Dramatic drum beats and gong hits poured into Waikiki’s buzzing streets below, starting from the door of a Pacific Beach Hotel ballroom. A colorful Chinese lion bobbled its over-sized head to the concussive musical medley and danced around guests celebrating my nephew’s first birthday last Saturday. The party included more than 100 of our family members and close friends and was probably bigger than some of the wedding receptions I’ve been to!
Modern baby luau includes cake, while an ancient Hawaiian one might have had haupia for dessert.
As you can tell, first birthdays in Hawaii are a big deal. It’s a way to kick off a long and healthy life as well as another reason to enjoy good food and great company. Some families host parties in their backyards while others have it at the beach or at kid-friendly places, like Chuck E. Cheese. No matter where the location, the mark of a child’s first year never goes unnoticed.
This type of celebration has been happening for centuries in many cultures around the world. Most children didn’t live to the age of one due to a lack of the medical advancements that we’re fortunate to have today. In ancient Hawaii, children who beat the odds were honored with a huge feast, better known as a paina or ahaaina. The newer term (first baby luau) came about in the 1850s, referring to the luau leaves in laulau served at the gathering.
Traditional feasts included pig, chicken, seafood, coconuts, sweet potatoes and taro. Hawaiians rolled out the lauhala mats and ate on the floor using nothing but their fingers to enjoy the delicious foods. Fresh flowers, ferns and ti leaves decorated the occasion while hula and Hawaiian music decorated the tropical air.
Today the luau, like Alexander’s, has taken a modern twist. Colorful balloons and a banner with an airbrushed illustration of my nephew lit up the hotel ballroom. Even the kids were colorful, with face paintings and airbrushed tattoos. They refueled on some sweets at a candy buffet before running off to play in the toy corner or watch episodes of Disney’s “Phineas and Ferb” (the party’s theme) on a big screen projector.
Balloons, candy and face painting make today’s modern baby luau fun for kids.
A food buffet of greens, fruits, meats, pastas and different types of pies made the adults extra happy, but what got everyone on their feet was the live entertainment by Natural Vibes – one of Hawaii’s premier local bands. The dimmed lights and camera phones in the air could have led someone to mistaken the birthday party for a rock concert; everyone was on their feet or bobbing their heads to the music that threaded throughout the ballroom.
The Chinese lion dance at the beginning of Alexander’s party showed how culturally perse Hawaii has become. The luau celebrates the start of a child’s life, while the lion dance brings in good fortune to the birthday honoree and to those who attended. “Feeding” the lion money also brings good luck. Other parties may have Tahitian performances or require that the one-year-old dress in special clothing, like the tol-bok worn in the Korean culture.
But regardless of how a first birthday is celebrated, it still holds a special place in almost all societies. They bring together loved ones over food and entertainment. And in Hawaii, the first baby luau has become a nice blend of multiple cultures at one time. I’m so glad to have been a part of Alexander’s big day and am looking forward to celebrating his many birthdays to come!