Hawaii, Hawaiian Culture, Leis

Brief History of the Hawaiian Luau

luau hula dancers

Time to Get Festive: A Brief History of the Hawaiian Luau

Time to Get Festive: A Brief History of the Hawaiian Luau

Sometimes, you just gotta party. And there may be no better place to do that than at a Hawaiian luau. The luau is one of the most popular must-dos on the average Hawaii tourist’s wishlist. But the luau is more than just a tourist attraction. It’s also part of Hawaii’s rich indigenous cultural history, dating back hundreds of years. Recognizing the cultural history of a tradition is vital to respect it, so it pays to learn a little something before you attend a luau.

So let’s get festive and take a brief look at the history of the Hawaiian luau.

What Is a Luau?

In the modern sense, a luau is a pretty informal thing. It’s a broad term encompassing outdoor parties with lots of food and entertainment, and usually a large number of people. Combine a large backyard BBQ with a more traditional feast, and you’re somewhere close to the idea of the luau.

Hawaiians will celebrate a wide range of occasions with a luau, from birthdays and graduations to weddings. A luau is an extension of the close-knit, warm, and friendly islander lifestyle that forms the basis of Hawaiian culture.

As tourists come to Hawaii seeking to immerse themselves in the culture, the luau has expanded to an all-purpose party — no occasion needed.

All in the Past

Like the Spanish siesta, we think of the luau is an indelible part of Hawaiian culture — an idea we can’t fully translate into English terms. But it all had to start somewhere.

The exact origins of luau are almost certainly lost in the mists of time. Social rituals most often grow out of small conventions that snowball over time to become an established part of a country’s culture.

The luau is doubtless inextricable from Hawaii’s islander culture. Island peoples typically form close-knit communities with a strong sense of identity. At the same time, they have access to the rich bounty of the ocean and their tropical climate. Put the two together, and the origins of the luau seem obvious.

One of the earliest traceable forms of the luau is the aha’aina. Aha’aina is still the word many modern Hawaiians use to refer the luau, but it originally offered to the royal and religious version of the tradition.

Once upon a time, the aha’aina was a great gathering to celebrate momentous events like milestones in life or victory in battle. They were also a way for chiefs to display and celebrate their status.

These early ancestors of the luau had some key differences from its modern form. For starters, men and women weren’t allowed to eat together. Women were also forbidden from eating certain foods, such as bananas and pork. Not quite the inclusive spirit made famous by the modern luau!

Going Global

Hawaii underwent a wide range of changes after early contact with European explorers. European weaponry and support led to the forging of a unified Kingdom of Hawaii under the Kamehameha dynasty.

As European ideas began to arrive in Hawaii, explorers also took stories about Hawaii back to their homelands. As with many of the countries “discovered” by European explorers, Hawaii became an exotic and exciting place to the people back home.

This interest in Hawaii as a destination would eventually give rise to modern tourists, who would have their own impact on the luau.

Breaking Down Barriers

King Kamehameha II, the second king of the Kingdom of Hawaii (and nothing to do with Son Goku at all) was a game-changer for the luau and beyond.

After King Kamehameha I died, one of his wives, Ka’ahumanu, used her influence with Kamehameha II to break down the kapu (a kind of religious and social set of taboos) in a quest to put Hawaii’s ancient religion behind them.

One of these taboos included the separation of men and women at mealtimes.

The result was a recognizably modern shift in Hawaii’s culture. With that, the modern version of the luau finally became a reality.

Kamehameha II’s luaus were the stuff of legend. The king loved a good party and the new, inclusive nature of the luau allowed them to build a new sense of unified cultural identity.

As knowledge of Hawaii spread throughout the world, many foreigners came to see the luau in action, and many more heard about it back home. With the world now opened up by explorers, Hawaii began to see their modern evolution: the tourist.

Luau Today

Like many cultural traditions around the world, luau has taken on a second life in the wake of pop-cultural interest. The end result is half traditional, half modern.

With the evolution of modern global culture, Hawaii has become a popular tourist stop. The islands have featured in or inspired films like Lilo & Stitch, Moana, and Jurassic Park, which has only nudged the popularity of the islands as a destination higher.

The romanticized laid-back islander culture appeals to mainlanders looking for a more relaxed way of life, and the natural beauty of the islands holds obvious appeal.

Traditional luau is now hard to separate from its tourist-inspired modern incarnation. Modern luaus tend less toward the traditional and more toward a giant, open-air party for everyone — but particularly to expectant tourists. And as old traditions give way more and more to modern society, the global take on the luau has displaced most of the original cultural significance.

But the luau still holds an important role in the lives of native Hawaiians, who honor the tradition by holding a luau to celebrate major life events and cement the bonds of family and community.

The Once and Future Luau

That’s about it for the history of the luau. Its modern incarnation still echoes its ancient roots, but it has evolved to become its own unique aspect of modern Hawaiian culture. And there’s no telling where it goes from here, as past and present continue to combine to build the future.

Looking to set the tone for a luau? Get your lei today.