Hawaii is famous for adorning visitors with lei* upon their arrival at the airport. But the sharing and wearing of lei began long before Hawaiian Airlines’ first single-engine, six-seat 1929 Bellanca Pacemaker started commercial flights in Hawaii.
Lei marks just about every occasion in Hawaii, from birth to death, in greeting and farewell, for honor and celebration. Birthdays. Weddings. Anniversaries. Graduation. First dates. New Year’s Day. You’ll also find lei given to hostesses of dinner parties, victors of canoe races, and to family members at celebrations of a departed one’s life. Lei are appropriate in the home, on the beach, at the office. You name it. And, especially, of course, on Lei Day.
According to The Hawaiian Lei by Ronn Ronck, Lei Day, held every May first, got its start when poet Don Blanding suggested a new holiday he created around the Hawaiian custom of making and wearing lei. And, thus, the first “May Day is Lei Day” got its start on May 1, 1928 about the same time Hawaiian Airlines’ first plane was being built. The event has turned into a popular celebration with parades and music and lei making competitions around the state.
Anything that can be encircled is appropriate for a lei — neck, hands, and ankles, as well as the crown of the head and a hat.
The lei you’ll find at these events is diverse. From a lei made of a single type of flower to one incorporating numerous different elements. Because it turns out you can make a lei out of just about anything. Flowers. Feathers. Fruit. Leaves. Shells. Seeds. Seaweed. Sticks. Nuts. In the old days, even the bone and teeth of specific animals. Today, at carnivals, fairs, and birthday parties, you might find lei made of candy, money, and/or miniature whiskey bottles.
When you think about it, a lei is like somebody’s arms wrapped around you in a hug.
But, perhaps, nowhere is lei more embedded in the Hawaiian culture than when it comes to hula, the dance for which Hawaii is known worldwide.
“I wonder if people truly understand how important lei are to hula,” Puni Patrick says. Puni teaches hula lessons at the Kauai Museum on Kauai. “Hula can be so different from halau (school), to halau across the islands but one thing that connects us is our belief in the importance of wearing lei.”
To her point, she cites a specific protocol in hula. “Whenever we have a performance, we pair up with a hula sister and help each other tie on our lei,” she says and there is a specific oli, chant, that’s said during the process. “In doing that, we are providing our support and mana, energy, and connecting with our hula sister. It’s a huge part of preparing for a performance.”
This gets to the deeper message behind lei, as described in this beautiful metaphor suggested by Puni. “When you think about it,” Puni says, “A lei is like somebody’s arms wrapped around you in a hug.”
And that’s why it’s considered proper etiquette to never refuse a lei or remove it immediately, because doing so stops the flow of the gift.
In hula, not just any lei will do. The style and materials of lei are carefully chosen depending on many factors.
“So, take Gabby Pahinui’s version of “Hi`ilawe.” It’s about a love affair at a waterfall on Hawaii Island,” says Puni. “If I were to dance that song, I would have a lei made of ohi lehua, because that flower is well known on Hawai‘i Island, the island’s signature color is red, as is the flower, and I was taught that the lehua is considered feminine.”
Similarly, it would be entirely appropriate to wear lei made of pikake for a song written by Robert Cazimero, because his love for the jasmine flower is well known. “In this case, you’re honoring the person who wrote the song or who made the song famous,” Puni says.
In more traditional hula, known as kahiko, it’s important to honor Laka, known as the goddess of hula, as well as, the forest. Thus, many traditional forest plants are known to embody Laka’s spirit — this is known as kinolau — such as `a`ali`i bush (Dodonaea spp.), the lama tree (Diospyros sandwicensis), and the maile vine (Alyxia oliviformis).
It’s believed that by donning lei made of Laka’s kinolau, a dancer is channeling the goddess’ energy. “You become Laka,” Puni says, “And by wearing her lei, you are promising to dance her poetry.”
More goes into making lei than just the selection of materials. The style of crafting the lei is just as important. Puni says the more traditional methods are pili, wrapping, and haku, braiding. This style would be used for hula kahiko; whereas, for hula `auana, modern hula, a needle and thread might be used. This style of making lei is known as kui. “The style represents the era that the song and dance were composed.”
For those who make lei—for a loved one arriving at the airport, a hula performance, or the many lei making competitions that take place on Lei Day—the effort of gathering the necessary materials can take days of traipsing through the forest. Some lei makers are resorting to growing lei plants in their own yards and care-taking the forests. Puni and her hula sisters “volunteer with Hui O Laka [in Kōke`e on Kaua‘i], to help get rid of invasive species and plant natives.”
Just as important as the making and donning of lei is the treatment of one’s lei at a day or when a performance is over. “A lei should never be thrown in the trash or left in a hotel room like a dirty towel,” Puni says. A lei represents love, and you wouldn’t want to throw love away. It’s disrespectful.
Ideally, lei should be returned to where they originated. “I hang my lei on a tree,” Puni says. “That way the petals falls off and feed the earth.”
Fragant lei can be placed on a nightstand or left in a window to dry, thereby allowing its scent to fill a room.
Alternately, you can re-gift a lei. “Passing a lei on to someone else is awesome,” Puni says. “Now, it has multiplied mana. Yours, the maker’s and somebody new, all this mana being added. It’s super cool.”
In fact, the giving of lei is almost as fun as receiving, says Puni. “When someone gives you a lei, people are all about accepting it. It’s like a silent compliment. One that cannot be refused.”
Whether worn for hula or given as a welcome or farewell, lei represent one singular thing: love. In Hawaiian culture, the lei is so tied to the concept of love that it’s often found in poetical sayings, such as: E lei kau, e lei ho`oilo i ke aloha. Its literal translation maybe, “Love is worn like a wreath through the summers and the winters,” but its real message is quite simple: Love is everlasting.
*In Hawaiian, the singular and plural of lei is the same—lei.