A Brief History of the Luau
In its broadest sense, a luau is a traditional Hawaiian party mixing local food and lots of entertainment. Luaus are used to celebrate the many of stages of life. People often don’t remember their first luau. No, it’s not because they drank too many mai tais. People don’t remember because their first luau is often a celebration of their own first birthday! Traditional luaus are often common for Sweet 16 birthdays, graduations and weddings.
For visitors, a luau is often less personal, but maybe even more culturally important. Often, a visitor’s first luau is their introduction to native food and dance. Attendees are able to sample local foods like kalua pig buried and roasted overnight in the beach, freshly pounded poi (taro root), purple Hawaiian sweet potatoes, poke and haupia (a coconut-based dessert). Most modern luaus combine Polynesian dances and traditions into their shows. The traditional Hawaiian hula is a beautiful, slow dance. But for the modern luaus catering to visitors and locals looking for a lively celebration, we’ve come to expect dancing with quick hip undulations and fire. These forms of dance come from outside of Hawaii, but are still relevant to the Polynesian culture.
To learn about the history of the modern luau, we need to go back nearly 200 years. Prior to 1819, for large feasts (not yet called a luau), men sat separately from the women and children, and some celebratory dishes, like pork, moi (a reef fish) and bananas were only eaten by the chiefs. The common dishes for all to enjoy included other types of fish, sweet potatoes and poi. However, in 1819 King Kamehameha II started openly eating with women, thus breaking century’s old taboo of separate meal celebrations. It was during the king’s large gatherings with men, women and children that the term “luau” was first used for special meal events.
King Kamehameha’s luaus soon became legendary. The saying “enough to feed a king” is definitely apropos to his 1847 luau that featured 271 hogs, 1,820 fish and 2,245 coconuts! Years later, another king, King Kalakaua, for his 50th birthday, invited more that 1,500 people for a luau so large, the attendees were fed in three shifts.
Today, modern luaus are still about the food, dance and celebration. One can find public luaus all over the state of Hawaii. We’ve put together a list of our five favorite luaus on Maui if you need help deciding on which one attend. Luaus are still a great way to celebrate and learn about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.