History of the Luau

A luau, a feast to mark an important celebratory occasion, such as a coming of age or visitors, is culturally rooted, festive and all about food, fun and family. Luaus have been part of Hawaiian culture since long before Westerners arrived to the islands. Up until about 150 years ago, Polynesians called their big celebratory feasts ‘aha ‘aina. These events were usually somewhat formal, with more ceremony and not such a party atmosphere.

The modern term Luau may have originated from the great coed feasts of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha II. In traditional Hawaii, men and women were not allowed to eat together and all women were forbidden to eat certain kinds of foods in Hawaii. King Kamehameha II abolished these laws and many other religious laws in the year 1819 and validated this change by having a symbolic feast with women invited.

At this feast one of the main dishes involved the wrapping of chicken in the young leaves of the Taro plant and baking it in coconut milk. This dish was called 'Luau' and as a result of its being one of the main courses of these feasts the feasts themselves came to be called 'Luaus.' Traditional Luaus are eaten on the ground, with food placed on Ti Leaves that cover a type of woven mat called the 'Lauhala' mats.

The Lei
Guests at Luaus receive Leis as they arrive. The Lei is a necklace or headdress of woven flowers or shells and is given as a display of affection. A lei should be a welcomed celebration of one person's affection to another. Therefore, always accept a lei, never refuse.

The proper way to wear a lei is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back. It is considered rude to remove a lei from your neck in the presence of the person who gave it to you, so if you must, be discreet.

Also when dressing up for the Luau women can place a flower behind their right or left ear. Placing a flower over the left ear indicates that one is taken or in a relationship and placing a flower over the right ear indicates that one is available.

Pu: The Hawaiian Conch Shell
Pu, a Hawaiian conch shell, is a large seashell that is blow into like a trumpet and often played for ceremonies. Made of two kinds of large shells, Triton or Cassis cornuta, it is capable of emitting a loud sound carrying as far as two miles. The volume depends on the style of blowing rather than breath volume capacity.

In ancient times, the Pu was sometimes used to accompany chants, and most often used to announce the beginning of a ceremony and also to communicate the arrival of incoming ships.

Today the Pu is used to announce the opening of the Hawaii State Legislature, presentation of the royal court at hula festivals and for traditional ceremonies. The Pu is also a popular commencement tool at weddings and luaus, and also has been used to honor royalty and famous people.

Fire Dancing
Fire dancing, now very popular on the Hawaiian Islands, is a tradition that came from traditional Somoan knife dancing. The ailao, a fierce traditional dance that involves the twirling of the nifo oti (war knife), was a pre-war ritual in Samoa used to psyche up warriors. Letuli Olo Misilagi was the first man to add fire to the traditional Samoan ailao, or knife dance.

The Samoan fire knife dance is more than a popular spectacle that adds sizzle to a Hawaiian luau. It’s a tradition that has been passed from generation to generation, with each adding a new layer of style, boldness and skill.

Today, of course, the Samoan fire knife dance is a show-stopping staple in Polynesian revues or luaus. There are fire knife dance competitions held throughout the Pacific, including the annual World Fire Knife Dance Competition at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) on Oahu.

Says event founder Pulefano Galeai, "This unique event combines great athletic skill, unflinching bravery and ever-present danger to bring out the best in these competitors. It’s exciting to see the culture of Samoa take center stage with participation from people around the world."

Grass Skirts
The most famous symbol of the Hawaiian hula is the grass skirt. The grass skirt was introduced to Hawaii in the early 1800s by laborers who arrived in Hawaii from the Gilbert Islands. Traditionally the Hawaiians used Ti leaves; the Ti leaf is wider than the thinner strands of grass that are used today.