Bringing the Spirit of Aloha to a Folly Beach Restaurant: The History of the Luau

When we opened the Wiki Wiki Sandbar at Folly Beach we aimed to bring the spirit of aloha to Charleston’s most eccentric beach neighborhood, but that meant doing our research to honor the culture properly. Today we want to share a bit of that culture with you, by discussing the rich history of the Hawaiian Luau celebration that we know and love today. There’s more to it than pig-roasting and hula dancing—so grab a drink and read about one of our favorite pieces of Hawaiian culture below!

What Is A Luau?

A luau is essentially a celebration in Polynesian and Hawaiian culture. A party, at its heart, the Luau tradition is meant to signify a coming of age, life event, or fantastic achievement that should be celebrated among an entire community. At its core, the event is a feast accompanied by some type of entertainment. While we may not host official, traditional Luau events at the Wiki Wiki Sandbar, we consider any celebration hosted at our venue a sort of Luau on its own.

History of the Luau:

While the luau is an ancient tradition rooted heavily in Polynesian and Hawaiian religious and social culture, it’s values have changed over the years to accommodate social changes and allow for more inclusion of all sorts of people. Before it was called the Luau, it was called the ‘aha‘aina and referred specifically to religious ceremonies and feasts that put restrictions on who could eat what and when.

Foods like reef fish, bananas, and pork were served to the chiefs (called the Alii) and kings of the island tribes, while other dishes were reserved for women and common folk. The different foods were created to signify different things and represented goals that someone would want to achieve. These goals can be anything from strength, to specific virtues and traits.

Throughout the years, these traditions changed, particularly during the time of King Kamehameha II around 1819 when a new era of ‘aha’aina’ was born. The king hoped to make changes that represented social change within Hawaiian culture, and started the tradition of a celebratory feast that was inclusive of women. The new tradition allowed women to eat alongside the king, and was named after a popular dish that was served at the event: Luau, made of chicken and leaves from taro plants, baked in coconut milk.

These feasts were traditionally eaten on the floor, and were eaten with only the hands while a vast array of plant life decorated the event. Foods at these events ranged from pork dishes like kalua pig, poi, dried fish, bananas, and sweet potatoes. A royal luau at that time could accompany hundreds of guests, with the largest luau taking place in 1847 to celebrate King Kamehameha III turned 50. There were 1,500 guests that required 271 pigs.

The Luau Today

Today, those traditions are still alive and well in the modern Luau. Things like kalua pig and poi are very much still part of the luau culture, and the events are used to commemorate life events and celebrations such as birthdays, coming of age ceremonies, or big achievements. While tourism culture very much thrives off of things like the luau in Hawaii, it’s traditions still run deep among the local Hawaiian and Polynesian people. Entertainment such as hula dancing and other traditional Hawaiian music still accompany the celebrations that take place today.