The New Year and the Old Year

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Read this article in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi

Photo: Kalani Akana

Although the 2021 new year has begun, the Native Hawaiian year already began in the month of Makaliʻi (November 2020) with the rising of the Pleiades in the eastern evening sky.

There were events prior to the arrival of Makaliʻi, such as the kuapola ritual and hiʻuwai celebration. Nowadays, several ceremonies of old have been revived by teachers, students and leaders of Hawaiian cultural revitalization, such as the giving of ritual gifts, and a ritual circuit of the land with the representation of Lonomakua. Traditional games have been reclaimed and played such as boxing, wrestling, hand wrestling, bowling and so forth. The Hawaiian New Year is indeed a time of relaxation, peace and celebration without warring. It is a time to restore and reinvigorate the land and mankind.

How was the new year celebrated in recent past?

On the last day of the year December 31, a Hawaiian family might gather to pray for the blessings obtained and for blessings for the new year. They would dress in black until midnight then change into white clothing as a way to signify the passing of the old year and the arrival of a bright new year. It is said, “Day has won over the night.” The lei of hala (pandanus) was worn around the neck to show the passing of the year, as well as the passing of evil and bad things.

Then family and friends would gather to eat Hawaiian food because feasting was, and is, an appropriate way to open or close a ceremony. There was meaning assigned to each of the foods of the New Year feast. Here are some feast foods and their significance:

  • Poi. Poi is eaten in remembrance of Hāloa. In respect to Hāloa, when the poi bowl is uncovered, garrulous talking is forbidden when eating – no arguing, no evil words, and no grumbling.
  • Roast pig. The hog is a good food for closure and beginnings. In the ʻailolo ceremony, the brain, ears, nose, feet, tail and spleen are eaten because of its hidden meaning. Pig, however, was not eaten during the Makahiki of old. The hog is an embodiment of the god Lono.
  • Sea pig.” If a pig was not available, it was permissible to prepare a “sea pig” such as goatfish or mullet as substitutes.
  • Laulau. The deeper significance of laulau is the wealth of the family and land. Let wealth abound. Lau was the native way of saying 400 implying “lots.”
  • Sweet potato. Sweet potato might be a symbol of a new awakening (play on ‘ala’ meaning to awaken).
  • Breadfruit. Breadfruit might act as a symbol of new growth (play on ‘ulu’ or growth).
  • Miscellaneous foods. ʻAlamihi crabs, unicornfish, and sargassum are appropriate if there was a need for forgiveness, pardon, and spiritual release of wrongdoing.

The New Year of these times finishes in a day. The native New Year concluded after four months, ending in the month of Nana (February) with the launching of the tribute canoe. In the past, the chief returned to the land from the sea which he made free from restriction. He is “welcomed” with a kāliʻi ceremony by experts at spear throwing. It was a test of strength of the leadership. If the numerous spears were caught there was life. If not, death. Let’s hope, oh readers, that the numerous “spears” of the old year 2020 are caught so that there is new life this 2021 New Year.


Kalani Akana, Ph.D., is the culture specialist at OHA. He is a kumu of hula, oli and ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. He has authored numerous articles on Indigenous ways of knowing and doing.