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Hawaiian Lei


Women making leis in Hawaii

Women making lei on Oahu. Courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Tor Johnson.

Leis have become one of the most well-known Hawaiian trademarks symbolizing beauty, commemoration and general festivities. However the tradition of lei wearing and making is deeper than just decoration. This tradition came to Hawaii from ancient Polynesian voyagers traveling by boat from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands. Leis are incredibly varied. Besides being made of flowers and leaves, they can also made of shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and in the past, were even made from human finger bones, hair or teeth of various animals, sometimes in honor or the gods, and in celebration of nature.  Hawaiians wore leis to distinguish themselves from other Hawaiians, adorn themselves or symbolize the flow between beings coming together to create something beautiful.

The maile lei had possibly the most significance, as it was used in peace treaties between warring chiefs, where they would stand in a heiau (temple) and tie them together as a sign of cooperation between groups.  They were made to pay tribute to gods, and to celebrate the fruits of the land or sea. Leis today are given in the same way to visitors to Hawaii, in the true spirit of aloha.  They are also placed on the graves of loved ones or given to those departing or the islands. They are given on birthdays, on celebrations of graduation day, at a festival or marriage feast. According to tradition, in the 1900’s it was said that during the “boat days” when all of travel was by sea, departing locals would cast their leis into the water, believing that if their garland floated up on the beach, that it would be a sign of their return as well.

For the most part, the wearing of a lei does not come with a long list of etiquette; however there are a few noteworthy points:  a lei should be a celebration of affection from one person to another, meaning that it would never be proper to refuse a lei given to you.  A Hawaiian proverb says “E lei no au i ko aloha” meaning “I will wear your love as a wreath.” In the same way, it is also considered impolite to remove the lei in the presence of the person who bestowed it upon you.  Though many people hang the lei around their neck as a necklace, the right way to wear a lei is to drape it over the shoulders to that it hangs down in the back and in the front.  Leis for the head are called “po’o” and leis for the neck are called “lei ‘a’i” while leis for the wrists or ankles are called “kupe’e.”

Leis are available everywhere in Hawaii, but were notably sold in Honolulu and Waikiki, when in the 1950’s where leis would be sold for as little as 25 cents. In the later years, on Lagoon Drive near the airport, fifteen thatched huts were built specifically to accommodate all the lei-sellers.

The floral-rich season of spring brings a new enthusiasm to lei distributing. On May 1st, everyone is encouraged to make and wear leis. May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii.  There are many ways to make leis, such as the wili (twisted) method, which involves winding the flowers, leaves or ferns around a core of twine or the midrib of the coconut palm, etc. They can be also made using the hipu’u (knotted) fashion, the hili (braided), humupaya (sewed onto backing), the kui fashion (strung with a needle) or the Miconesian-style (tied or woven flat). Flowers that are commonly used in lei-making include pikake, white ginger, tuberose, plumeria or orchids.

Close up of lei being made

Images of leis courtesy of Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) / Dana Edmunds (left) and  Tor Johnson (right).

Each island celebrates Lei Day with a specific kind of lei flower and color:

Big Island: red (ohi’a lehua)
Maui: pink (lokelani)
Lanai: orange (kauna’-oa)
Oahu: yellow (‘ilima)
Molokai: green (kukui)
Kauai: purple (mokihana)

May certainly is a prime time to plan a Hawaiian vacation for anyone who wants to enjoy the aroma, decoration and the beauty of Hawaii’s leis.


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