The term lu`au as defined in the Elbert/Pukui Hawaiian English Dictionary describes 1. The young taro tops, especially as baked with coconut cream and chicken or octopus; and 2. A Hawaiian feast, named for the taro tops always served at one; this is not an ancient name, but goes back to at least 1856, when so used by the Pacific Commercial Advertiser; formerly a feast was referred to as a pa`ina or `aha`aina. The pa`ina describes a small dinner party as compared to the `aha`aina which refers to a large banquet type gathering.
`Aha`aina - means feast; feasting - Traditionally feasts were held for human comfort and social enjoyment or to communicate with and seek the help of or to appease the Gods. In its supernatural context - we are referring to Hawaii's pre-Christian deities and rituals. The term `aha`aina is derived from the root words `aha which means a meeting; gathering; or assembly and `aina which refers to eating or a meal.
In pre-missionary Hawai`i, both special religious occasions and human milestones were observed with feasting. Food in early Hawai`i was very often scarce and precious. What food they had, they shared with each other and with the gods. For feasts and even ordinary meals were important ways of communicating with the gods and one's fellow man. During the feast or meal, the ancestral gods were usually brought out and they were also given their share of the meal - beyond a ritual offering of the spiritual essence or (aka) of the food.
In old Hawai'i , the `aha`aina feast was both a religious experience and an important part of the early ohana (family) way of life. The food prepared for the feast was precious to the early Hawaiian, for it provided vital source of life's nourishment from the gods.
Today, the observance of the religious significance of the `aha`aina has all but disappeared and a feast, as it is hosted and celebrated in contemporary times, has become essentially, a purely social affair.
While today's menu is similar to the food that was served at a traditional `aha`aina, much of the religious significance and symbolism of the foods are usually forgotten.