Ancient Hawaiians began the traditional celebration for the New Year in honor of the god Lono, who was worshiped as the provider of fertility, rain, agriculture, music and prosperity. The timing of the Makahiki festival was generally determined by astronomical formations, such as the seasonal appearance of star clusters or of the first crescent moon. The native Hawaiians would watch for the Pleiades constellation near the horizon at the end of the day, which would signify the coming of the Makahiki season. Originally the Hawaiians divided the year into two major sections, the first of which began in October or November and would continue through to February or March. During this season, heavy rains would fall, and there would be rough seas and high waves. The second part of the year lasted usually 8 months, when the farm cycle would begin and Ku the god of war would be celebrated instead of Lono.
Historically, the Makahiki festival represented a time with all battles and wars would cease in order to pay homage to Lono. The time was to represent rest, pleasure and renewal during the wet months when the land would be replenished by the rain and when people could enjoy a season of peace and festivities. At the beginning of Makahiki celebrations, the image of Lono would be carried across the circumference of every island. This trip took several days to complete, as the processional would make stops at each community, or ahupua’a, along the journey. There, the priest would present the village’s ho’okupu (offering) to the god’s image in order to request bounty, fertility and favor for the coming seasons of harvest.
Thus, the celebration of Makahiki occurred in multiple stages. The first phase was the spiritual cleansing and offerings presented to the gods. This would include the collection of taxes in the form of goods such as sweet potato, taro, dried fish, pig, weavings, mats, feathers or whatever unique or valuable items the people could muster. Each offering was brought to the temple where the great mounds of goods would amass on the altar of Lono or on the boundary lines of each village. These would be both presented to the image of Lono and often redistributed by the chiefs to those less fortunate. The remaining goods would then be collected as a tribute to be given to Lono in the final stage of the festival.
The second phase of Makahiki included glorious celebrations including hula dancing, competitive sports (like wrestling, bowling, spear and javelin throwing, canoe racing, sledding, surfing and swimming) as well as singing and enjoying the best Hawaiian delicacies during extensive feasts. Another popular sport was that of the he’e holua, or lava sledding, one of the most thrilling and dangerous activities. Only men in the nobility class (ali’i) could endeavor to toboggan down the tracks over lava rock paths (some of which extended a total of 1,300 to 4,000 feet), made slick with water, grass and packed mud. Such distinct courses have been preserved at the Keauhou Holua National Historic Landmark on Hawaii’s Big Island.
This celebratory part of Makahiki also included theatrical performances depicting stories of mythical Hawaiian heroes, betting competitions, chants and pageants.
The third and final phase of Makahiki was called the tax canoe, or wa’a‘auhau, a ceremonial canoe ride toward the horizon. The canoes would be filled to the brim with the ho’okupu and would then be pushed out to sea as a gift to the god Lono. At the close of the Makahiki festival, the chiefs would themselves set sail in a canoe. Upon the return, the moment the chief set his foot on shore, he would be assailed with a barrage of attacks. Warriors would throw spears at him, which he would have to ward off or combat in order to prove himself worthy of ruler status. When the tax canoes were sent out to sea, and the chieftains are again approved for rule, the time of Makahiki would come to an end and the cycle of the farming season would begin again.