History of the Word Luau

Everyone knows what the Hawaiian word luau means. The idea of the Hawaiian luau conjures up images of movies, television, and backyard barbeques. I remember when my grandparents left our small town in Alabama to go on a Hawaiian cruise, and came back from the Hawaiian luaus they attended with what was to become my favorite souvenir – a grass skirt from a real Kauai luau. With the popularity of the Kauai luau, it is hard to believe that not only have Hawaiian luau not been around for all that long in the big picture, they have been called luau for an even shorter amount of time.

The first Hawaii luau occurred in 1819, less than a hundred years after the American Revolution. For the next 37 years, anyone hoping to attend an event called luaus Kauai would have been disappointed, although they could have enjoyed a Kauai aha ‘aina to their heart’s content. Aha ‘aina, a Hawaiian word meaning simply “to gather for a meal” was the term originally used to refer to the Hawaiian tradition of getting family and friends together for an evening of food, mele (song), and hula. The traditional Hawaiian aha ‘aina would have looked much like the Kauai luau of today, Guests would even have been eating the dish that gave the Hawaii luau the name we now call it by – a dish of young taro leaves and chicken steamed in coconut milk. Luau chicken is not only a delicious part of Kauai luau banquets – it is actually a vital piece of the history of the Hawaii luau.

When Kamehameha II threw the first Hawaii luau in recorded history in 1819, he had a lot more than feasting on his mind. Kamehameha II’s luau was intended to destroy the Hawaiian kapu system of conduct, under which male and female guests at Kauai luaus were forbidden from even eating in the same room. Part of the kapu was the ai’kapu, a system of rules concerning what foods women were allowed to eat. The ai’kapu would have completely changed the modern Kauai luau. The dish known as luau which we enjoy at Hawaii luaus even today contained two foods that were completely off limits to women – taro leaves and the milk of the coconut. In the act of sharing this dish with his stepmother Queen Ka’ahumanu at the first Hawaiian luau, Kamehameha II abolished the ai ‘kapu forever. For this reason, the dish luau came to be a symbol of everything the aha ‘aina, or luau, stood for. When we attend a luau on Kauai today, we are participating in a now widely accepted tradition that could have been punishable by death in ancient Hawaii. When the aha ‘aina feast took its name from the dish luau, the memory of life under the ai ‘kapu and the legacy of Kamehameha II’s revolutionary actions was preserved in Hawaii luau tradition forever.

Even though it makes sense to us today, the feast referred to as aha ‘aina became known as the luau for a reason not fully known. The first use of the word luau to describe what we experience as a Kauai luau today occurred in 1856 in the pages of the newspaper the Pacific Commercial Advisor. It is not known for sure why the Advisor referred to the aha ‘aina as the luau, only that the word came from the popular luau meal of chicken, taro leaves and coconut milk. This is the period of time when the fame of the Hawaii luau was growing to what it is today. Modern Kauai luaus still include the same elements of the aha ‘aina – abundant food, traditional mele or song, and hula plus other customary Polynesian dance styles. The evolution of the luau tradition does not seem to have been damaged by the change in name from aha ‘ aina to its namesake dish of luau, for when we have the good luck to attend a Kauai luau today we get to enjoy an authentic experience much like the first Hawaiians to attend luau.

What’s in a name? The tradition of the Hawaiian luau is today so famous all over the world that any traveler to Kauai anticipates attending a Kauai luau. Maybe without the intervention of the Pacific Commercial Advisor in 1856 and their renaming of the Hawaiian luau, Hawaii’s feast would still be just as famous by the name of aha ‘aina. Maybe without its new name of luau, the tradition of aha’aina wouldn’t have crossed the waters in all those movies and songs. Maybe there is something special in a four-letter word that rolls right off the tongue when we call to book our tickets to the best Kauai luau. We may never know, because now the wonderful pictures of the food, song, and dance at a Kauai luau are forever associated with the name of luau.