Luau: A Feast with a Side of Culture

Beautiful Luau Dancers

Luau: A Feast with a Side of Culture

Beautiful Luau Dancers
Hula is an important part of a luau celebration

Depending on how you approach it, a luau can be more than just a simple feast and a stage show. Every element of the evening is somehow rooted in Hawaiian culture and history. The luau represents a tribute to the Polynesian voyagers and and later waves of settlers responsible for many of the customers and traditions that are still in place today. While there’s no doubt that the luau is a party, and the whole point is to enjoy yourself, but there is also a deeper level of appreciation to be gained when you learn about the traditions and culture that are intertwined into the luau.

We know that you’re a culturally savvy traveler, so take a look at the following and you’ll come away from your luau experience with a newfound appreciation for the people that have made Hawaii the awesome melting pot it is today.

E Komo Mai – Welcome!

Aloha Shell Necklace
A warm lei greeting on your arrival

You get your first taste of tradition right off the bat, when you first arrive at your luau. Visitors are presented with a lei—made from fresh flowers, kukui nuts, or even small shells—as a means of welcoming you and as a show of affection. People in Hawaii tend to be very warm and friendly, eager to welcome you to their party. Refusing a lei, even if you do so politely, is considered disrespectful, and so is removing it in the presence of the person you received it from. If you’re allergic to the flowers in your lei, it’s acceptable to remove it discreetly. Otherwise, it’s a courtesy to keep it on as a show of respect.

Olelo Hawaii – The Hawaiian Language

There’s a very good chance that you’re going to be hearing some unfamiliar words during your luau. It’s easy to forget that, while the Hawaiian Islands are part of the United States, long before joining the union they were inhabited by settlers from across the Pacific. Over the centuries, a unique Polynesian language grew that is still used today in many situations, both social and private. In fact, both English and Hawaiian are official languages here.

Try to learn some of the basic words, such as “mahalo” (thank you) and “keiki” (child/children). Knowing and using a few Hawaiian words will not only help you understand what’s happening at the luau, it’ll show your appreciation for Hawaii’s unique culture.On the flip side, don’t make a fool of yourself trying to speak like a local in the mash-up slang known as pidgin.

The Activities

Before you find yourself in the buffet line, at many luaus, most luaus offer the chance to participate in various hands-on activities. These aren’t just mindless ways to keep you entertained before dinner is served. Most luau activities are deeply rooted in Hawaiian tradition, whether it be learning a few steps of hula or making leis. If you decide to take part in these and other luau activities, be sure to approach them with respect and a desire to learn.

The Food

You won't come away from your luau hungry
You won’t come away from your luau hungry

A lot of care goes into creating the dishes you’ll find on a traditional luau buffet. Many of them, like poi and laulau, are customary at any Hawaiian feast. Dietary restrictions aside, it’s considered a sign of respect if you at least try the dishes presented to you. Nobody is going to be offended if you don’t eat everything, but since we’re talking about immersing yourself in the culture, food is a big part of it.

It’s also a pleasure to dine on the many unusual and often exquisite dishes. No matter your tastes, you won’t go hungry given the abundance of delicious traditional Polynesian dishes at the luau buffet.

The Show

The luau show tells a captivating story
The luau show tells a captivating story

This is a general etiquette thing, but when the show is going on, try to avoid side conversations or being distracting to the performers. Traditional entertainment at a luau has a very clear purpose: to tell a story about the history and lore of old Hawaii, the local customs, and the voyagers who sailed across the Pacific. They’re ageless tales told through music and dance, and really deserve your undivided attention.

The Benefit to You

Some people look for the personal benefit of doing just about anything, even something as obvious as respecting local culture and traditions. By showing respect for the traditions of a Hawaiian luau, you really do get the most out of the evening. You walk away with a deeper understanding of Hawaiian customs and the history of the islands, not to mention a belly full  of delicious food made from freshly sourced ingredients.

Most importantly, you’ll come to understand how the Hawaiian people have made the “Aloha Spirit” into something real that you feel every moment you’re here.

A Hawaiian luau is a lot more than a buffet feast and an entertaining production. It’s a glimpse into the customs of a fascinating land that can make you feel like you’re part of its incredible history, as long as you show a little respect.

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