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It was a holiday covering four consecutive lunar months, approximately from October or November through February or March. Thus it might be thought of as including the equivalent of modern Thanksgiving and Christmas traditions. Many religious ceremonies happened during this period. The people stopped work, made offerings to the chief or aliʻi, and then spent their time practicing sports, feasting, dancing and having a good time. War during those four months was forbidden (kapu).
The Makahiki festival was celebrated in three phases. The first phase was a time of spiritual cleansing and making hoʻokupu, offerings to the gods. The Konohiki, a class of royalty that at this time of year provided the service of tax collector, collected agricultural and aquacultural products such as pigs, taro, sweet potatoes, dry fish, kapa and mats. Some offerings were in the form of forest products such as feathers. The Hawaiian people had no money or other similar medium of exchange. These were offered on the altars of Lono at heiau - temples - in each district around the island. Offerings also were made at the ahu, stone altars set up at the boundary lines of each community.
All war was outlawed to allow unimpeded passage of the image of Lono. The festival proceeded in a clockwise circle around the island as the image of Lono (Akua Loa, a long pole with a strip of tapa and other embellishments attached) was carried by the priests. At each ahupuaʻa (each community also is called an ahupuaʻa) the caretakers of that community presented hoʻokupu to the Lono image, a fertility god who caused things to grow and who gave plenty and prosperity to the islands.
The second phase was a time of celebration: of hula dancing, of sports (boxing, wrestling, sliding on sleds, javelin marksmanship, bowling, surfing, canoe races, relays, and swimming), of singing and of feasting. One of the best preserved lava sled courses is the Keauhou Holua National Historic Landmark.
In the third phase, the waʻa ʻauhau — tax canoe — was loaded with hoʻokupu and taken out to sea where it was set adrift as a gift to Lono. At the end of the Makahiki festival, the chief would go off shore in a canoe. When he came back in he stepped on shore and a group of warriors threw spears at him. He had to deflect or parry the spears to prove his worthiness to continue to rule.
A royal birth during the season was sometimes given the name Lono i ka makahiki.
In the Hawaiian language, the word Makahiki means "year" as well as the change from harvest time to the beginning of the agricultural season. This probably came from Makaliʻi hiki the rising of the Pleiades, known in Hawaii as the Makali'i, which occurred about this time. It might also come from ma Kahiki, meaning roughly "as in Tahiti", since the legend of Lono is associated with voyages to and from Tahiti. Its origins are linked to the "return" of Lono, during one of the early migrations, in the form of a mortal man.
The beginning of Makahiki is marked by the rising of the Makali'i star cluster shortly after sunset. This occurs about the first week of November at Nautical twilight when the first stars are visible. The exact start date may be marked by the New Moon which sometimes makes the beginning of Makahiki fall in mid to late October instead of November.