Written by Sean Paul Lavine
Native Hawaiians of antiquity were giving thanks long before the Thanksgiving we know and observe today. Unlike the contemporary holiday, Makahiki was celebrated over the course of months, beginning on the evening of November 1st and continuing until January 31st.
The purpose of the celebration was to give thanks to Lonoikamakahiki, a Hawaiian god who brought bountiful crops, blessings, and peace to the islands.
Makahiki was celebrated in three phases:
The first phase of Makahiki began with a cessation of hostilities between feuding tribes as violence was outlawed by rulers in the name of peace. The commoners harvested their crops and a period of spiritual cleansing was begun. Offerings to the gods, called hoʻokupu, were collected and carefully placed on great alters where elaborate rituals were performed in the hopes of continued prosperity. The offerings included butchered pigs, varieties of fish, potatoes, fruits, and other valuable goods.
The second phase of Makahiki ushered in celebrations and festivities. For weeks, events, ceremonies, and other activities took place across the islands. Sports such as boxing matches, wrestling tournaments, javelin marksmanship, canoe racing, surfing, and swimming were favorites among the people. In addition, there was hula dancing, games, music, and dancing.
Of course, there was also grand feasts. The traditional fare likely featured roasted pigs, poi, kukui nuts, seeds, sweet potatoes, fish and bread fruits. Of interesting note, the 1621 celebration of Thanksgiving that occurred in Plymouth included a similar variety of foods. In the American colonies, items such as roasted fowl, bread stuffing, nuts, seeds, corn, potatoes, fish and pumpkins were served to a grateful citizenry.
The third and final phase of Makahiki involved giving thanks as well as a final act of bravery. Towards the end of the festivities, a canoe, loaded with offerings, was pushed out to sea as a last gift to their god Lonoikamakahiki. To conclude the Makahiki festival, the chief would row a canoe out to sea. After a time, he would return to shore where a group of the fiercest warriors would throw spears at him with deadly precision. Defiant, the chief would have to deflect and survive the danger in order to prove his worthiness to continue to rule.
The American version of the Thanksgiving tradition began to be celebrated in Hawaii 14 years before it was officially declared a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. In 1946, with the spirit of preserving Hawaiian culture and heritage, the Aloha Festivals were established. Today, the festivals still honor the Makahiki tradition but occur over the course of one week as opposed to three months and many Hawaiians choose to celebrate Thanksgiving twice.