The Hawaiian Lei

May 30, 2021 | General Information

Table of Contents
Introduced into the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesians,leis were constructed of flowers,leaves,shells,seeds,nuts,feathers and even the teeth of animals. According to the history of the Hawaiian lei, ancient Hawaiians wore leis for adornment and, in some instances, beautification. Among other uses, the Maile lei was used to signify peace agreements between chiefs.

Most important, following tradition, Hawaiians made leis for each other — and for their Gods — as a sign and symbol of love. Different flowers were worn for different occasions and reasons. The red Lehua flower (fire flower), for example, was considered the flower of Pele — the volcano goddess. Legends grew up around the lei. One of them was that if you sail away from home, toss a lei overboard, and if it floats towards the shore, you will someday return to your home island.

Originally leis were presented to another person by bowing, slightly raising the lei above their heart and offering the lei to be taken by the other person. A lei was never put around anyone’s neck. The reason? It was considered bad manners to raise hands or arms above another person’s head. During the late 1800’s, when steamships brought visitors to the islands, they were greeted with a lei as an aloha welcome. During World War II, when American soldiers arrived on Oahu, the custom changed. Leis were placed around their necks – and a kiss on their cheeks.

Anyone can wear a lei, anytime. There need not be a special occasion. One “rule” to remember, however, is to never refuse a lei. Then wear it draped over the shoulders, hanging down both front and back. There is even a tradition pertaining to disposal of a lei. It should never be tossed in the trash. If possible, a lei should be returned to the place where the flowers were gathered. Since that is unlikely, tradition also allows for the flowers to be hung on a tree branch.

Lei Day is coming on May 1, 2020. The annual Lei Day Celebration in Queen Kapiolani Park, Waikiki, Honolulu, will celebrate the lei, the artistry of Hawaii’s lei makers, and Hawaii’s rich heritage and a Lei Queen and her court will preside over the festivities. Lei Queens are selected based on their lei-making skills, hula proficiency, and Hawaiian language fluency. Expect to see beautiful leis and hear excellent live music by some of Hawaii’s top performers.