From Lelo and Stitch to grass skirt hula dancing, the “mainland” has romanticized Hawai’i from afar for ages.
For a good reason, too.
The culture of Hawai’i reflects the landscapes of the islands: beautiful, rich, and serene.
Its culture began over a thousand years before settlers arrived around 300 AD. Due to the blend of people from Europe, the South Pacific, and Asia, Hawai’i now holds a mix of unique and quirky customs.
With aloha and a kiss on the cheek, here’s a list of Hawai’ian traditions for you to admire and, hopefully, experience one day.
In Hawai’i, flowers don’t live solely on the ground.
You’ll find them on the shirts of businessmen, on necklaces called lei, and in the hair of the young and the old.
It’s said that a young woman wears a flower in her left ear to communicate that she’s in a relationship. If it’s behind her right ear, she may be single.
Men wear them in their hair, too, and for any occasion.
The use of flower as attire shows how the people of Hawai’i always m?lama ka ??ina, or take care of the land. They adore it by adorning themselves with its fruits, and are sure to never leave anything in their trail besides footsteps.
Lei is the singular and plural word for a necklace constructed of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and sometimes bones.
It’s a common custom to give someone a lei as a gesture of love. So, you should never reject one, as it’s a genuine offer of peace.
They’re often offered at graduations, birthdays, and special occasions.
On May 1st, the state celebrates Lei Day. Children string hundreds of lei to honor and respect the dead and the living.
A Hawai’ian Tradition: The Luáu
Many people call grand Hawai’ian fests and parties luáu, but luáu refers to a type of food typically served at the event. Rather, the gathering is a päìna.
Päìna are a gathering of ‘ohana, or family, to celebrate and feast. They occur throughout the year or for specific special occasions.
One such occasion is a child’s first birthday. Some say this is due to a time in history when foreign disease caused many children do not reach this age. Others say it’s when a family gives a child a name.
Regardless of the purpose of the päìna, you can expect delicious food, a ton of people, and a variety of entertainment, even if it’s for a toddler.
One of the entertaining acts may be hula dancing.
It’s not coconut bras and random hip swaying like many people think.
Hula is an ancient form of storytelling and culture preservation. Hula masters, also known as kumu hula, practice kahiko (ancient) or ‘auna (modern) styles.
Hula kahiko dancers move exactly as they learned to, so as to preserve the ancient practice as much as possible. It incorporates chanting stories and moving to the beat of the ipu heke (a double gourd drum).
Hula ‘auna is more modern and free-flowing. Dancers may sing in English and dance to ukeleles. If you visit Hawai’i, you may get to participate in this style or see it at a päìna.
Since we’re talking about celebrations, let’s talk about the Hawai’ian tradition of origami.
Because of Japanese influence, it’s common for a bride and her party to fold 1,000 tiny golden origami cranes for longevity and good luck. The groom contributes the last one, making it 1,001. Once they’re framed and flattened, the couple keeps them for prosperity.
Hawai’ian culture honors and respects those who have passed. Kamehameha Day on June 11 does just that.
The day is for celebrating Kamehameha the Great who first established the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
Another ritual of death is the sea burial. It may have started with the passing of Duke Kahanamoku, the man who popularized surfing around the world. Before him, it was only an activity in Hawai’i.
A sea burial involves the oldest members of the family bringing the ashes of the deceased on a canoe. Other family members paddle beside it on surfboards as they journey hundreds of yards from the shoreline.
Once they reach a sweet spot, they scatter the ashes with lei and flower petals.
These rituals show respect and love for the dead.
Yes, the stereotype of surfing being a big deal in Hawai’i is right. It’s where surfing started, after all.
If you’re a visitor to the islands, you should ask locals where to go. At some beaches, it may take years for local surfers to accept you as they hold their spot sacred.
You’ll notice that people check for swells rather than checking weather reports. You’ll also notice long-sleeve shirts come out when temperatures drop below 75 degrees.
Whether you surf or not, be sure to leave the beach as it is. Don’t take sand or rocks from anywhere on the island, as locals believe it’s bad luck and will upset Pele (the Hawai’ian goddess of fire).
Islands with a lot of people bring a lot of traffic.
A local may plan their entire afternoon to avoid rush hour. No matter how busy it get, however, roads are silent from honking you may find in other cities. In Hawai’i, people only honk to say hello and tend to be friendly in traffic.
If you ask a local for directions, don’t expect cardinal directions. It’s common to direct people by speaking of landmarks. Instead of saying a distance in miles, locals may tell you the time it usually takes to get there.
This is because a few miles may take longer than one would expect, due to traffic.
We could never sum up the entire culture in a short post, but here are a few more quirky traditions you may see in Hawai’i.
People return giving with giving on the islands. Someone may give you a gift because you gave them one, and if you reject it, they may sneak it into your belongings.
When locals travel to other islands or elsewhere, they bring back gifts for others. It’s common for these gifts to be food people couldn’t get in Hawaii.
So, as a gesture to people you love, you can shop here and get a Hawai’ian package of goodies for your loved one, whether you live in Hawai’i or not.
Flip-flops, called slippers in Hawai’i, are common everywhere — except for in someone’s house. No matter how big the gathering, all guests leave their shoes outside as a kind gesture.
People are met with a kiss on the cheek and an “aloha!”. Aloha isn’t just “hello” — it expresses love, peace, and compassion.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Yes, we’ve created an article about Hawai’ian traditions. However, you should try not to stereotype or assume anything about a culture until you’ve experienced one in full.
This is a good practice for anything in your life, not just cultures.
Until you have the opportunity to travel to the beautiful Aloha State or experience other things you consider “weird” in your realm, keep reading and learning.
Continue reading our blog to understand more things you don’t know about.