To the Hawaiians, the ‘āina (land,) wai (water,) kai (ocean) and lewa (sky) were the foundation of life and the source of the spiritual relationship between people and their environs. (Maly)
It is not surprising, then, that ʻāina – the land; that which sustains the people – is the root to the Hawaiian reference to feast – ʻahaʻaina (literally, meal gathering.)
In ancient Hawaiʻi, men and woman ate their meals apart. Commoners and women of all ranks were also forbidden by the ancient tradition to eat certain foods.
This changed in 1819, when King Kamehameha II is best remembered for the ‘Ai Noa, the breaking of the ancient kapu (tabu) system of religious laws, six months into his reign, when he sat down with Kaʻahumanu and his mother Keōpūolani and ate a meal together.
Up to about 160-years ago, the ʻahaʻaina or pāʻina were the calls to feast and party together. These feasts marked special occasions — such as reaching a significant life milestone, victory at war, the launching of a new canoe or a great endeavor. They believed in celebrating these occasions with their friends and families.
Later, a new term was used – Lūʻau – to refer to these festive events; however, it’s not clear when. It’s interesting how a word that is associated as one of the most Hawaiian of activities (a feast,) is actually a relatively new term. The name came from the name of the young tender kalo (taro) leaves.
In an April 1, 1850 story in ‘The Friend,’ the term luau is used (possibly for the first time – in a translation of ‘Visit of the French sloop of war Bonite, to the Sandwich Islands, in 1836,’) stating, “At the King’s order the luau was served up. A gastronomic feast is called luau at the Sandwich Islands.”
“It takes its name from an indispensable dish of young taro leaves boiled, or cooked in fat. In an instant, the cloth was covered with young pigs, fowl, sweet potatoes, luau, etc – all these having been enveloped in leaves and cooked in the earth by the means of red hot stones.” (The Friend, April 1, 1850)
Since ‘The Friend’ article was a translation of French, it is not clear if the ‘luau’ term was used in 1836 (the time of the party,) or in 1850 (or before – when the translation was printed.) A word search of the French text did not note the use of the word ‘luau.’
It’s also not clear if this is the first reference to “lūʻau;” but it predates what Pukui notes as the first use of the term ‘luau,’ where she says it goes back at least to 1856, when it was used in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser.
The term “lūʻau” is mentioned again in references to the wedding celebration on Alexander ʻIolani Liholiho Keawenui and Emma Kalanikaumakaamano Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke, when on June 19, 1856 they became known as King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. (This may be the reference Pukui was referring to.)
The happy couple was wed in the “Stone Church” (Kawaiahaʻo.) “At half-past eleven o’clock the procession from the palace entered the church, led by the bride, Miss Emma Rooke, who was accompanied by Dr. Rooke, her father, and three bridesmaids, consisting of HRH Victoria (Kuhina Nui, Kaʻahumanu IV,) Miss Lydia Paki (later to become Queen Liliʻuokalani,) and Miss Mary Pitman (“Belle of Hilo Bay”.)”
“(The groomsmen were Prince Lot (later Kamehameha V), Prince William and David Kalākaua (later King Kalākaua.)) Immediately following, came his Majesty accompanied by his father, the Governor of Oʻahu, and numerous attendants, bearing some twenty Kahilis, the ancient insignia of royalty.”
The Sacramento Daily Union ran a repeat of a July 2, 1856 Pacific Commercial Advertiser story of the nuptial and subsequent celebration. In part, it stated …
“On the following day the palace grounds were thrown open to the native population, large numbers of whom visited the King and Queen, and partook of a luau (or native feast), prepared for them. A luau was also served up at the residence of Dr. Rooke.”
Some have suggested “luau” was used to describe the anniversary celebration party for the Ka La Ho‘iho‘i Ea – Sovereignty Restoration Day Kauikeaouli (Kamehameha III) had in 1847 – with 10,000 guests. While no newspaper accounts have been found describing it, the minutes of the Privy Council note that they “voted that the King make a large feast at Luakaha on the 31st day,” in their July 1, 1847 meeting.
The minutes further note, “At the hour of 10, the King and Premier together with their wives shall drive out on a carriage to be drawn by four horses accompanied by all the Chiefs on horses and carriages, followed by the foreigners and natives.”
“The fort shall fire a salute, and at the arrival of the company at its destination another salute is to be fired from the small brass field pieces, to be followed by spear thrusting; after which, the company is to sit down to the feast. At the conclusion of the feast the company is to return to town.” (The term “lūʻau” was not noted.)
The use of the name grew.
“In the year 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred of England, arrived in the harbor of Honolulu, being in command of Her Britannic Majesty’s ship-of-war Galatea. As soon as the king learned of the duke’s presence he made special preparations for his reception”. (Liliʻuokalani)
“I gave a grand luau at my Waikiki residence, to which were invited all those connected with the government, indeed, all the first families of the city, whether of native or foreign birth. …”
“The sailor-prince mounted the driver’s box of the carriage, and taking the reins from that official, showed himself an expert in the management of horses. … Kalama, widow of Kamehameha III., drove out to Waikiki in her own carriage of state”. (Liliʻuokalani)
“When the prince entered, he was met by two very pretty Hawaiian ladies, who advanced and, according to the custom of our country, decorated him with leis or long pliable wreaths of flowers suspended from the neck.” (Liliʻuokalani)
A guest at King Kalākaua’s coronation celebration in 1883 noted, “Shortly after the coronation ball had taken place and we were wondering ‘what next,’ we received invitations to a large “Luau” or feast, to be held at Iolani Palace.” (Grant)
“Tables were draped with white, but the entire tops were covered with ferns and leaves massed together so as almost to form a tablecloth of themselves; quantities of flowers were placed about mingling with the ferns … The natives had turned out in great numbers, and the scent of their leis of flowers and maile leaves was almost overpowering.” (Grant)
While it’s not clear when the reference was first made, today, people still get together with family and friends at a lūʻau to celebrate special events.
Of course, in addition to the lei and entertainment (formal and informal,) now, you can also expect lots of the “typical” lūʻau food including kālua pig, poi, sweet potatoes, rice, lomilomi salmon (also a relative newcomer) and much more.