History of the Luau

Hawaiian gifts

What Is The History of the Hawaiian Luau?

Getting together to feast and celebrate has always been a part of many cultures, but the Polynesians, especially Hawaiians, have evolved these wonderful times into a truly unique cultural experience. The luau dates back thousands and thousands of years ago.

Hawaiians called their important feasts an 'aha'aina (‘aha – gathering and ‘aina – meal). These feasts marked special occasions — such as reaching a significant life milestone such as the birth of a child, a marriage, victory at war, the launching of a new canoe or a great endeavor. They believed in celebrating these occasions with their friends and families.

Hula Skirts

About 150 years ago the term luau gradually replaced 'aha 'aina. Each guest would be greeted with leis of flowers or kukui nuts. The foods they ate would have certain meanings (ex: strength) and some would be associated with virtues or goals the participants hoped to achieve. There were certain foods that were off limits to commoners and women. Such delicacies included moi (exquisite tasting near-shore reef fish), pork, bananas and coconut. Men and women ate separately during meals. It wasn't until 1819, a few months after King Kamehameha I died, that the Kapu (Hawaiian law) system was abolished and women were welcomed. Today, women are an integral part of the luau, perhaps even overshadowing men as the iconic symbol of the ancient event: a pretty girl in a green grass skirt with a fresh flower lei around her neck.

Luau, in Hawaiian is actually the name of the taro leaf, which when young and small is cooked like spinach. The traditional luau was eaten on the floor over lauhala (leaves of the hala tree were weaved together) mats. As time went on, everyone would sit together on ti leaf covered tables adorned with large centerpieces decorated with flowers and other attractive and fragrant native flora.

The foods were carefully chosen, as the feasts of early Hawaii conveyed a sense of close communication between man and the gods. Kalua pig, baked in the ground was considered a favorite of the gods and preferable to fowl. However, moa (chicken) was once used as a very special food offering. A speckled fowl was said to conquer insanity, a Plymouth Rock would cure a sickly infant. Lima kala (seaweed) was believed to release man from wrongdoings. Ti leaves, spread as a table covering, elicited protection from the gods and cleansed man from contamination.

Food was eaten with their fingers, not utensils. Luau attendees enjoyed poi (staple of Polynesian food made from the corm of the taro plant), dried fish, and pork cooked in the traditional Hawaiian imu (underground oven), sweet potatoes, and bananas. Poi of various consistencies got its name from the number of fingers needed to eat it… three finger, two finger, or the thickest, one finger poi.

The hula dance became a regular spectacle of entertainment as well as the introduction of Polynesian fire knife dancing. This glorious time of fun, dancing, games, contests and much eating began with thankful prayers to the god Lono for blessing the people with the abundance of the land and sea.

Traditional luaus were typically a very large gathering with hundreds and sometimes over a thousand people attending. Royal luaus were very large events. One of the largest ever was hosted by Kamehameha III in 1847. The list of foods prepared included 271 hogs, 482 large calabashes of poi, 3,125 salt fish, 1,820 fresh fish, 2,245 coconuts, 4,000 taro plants and numerous other delicacies. King Kalakaua, who was known as the "Merry Monarch" for his love of parties and dance, invited over 1500 guests to his 50th birthday luau. They were fed in shifts of 500!

A luau is the true experience of "aloha". As "Cousin" Benny Kai, the Polynesian Culture Center's "Ambassador of Aloha" says, "Whenever you're at a luau, you are 'ohana — family."

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment