While a few ancient Hawaiian customs have faded from memory, the tradition of lei-giving has managed to subsist and flourish. In the beautiful islands of Hawaii, everyone wears leis. A lei is a common symbol of love, friendship, celebration, honor, or greeting. In other words, it is a symbol of Aloha. Take a walk around Hawaii; you’ll find leis everywhere—graduations, parties, dances, weddings, and yes, even at the office. In Hawaii, any occasion can be considered special and “lei-worthy.” No one can resist the vibrant colors, the intoxicating fragrances, or the beautiful tradition of Hawaii’s most recognized icon…the flower lei.
The History of the Lei
The custom of the flower lei was introduced to Hawaii from the various surrounding Polynesian islands and even Asia. In ancient Hawaii, wearing a lei represented wealth, royalty, and rank. Leis were also heavily associated with hula, religion and geography.
Most Hawaiians preferred the Maile lei--a leafy vine that has fragrant spicy-sweet leaves that is draped and worn open-ended to the waist. However, royalty and Hawaiian chieftains favored the fiery, vibrant Ilima—a thin orange blossom that requires hundreds of flowers to make a single lei strand. Hawaiian Princess Kaiulani’s favorite lei was the Pikake—named after the peacocks in her garden—for the heavenly white blossoms and sweet jasmine fragrance.
The state of Hawaii is consists of eight major islands. Each island has its own designated lei which represents a harmonious marriage of texture and color. Most of these leis are unavailable for shipping to the mainland due to strict agricultural laws.
- Hawaii – Lehua
- Oahu – Ilima
- Maui – Lokelani
- Kauai – Mokihana
- Molokai – Kukui
- Lanai – Kaunaoa
- Niihau – Pupu
- Kaho’olawe – Hinahina
Before the familiar hum of airline jets were heard in the sky, tourist and travelers arrived in Hawaii by boat. Many old Hawaiians retell their stories of “boat days” with fond memories. When the boat would arrive at the dock, it was a social celebration with lei greeters, hula dancers, music, and photographers. A common custom for departing travelers was to toss their leis into the ocean by Diamond Head Crater. A safe return to Hawaii was ensured if their lei drifted to shore.
Since May 1, 1928, Hawaii has celebrated every May first as it’s official “Lei Day.” Hawaiians call it “May Day.” The flower lei is celebrated passionately on May Day with Hula, parades, and music. On May Day, most parents request to take a day off of work so they can watch their children participate in May Day festivities and programs at school. Everyone in Hawaii is encouraged to wear a lei on May Day.
Leis can be worn, received, or given for almost any occasion. In Hawaii, a lei is given for an office promotion, a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, or any special event. Yet more notably, a lei can be worn for no other reason than to enjoy the fragrance, take pleasure in the beautiful flowers, or simply, to celebrate the “Aloha Spirit.”
There is one big faux pas that should never be made. Never refuse a lei! Always graciously accept the lei with a toothy smile and a kiss on the cheek. (If you don’t feel comfortable with giving or receiving a kiss on the cheek, a warm hug is acceptable!) If you are allergic or sensitive to flowers, then discreetly and apologetically slip-off the lei. It is acceptable and considered a kind gesture to offer the lei to your spouse if you are unable to wear it.
Last, but not least, there is one more taboo…it is considered (in Hawaii) impolite to give a closed (tied) lei to a pregnant woman. Many Hawaiians feel that a closed lei around the neck is bad luck for the unborn child. (Head Hakus and open-ended leis are acceptable to give to pregnant woman.)