By Léo Azambuja
Uncle calls the boys to help pull the kalua pig from the imu pit, where it had been baking and steaming all night. The pot with rice pudding was in there too.
Not too far away, auntie is setting up the table, making sure there is plenty of poi, ahi poke, lomilomi salmon, sticky rice, squid luau, sweet potato and lau lau for the whole ‘ohana — and it’s a pretty large extended ‘ohana.
Oh, there’s a big, fat turkey too, and stuffing. After all, it’s Thanksgiving, or La Ho‘omaika‘i, on Kaua‘i.
“Over here a party translates to food, lots of it,” said Bruce Kaiwi, who grew up in Anahola and whose Hawaiian blood quantum is nearly 100 percent.
To him and many Hawaiians, Thanksgiving is an important event that keeps families connected.
“First and foremost, it means getting together with your family,” Kaiwi said. “If it wasn’t for events like that, who knows when we would see each other?”
In 1849, when Hawai‘i was still a sovereign nation, King Kamehameha III made the first royal proclamation setting Dec. 31 as Thanksgiving Day.
Then in 1956, King Kamehameha IV issued another proclamation setting Thanksgiving celebrations on Dec. 25. Six years later, under a new decree from Kamehameha IV, Christmas took over Dec. 25.
Surprisingly, that first royal Hawaiian proclamation came a full 14 years before the butterball feast and prayers galore was made into a permanent official federal holiday in the United States.
Though Thanksgiving proclamations were common for several U.S. presidents since George Washington’s 1789 proclamation, it wasn’t until 1863 that President Abraham Lincoln set the last Thursday of November as a permanent federal Thanksgiving holiday. Then in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday of November.
Over the decades, and through the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the annexation of Hawai‘i to the U.S. in 1898, Thanksgiving in Hawai‘i changed dates a few times. But its meaning in the Islands stayed true to the core.
Dan Ahuna, Kaua‘i’s trustee at the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said that as a child, he learned in school about Thanksgiving as a holiday celebrating generosity between Native Americans and pilgrims. But growing up on Kaua‘i, he said, Thanksgiving was always a celebration of bringing the family together, a time when the ‘ohana gives love back to their kupuna, or elders.
Hayley Ham-Young Giorgio comes from a traditional and quite large family on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. Thanksgiving, she said, is “kind of a big deal” for her family. Someone always has an imu going, filled with kalua pig, turkey and lau lau.
For her ‘ohana, “Thanksgiving keeps going” on the day after, “because you have so much food leftover.”
But it’s not just about the food. Mostly, Ham-Young Giorgio said, Thanksgiving is a time when her family gives thanks to each other and to everyone else: Many who don’t have family here are invited to the pa‘ina.
Kaleo Lopez said his family usually throws a large party where everybody shares with each other. They may gather at Black Pot Beach Park if his uncle, surfing legend Titus Kinimaka, is throwing the party. Or they may go to his mother’s or his auntie’s home.
Wherever the party is, he said, there is always a pig in the imu, along with all kinds of Hawaiian foods — and a traditional turkey.
“Of course we’re all thankful for everything we have, what we are blessed with,” Lopez said. “But for the most part, Thanksgiving is for all our family to spend time together.”
For the Smiths, almost everyday is a luau. In the last 50 years, the Smith Family Garden Luau by Wailua River has cemented a solid reputation of organizing one of the best luaus in the state.
General Manager Kamika Smith — whose Hawaiian great-grandmother married an Englishman named Smith — said that about 10 years ago, due to high demand, his family decided to open for business on Thanksgiving Day.
Despite being a workday, the Smiths still celebrate the date, he said. They all have lunch together, and then get to work, with luau tickets sold out two to three weeks in advance.
Ironically, the Smith ‘ohana doesn’t eat kalua pig on Thanksgiving; not now and not when they would take the day off.
“We wouldn’t have the kalua pig, ‘cause we always eat kalua pig, we would have the traditional American Thanksgiving kind of meal,” said Smith, adding turkey was always on the table.
This year’s Thanksgiving falls on Nov. 27. If tradition persists, there might be something else besides food: huge surf.
“Every Thanksgiving, growing up, I remember several things, one of them was going down to Anahola and surfing big freaking stormy waves and then going home and destroying some turkey and everything else that was on the table,” Kaiwi said.
Whether you’re a kama‘aina or a malihini — and whether you surf or not — enjoy the pa‘ina.
Hau‘oli La Ho‘omaika‘i.