The Birth of the Hawaiian Luau

[infobox]The first luau was held in 1819, and it was a symbol of major changes in Hawaiian traditions.[/infobox]

The Polynesian culture is defined by a oneness with nature, and it has played a large role in the evolution of religion and related practices within the culture. These traditions honored the milestones of life while incorporating the organic elements that make up the world and provide for the community. Natural forces and the many gods and deities are an important part of rituals and the celebration of life. Before it was known as a luau, this coming together of people was known as ‘aha‘aina, meaning gathering meal.

Hawaiian Luau

Surrounded by friends and families, this event showcased achievements and encouraged bonding among the members of the community. When major milestones were reached like weddings and births or accomplishments made such as victory in war, an ‘aha’aina’ was thrown in celebration. It was filled with delicious foods each symbolizing a characteristic of the human spirit such as strength or virtue. Vegetables, meats, fruits, and poi provided the sustenance for this important event. The pig for the feast was cooked in the traditional underground oven called an imu.

Hawaiian Luau

A pit was dug and a fire would be started with wood from the island. As the wood burned, rocks would be piled on top of the flames to be heated and eventually the pig would be laid a top the rocks. Dressed in salts and a variety of wet leaves, it would be sealed in the pit with volcanic sand or a heavy cloth taking almost an entire day to cook. The carefully prepared food was eaten by hand on plates made of leaves. Poi was a staple of the Polynesian diet, and it is a gray almost purple colored food with the consistency of cake batter (depending on how it is made). It is made from the stem of the taro plant and used to cleanse the pallet between dishes. During the consumption of this delicious feast, the men and women did not dine together nor were women or commoners allowed to eat certain foods. These were strict rules, punishable by death.

Hawaiian Luau

In addition to the foods, people would also enjoy the hula and chants together signifying their joy and unity as a community. It was a way to pass on the legends of their people and gods. The moments surrounding the preparation and participation of the ‘aha‘aina were considered sacred and many of the gods were called upon in order to give their blessings before the gathering could proceed. It was a deep and meaningful celebration that was meant to connect the members of the community and symbolize the joy of life.

Hawaiian Luau

Over time, the tradition of the ‘aha‘aina began to evolve and King Kamehameha II started significant social change within the culture and banished the strict rules thought to be handed down by the gods. He allowed all men, women and commoners to dine together which started a radical progression to a new kind of ‘aha‘aina and a destruction of the code of conduct known as kapu. During the first meal combining the genders, the King served his step-mother luau which is made from young taro leaves cooked in coconut milk. It was forbidden to women and commoners, and the King’s gesture broke the lineage of ancient traditions and rules. Luau became a symbol of the new gathering and eventually the term was used to refer to the celebration. The ‘aha‘aina morphed into the modern day luau.

The traditions of the luau have continued to evolve with time. There were beautiful decorations made from native flowers arranged and carefully placed around the feast as well as lauhala mats which were woven from the leaves of the hala trees. Hula dancing continued as a tradition and paved the wave for the entertaining fire dancing. It was the beginning of what we recognize as modern day Hawaii, and the celebration known as luau.

Hawaiian Luau

Today, the major events that call for a luau are most often a child’s first birthday, graduation from high school or a wedding. The modern day luau still features many of the same traditions from the first luau, but it has grown to become an invitation to experience Polynesian culture. While those participating may not share ancestry, the luau has become a way for others to temporarily be a part of an amazing and historic civilization. It embodies the passion and survival of their ancestors and traditions. In a world where our history is often forgotten and our cultures blended, the luau remains a reminder of the ancient Polynesian culture and the way they honored life.

Thank you to the Polynesian Cultural Center and Turtle Bay Resort for hosting my visit to Oahu. See, hear, smell and taste a Hawaiian Luau for yourself at the Polynesian Cultural Center for an experience you and your family won’t soon forget!

36 thoughts on “The Birth of the Hawaiian Luau”

  1. I love reading about the history of cultural traditions. I love luaus and how much rich history is involved

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  2. Wow, Jeana – your trip sounds AMAZING and I loved reading about the real history of luau. I love Hawaii and cannot wait to bring my daughter.

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  3. I love learning about different cultures and traditions. I think this is the most important part about travelling – one can learn so much from the locals.

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  4. What an interesting post. i enjoy learning about the history of things, and now I’m more schooled on the luau. I’d love to see one in person.

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  5. This is pretty cool information! Loved reading it, I have made these at home with the kids and never thought of actually researching history on them!

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  6. I always love reading about the history behind traditions. Thank you for sharing this – I’ve learned a lot!

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  7. This is a cool post about the Hawaiian culture.
    The Luau background is interesting. We have visited Hawaii before and have experienced the Luau.

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  8. Thanks for sharing the history. What a beautiful place – I’m so jealous. That waterfall is gorgeous and your pics are amazing

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  9. A stay at the Turtle Bay Resort would be a DREAM! I’d love to experience a Hawaiian Luau!

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  10. What beautiful and amazing traditions they have! I would love to go to Hawaii someday and experience one for myself.

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  11. Wow, it’s so beautiful that the photos look “fake” or seriously photo-shopped. I love visiting naturally beautiful places like this. I’d love to visit here, it looks like a lot of fun.

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  12. Oh wow, I had no idea there were such strict rules before! I’m glad that everyone is able to participate now!

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  13. I have yet to visit Hawaii but definitely plan to change that someday. An authentic luau would be an absolute must.

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  14. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a real Hawaiian Luau. I knew it was a celebration, but I didn’t realize it was so family focused.

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  15. I would love to go to a real Hawaiian luau someday. The ones we have here at pig roasts just aren’t the same.

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  16. I have always wanted to visit Hawaii and experience a luau. I love all of the culture and history behind it that is still celebrated and passed down from generation to generation.

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  17. I have always wanted to visit Hawaii. Maybe one day, I will be able to go. Thank you for sharing a brief history of the Luau.

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  18. This is so cool to know! I would love to go to a real Hawaiian luau-though, admittedly, I’ve never even been to a fake one!

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  19. I have always wanted to go to Hawaii. This is so interesting about the Hawaiian Luau. I would love to see one in person.

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  20. That looks like so much fun. I would love to visit Hawaii sometime. It’s one my list of places I’ve always wanted to visit. I think it would be fun to learn to hula too!

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  21. Luau was the theme for my niece’s 18th birthday party. Good to know about the origin of the Hawaiian Luau.

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  22. I would love to be able to attend a luau one day. I knew they were celebrations, but I had no idea just how much went into them.

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  23. I’ve always wanted to be a part of an authentic Hawaiian Luau. I love how much emphasis their culture puts on family.

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  24. When we go to Hawaii next summer I am SO looking forward to go to a luau! The food looks awesome and the dancing will be out of this world!

    Reply

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