Evolution of the Luau
#1. A feast by any other name is still the same:
Would you believe that it was impossible to attend the smiths luau in ancient Hawaii? Well, it was. You could not have enjoyed a Hawaii luau feast because Hawaii luau did not exist. The feasting and dancing we enjoy at Kauai luau today was known in ancient times as aha ‘aina, a Hawaiian word meaning simply to gather for a meal. To make it even more interesting, the guests at the aha ‘aina often ate luau. That’s right – the word luau originally referred only to a dish served at Kauai luaus, a delicious concoction of chicken and taro leaves steamed in coconut milk. The aha ‘aina first became the luau in 1856 in the pages of the Pacific Commercial Advisor, and the exact reason for the name change isn’t known for sure. However, the new term stuck, and in modern Hawaii the tradition of gathering for food, dance and song will now forever be known as luau.
#2. There hasn’t always been dancing at the luau:
One of the main attractions at the smith s luau is the after-dinner show, a world-famous showcase of the Hawaiian hula and other Polynesian dance traditions. Now, it isn’t hard to figure out that ancient Hawaiians would not necessarily have demonstrated the Samoan fire-knife dance or a hip-shaking Tahitian number at Hawaii luaus in the past, but would you believe for a time even the Hawaii born hula was not allowed at the luau? The first Hawaii luau occurred in 1819 as a joint effort between King Kamehameha II and Queen Ka’ahumanu. The purpose of this forbearer of the Kauai luau was to remove the restrictions that governed eating in ancient Hawaii. Interestingly, Queen Ka’ahumanu ended one set of restrictions and implemented another – she banned the hula from the island completely! The famous Hawaiian dance was reinstated and brought back to Hawaii luaus by King David Kalakaua during his reign, and from there dancing at the luau grew to include the other Polynesian traditional styles we see at Kauai luau today.
#3. Beyond the poi bowl – the changing look of the luau feast:
Food has always played a vital role in the Hawaii luau tradition. Luaus began in the islands as a public way for King Kamehameha to abolish the ai’kapu, a set of rules that forbade women from eating certain native Hawaiian foods like pork, coconut, and bananas. These traditional Hawaiian feasts included these foods and other dishes native to the islands such as kalua pork and the fermented, mashed taro leaf dish known as poi. The purpose of these early Hawaii luaus was to strengthen the community, or to honor the island chiefs or the traditional Hawaiian gods. Today, the purpose of a luau on Kauai is a little different. The big luaus on Kauai luaus are set up to expose as many visitors as possible to the Hawaiian way of life, and in order to be welcoming and inclusive luau cuisine has expanded to include some mainland favorites like fried chicken, traditional Asian fare like teriyaki beef, and even the modern Hawaiian favorite of canned spam! Of course, no Kauai luau would be complete without its namesake dish, luau chicken. When you enjoy this Hawaiian meal of chicken and young taro leaves steamed in coconut milk you are truly participating in the customs that have shaped the Hawaii luau of today.
#4. The changing meaning behind the gift of lei:
The traditional gift of lei is an important part of the Kauai luau experience. At a modern Hawaii luau, the gift of lei represents the aloha spirit of the islands and the reverence for past traditions that the luau keeps alive. However, lei have been given and received for many reasons completely unrelated to luau during Hawaii’s history. At one time the gift of lei could be used to seal a peace agreement between warring chiefs, or wound around a temple to establish a truce between two fighting clans. The lei tradition as we see it at Kauai luau today began in the 1900s, when lei vendors lined the piers of Hawaii to welcome visitors with their wares. As you leave luaus such as the smiths luau, throw your luau into the waters of the Pacific. At one time Hawaiians believed that if the lei returned to the islands, the owner would, too.
#5. Today luau showcase and preserve the way of life they were once a part of.
Perhaps the biggest change in luau tradition is in the fundamental purpose of the modern Kauai luau. In Hawaii’s past, the purpose of the luau was to celebrate a birth or a victory in battle, to strengthen the ties of the family, or to honor Hawaii’s kings and ancient gods. The Hawaiian luau was an integral part of island life and as such was intended as a respite from daily activity like fishing and the making of household items. Today the purpose of the luau is to preserve the ancient Hawaiian way, and share it with visitors to Kauai luau. Many traditional dances and crafts are demonstrated to guests in the attempt to give guests at a Hawaii luau firsthand experience of ancient Hawaii. When you enjoy the smiths family luau, take a breather from your busy modern life and enjoy the immersion in the simpler island lifestyle of Hawaii’s past.