How Thanksgiving Has Been Celebrated in Hawai‘i Over the Years
Throwback Thanksgiving Thursday.
Autumn has always been a celebratory season in Hawai‘i and the spirit of being thankful and giving back still runs deep in many locals. Here’s a look back at how locals celebrated Thanksgiving in the past.
As Hawai‘i began seeing the ever-growing interest in travel to the Pacific, locals began learning to adapt. Some felt Hawai‘i was losing its old Hawaiian traditions, others embraced the visitors as a reason to revive and raise interest in those traditions. George H. McKenzie wrote in Paradise of the Pacific that the warm autumn sun brought more and more “tourist crop” to the Islands every year, sparking a group of Hawai‘i businessmen to create the Fall Festival of Pacific Races.
Photos: HONOLULU Magazine and paradise of the pacific Archives
The Fall Festival, held over five days a week or two before Thanksgiving, was an event locals and visitors alike looked forward to. As the name suggests, the programming for the festival reflected the cultural diversity of Hawai‘i with shows, dances and other entertainment of all the races bordering the Pacific Ocean.
In the spirit of Hawai‘i and staying true to its history, the festival featured “Ke Alaua (the first gleam of dawn),” a show telling the story of Hawai‘i from its ancient days, the arrival of outside influences, and the dawning of a new era in which present-day Hawaiians struggle to retain the customs of their forefathers.
Children in the Kamehameha Schools Preparatory Department take part in a Ho‘okupu, where they present gifts as ancient Hawaiians once did to their chiefs. The children donate fresh or canned foods, wrapped in ti leaves to benefit the old Hawaiians at Lunalilo Home. Part of the program includes four boys shaking some of the food through a net while the rest of the children join in a chant to signify a year of plenty, as was done in the old days. They also perform other Hawaiian songs.
Each year, one class takes responsibility of the Ho‘okupu. The Kamehameha Schools’ Ho‘okupu is a strong marriage of both ancient Hawaiian tradition and the modern American Thanksgiving.
Another old Thanksgiving tradition in Hawai‘i was the Thanksgiving Market, held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in downtown Honolulu. The Thanksgiving Market was hosted annually by the women of St. Andrew’s, whose work was pioneered and outlined by Queen Emma in 1863. Queen Emma organized The Ladies’ District Visitors Society “to visit the sick in her hospital (Queen’s) or in their homes, giving help and teaching the gospel.”
In a feature mapping out the numerous holidays in Hawai‘i from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31, the November highlight event in the 1960s is the Festival of the Pacific, which seems to be a derivative of the 1930s Fall Festival of the Pacific Races.
In 1849, Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in the Kingdom of Hawai‘i by King Kamehameha III. This was 14 years before President Lincoln had declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in the United States. Going even further back, before European influence and the introduction of the American Thanksgiving to Hawai‘i, Hawaiians had their own version of the harvest season holiday.
The November 1967 issue of HONOLULU Magazine takes us back to the ancient Hawaiian celebration of the Makahiki. The Makahiki was a three-month-long festival celebrating the return of Lono, the Hawaiian god of agriculture and peace. The festival season officially began on the first night of the 11th month and ended on the last night of the first month. Before the festival, everyone would gather their crops and pay their taxes in food, live animals or other fruits or products of their particular crafts. Once Makahiki began, men, women, chiefs and royalty would cast aside everyday work, religious observances and even war to mingle and enjoy the festivities, which included week after week of grand feasts, boxing tournaments and other sports, games and activities, music and dancing.
What started in 1971 as a luncheon for 500 people has grown to an event hosting more than 2,000. The Salvation Army’s annual Thanksgiving meal is meant for those “who otherwise would not be enjoying much of a Thanksgiving—the needy, the elderly, the homeless.” Much like today’s event, the 1989 luncheon was made possible by hundreds of businesses, organizations and individuals who came together to contribute everything from the food and supplies to the decorations and entertainment. The 1989 menu included 54 15-pound turkeys, 550 pounds of stuffing, 35 gallons of gravy, 250 pounds of rice and 275 pumpkin pies.
Pictured are Gloria and Ben Tamashiro, who played Harry and Myra in old Bank of Hawai‘i commercials, loading up on their holiday goodies at Makiki Bake Shop.
Locals host potlucks all year-round and the holidays are no exception. “With its wide ethic mix, Honolulu has hundreds of little shops, restaurants, caterers and take-out places, each with its own specialty,” HONOLULU writes. In 1991, HONOLULU Magazine asked a number of locals to share where they go for their best festive fare and compiled a list of answers including Hawaiian, Korean, Jewish and traditional Thanksgiving foods.