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Thanksgiving in Hawaii: a look back

by Patrick Shimabukuro, staff writer


In Hawaiian, it’s known as La Ho‘omaika‘i ( Many of us know it better as Thanksgiving Day. As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving on Nov. 25, we should look back and see how Native Hawaiians celebrated this holiday. The first Thanksgiving in Hawai‘i was celebrated in 1838, not in November but on Dec. 6, 1 according to Research Institute for Hawai‘i.USA.


American missionary Lowell Smith wrote: “This day has been observed by U.S. missionaries and people of Honolulu as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God. Something new for this nation. The people turned out pretty well, and they dined in small…and large groups” (

Before the missionaries, when the Hawaiians celebrated Thanksgiving, it wasn’t just celebrated for one day: it was celebrated for four consecutive months. This was known as the Makahiki.

The whole season was the Hawaiian Thanksgiving, and it was held in honor of Lono, the god of fertility, music, and peace ( Beginning in October, the festival was divided into two periods. During the first period, people stopped work and began their journey to the compound of the king where, at the nearest heiau, or temple, they made offerings to him (their taxes) via the god Lono.

The taxes (‘auhau) for the king—collected by the Konohiki, or tax collector, and paid in pigs, taro, and mats, since there was no money or medium of exchange—were brought together in one place and offered on the altars of Lono. These gifts from the people were then divided up by the king among his followers (the ali‘i, the island’s aristocracy) and the priests.

The second period, which occurred in November, was a time for celebration. The Hawaiians enjoyed hula dancing, boxing, surfing, sliding on sleds, canoe races, relays, and swimming ( They also feasted on taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, bananas, vegetables, chicken, fish, limu, pig, dog, and sugar cane (

The first official Thanksgiving celebration in Hawai‘i took place on Dec. 31, 1849 by order of King Kamehameha III. At the end of the festival, the king ventured offshore in a canoe. When he returned, men with spears would rush him. It was believed that unless the king was sacred enough to be superior to death, he no longer was worthy of representing Lono (
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.

In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that established the fourth Thursday of November would be declared Thanksgiving Day. However, every few years November has five Thursdays. It wasn’t until 1956 that all states began celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November (

In the beginning, Thanksgiving was known as a day of prayer and fasting. More than likely, the first thanksgiving feast was eaten outside. The colonists didn’t have a building large enough to accommodate all the people who came.

Neither did the Hawaiians, nor the missionaries, Like the pilgrims before them, the Hawaiians celebrated by not only feasting, dancing, and other outdoor activities, but they also paid respect to the gods by offering gifts and prayer.

These traditions continue today as families gather to celebrate not only with feasts but also with expressions of appreciation for the bounty of life, gratitude to a higher power for providing it, and affection for each other.

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