traditions in Hawaii

7 Unique Traditions in Hawaii

When most people think about their tropical island fantasy escapes, they’re normally conjuring up an image that looks an awful lot like Hawai. Between its cobalt blue sea, white sandy palm-fringed beaches and technicolour coral reefs, Hawaii is most people’s idea of paradise. But there’s more to Hawaii than bliss on the beach. It’s a deeply traditional place, with a rich heritage, culture and customs. We’ve rounded up seven traditions in Hawaii you may not know much about.

Seven unique traditions in Hawaii

1. Aloha!

Aloha means more than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, though most of the islands’ visitors don’t know that. It’s much deeper than a greeting and encapsulates the essence of love, compassion, mutual respect and peace. The direct translation from Hawaii to English means ‘presence of divine breath’.

Traditional aloha wear usually features bold Hawaiin floral printed shirts and mu’umu’dresses.

traditions in Hawaii

2. Lūʻau feasts

A lūʻau is a traditional Hawaiian party or feast accompanied by entertainment. Most visitors try to go to a few of these, but they’re not just for tourists. Most families will hold a baby lūʻau to celebrate a child’s first birthday. These parties are huge, featuring food such as poi, kālua puaʻa (kālua pig), poke, lomi salmon, ʻopihi, and haupia. There will usually be Hawaiin games, traditional music and hula too.

Germaine’s Luau is one of Hawaii’s most popular feasts for tourists.

The name ‘lūʻau’ is actually a relatively new one though. Historically, Hawaiian parties were known as ‘paina’ or ‘ahaaina’ but in the 19th-century, newspaper reporters started referring to the celebrations ‘luau’, the local word for taro tops, a common Hawaiian ingredient. It stuck.

traditions in Hawaii

3. The lei

A lei is a garland or wreath made out of flowers, bird feathers, shells, ivory, seeds or even hair. It’s a national symbol of Hawaii. They were once ornamentally used by Native Hawaiians, particularly amongst chiefs to signify their rank. Back then, the custom involved tieing it around the neck but today’s customs dictate that you case it over the recipients head to respect the sacredness of a person’s head and back.

It’s common to give a lei on occasions such as graduations, birthdays and retirements. The garlands are usually hung up or refrigerated beforehand to ensure they keep their scene. You should never give a pregnant woman a closed lei as it represents choking the baby by the umbilical cord.

traditions in Hawaii

4. The Hawaiian honi ihu

The honi ihu is also known as the ‘Hawaiin kiss’. Traditionally it involves touching noses or foreheads. Honi ihu means to share breath and symbolizes a close relationship of respect between two people. Native Hawaiians believe that breath is a vital life force and that the honi ihu enables the exchange of breath and scents. Today, a hug and a kiss on the cheek is equally acceptable. It’s a common greeting in Hawaii for friends, family and strangers. Most people shake hands in business meetings too.

The ‘Shaka’ is another hallmark Hawaiin gesture. The pink and thumb salute means ‘hang loose’, ‘don’t worry’ or ‘right on’.

traditions in Hawaii

5. The significance of flowers

According to local custom, wearing a flower above your left ear – on the same side as your heart – means that you have a significant other. Wearing a flower tucked above your right ear means you’re single and ready to mingle. The most common flowers in Hawaii are the dazzling Hawaii orchid, the Plumeria and the Hibiscus, the official state flower of Hawaii.

6. How about the Hula Kahiko?

This intricate and ancient artform is a native Hawaiin dance performed for religious purposes, entertainment and to preserve the stories and mythology of Hawaiin people. It requires rigorous training and skills, usually taught by one of a long line of Kumu (teachers). Historically the hula lahiko was performed privately or by trained dancers before the king to honour the gods and praise the chiefs. Today’s hula is usually performed sitting or standing, accompanied by music and chanting. Most performers will wear jewellery made from whale teeth and bones and lei. Women usually wear traditional skirts called pa‘us while men usually wear tapa loincloths.

7. Giving gifts

Gift-giving is an important part of Hawaiin culture called ‘omiyage’ or ‘Makana’. Most Hawaiians will bring a gift to relatives or friends if they’re travelling from afar. The item will usually be something you can’t find in the recipient’s region – food is particularly popular. For instance, locals travelling to the US mainland and abroad will take foods from Hawaii to friends where the local food is unavailable. You should always offer something in return too. They’re unlikely to accept it but it’s still rude not to make the offer.

‘Make plate’ or ‘take plate’ is also popular. The potluck format involves making a plate of food and sharing it with the host of the party. You should also take a plate home with you at the end of the party.

Allie D'Almo

Allie is a passionate traveller with a hearty interest in great food and stories. She likes to travel slowly, particularly to underrated and underloved places. She’s lived in Italy and is now based in London, where she spends most of her time either plotting her next trip or writing about her last one.

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