One of the many memories one takes away from the Hawaii experience is the unbelievable sights, smells and sounds you experience while on island. This includes the array of beautiful flower, leaves and seed leis that are an important part of the Hawaiian culture. The lei is an important symbol of Hawaiian greeting and custom.
The tradition of presenting and receiving leis first started with Polynesian voyagers who made the journey from Tahiti over to the Hawaiian island. An enduring concept in Hawaiian culture is the lei or wreath of flowers being given to the wearer as a symbol of affection and honor. Ancient Hawaiians made their leis out of sticks, teeth, bones and kukui nuts. However, the kukui nut lei was only worn by alii (royalty).
Every year on May 1st, Lei Day is celebrated throughout the islands. The celebration begins the morning of May 1st and continues into the next day. Each island has its own special lei with their own materials and color. The Lei Day celebration was first introduced in 1928 by Oklahoma poet Don Blanding who made his home in Hawaii. His intention was to preserve the custom.
Each island has its own special lei including individual materials used and the color theme.
- Hawaii – Red (ohia lehua)
- Oahu – Yellow or Gold (ilima)
- Maui – Pink (lokelani)
- Kauai – Purple (mokihana)
- Lanai – Orange (kaunaoa)
- Molokai – Green (kukui)
- Niihau – White (pupu o Niihau/ Niihau shells)
- Kahoolawe – Silver or Gray (hinahina)
Modern day Lei Day celebrations are now a statewide event. Leis are given and worn by all. There are school pageants and the selection of a royal court. Island wide, there are lei making contests with creations that range from traditional to over-the-top.
The lei is a cherished tradition and symbol of greeting. Even with the grand display and fun celebrations this day, there are some do’s and don’ts to follow.
Never take off your lei once it has been received. This is considered rude.
Never throw away your lei. Hawaiians always return the lei to the earth as compost, drape it across a loved one’s photograph or dry and save it.
Never take a lei off and throw it around or swing it from your fingers. Remember that someone put a lot of love and care into creating the lei.
Always accept aloha and never refuse a lei. If you must remove your lei for any reason, do so with respect and be discreet.
Always give an open-end lei to pregnant women. It is traditional to present a lei to a pregnant woman where the end is not tied closed. It is considered a symbol of bad luck to give a pregnant woman a tied end lei as it represents the umbilical cord tied around the infant’s neck.
The proper way to wear your lei is draped over your shoulders gently hanging over both the front and back.
There are three types of lei making that are the most common. There is the kui method, where materials are strung end to end. There is haku or paited, and wili or wound. Most leis are made from plant material, where the kui method uses string or thread.
The fragrant plumeria flower is one of the most common flowers used in lei making, but there is a large variety of plants, flowers, nuts and shells that are used to make these beautiful, symbolic creations. It can take up to four hours or more to make the more elaborate leis.
Leis continue to be an enduring gesture of welcome and aloha to visitors. The growth in popularity goes back to the turn of the last century when Hawaii was becoming a sought out destination with visitors arriving by boat.
This is when the popularity of the lei grew with arriving tourists being greeted by vendors selling their fragrant creations and welcoming them to our island home.
Ever since, the symbolic nature of the Hawaiian lei continues to be cherished as a beautiful symbol of the aloha spirit to this day.