in Fuller. "My parents are long gone, but they're still in my heart," he said.
As for the ceremony itself, "it's very Asian, but also very local and very spiritual and special," said Fuller, who identified himself as a Christian. "It's a worthwhile experience and you share it with everyone else. There's harmony and that's the way it should be, but it's not universal."
'Aiea resident Jacie Keli'ia'a, 22, had come to the beach after getting an invitation on Facebook. She brought family and friends with her. Between them, the group placed four lantern boats into the water.
"Mine is for my dad; he passed away seven years ago, just before my 16th birthday," Keli'ia'a said.
The Vergara and Calvan families arrived en masse to float lanterns in honor of their patriarchs, Irenio Vergara and Benjamin Calvan.
Vergara died in 2009, and Calvan, in 2008. The families came last year and were so moved by the experience, they decided to come back.
"We like to come and say a prayer for the deceased," said Moanalua resident Mercedes Calvan, Benjamin Calvan's widow.
"This brings us close to our ancestors, and kind of lets them know that we love them and they're still close to our hearts."
The families, united by the marriage of Alvin and Aida Calvan, arrived at 7:30 a.m. to set up a tent overlooking the beach.
Kailua residents Randall and Renee Tajima have been attending the ceremony for a number of years and discovered the best public place to watch the lanterns pass by is on the Magic Island side of the stage.
Renee Tajima didn't want to say when they arrive because she doesn't want others to beat her to the spot next year.
"We're coming here earlier every year," Tajima said. The couple doesn't put lanterns in the water, but the experience nonetheless makes them think of those who have departed from their lives.
"My grandparents," she said. The Tajimas consider themselves Christians "but we're respectful of the Buddhist way."
Tomi Griffin and Florence Tsuruda, both septuagenarian members of Shinnyo-en, volunteer at the information desk each year before settling on the beach to watch the ceremony.
Both are longtime members of the church.
"We preach respect for other people, and helping each other," said Griffin, a Kapolei resident.
"We harmonize with everybody," said Tsuruda, of Kaimukī.
Tears ran down the eyes of many of those in attendance as they delicately placed the lantern boats into the water.
Even folks who did not place a lantern became emotional.
Pālolo resident Ermelinda Morales, 67, said she thought of her father, Crisostomo Aliado, who died Jan. 25 at age 87.
Morales, attending the ceremony for the first time, said she did not see any particular image of her father, "just his spirit."
Of the more than 2,000 boats, 1,200 are made available for free to the public on Memorial Day on a first-come, first-served basis. Available from 1 p.m., people began standing in line at 10 a.m. The last boat was taken around 5 p.m.
Each kit comes with a foam-based boat, a candle and a lantern made of colored parchment paper where personal messages can be written.
As in past years, volunteers retrieve the lanterns from the water at the end of the evening, and store them away for use the following year.
The church also heads a beach cleanup today.
Those who could not get a boat of their own could place messages onto several of the larger boats going out.
There were also messages submitted from 15 countries over the Internet.
As in previous years, the ceremony took on an international flair, with country-western singer Melinda Carroll and Hālau Olana among the performers, along with a taiko group comprising people from Japan, the Mainland and Hawai'i.
Among those in attendance were about 2,000 Shinnyo-en members from Japan, many of whom came to Hawai'i specifically to attend the ceremony.