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  • Writer's pictureKu`ulei Stockman

The Tradition of Lei-Giving

NOTE: In the Hawaiian language, making things plural is not done by adding an “s” after it, as in “one lei, two leis.” Instead, “the lei” is ka lei, and “the lei” (more than one) is nā lei. Just a little `ōlelo Hawai`i (Hawaiian language) lesson for this article.

History of the Hawaiian Lei

The custom of lei giving was introduced by early Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti. In early times, lei were made of leaves, feathers, shells, flowers, nuts, and even bone and teeth of various animals.

Garlands of lei, the maile lei being the most significant, were worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify themselves and distinguish themselves from others. Made of fragrant leaves of the maile vine, lei-giving once symbolized peace between opposing chiefs. Today, it is worn ceremoniously to communicate love, respect, blessing, reverence, and friendship. It is also a favorite graduation gift.

Lei–Giving, A Symbolism of Aloha

The lei itself represents an important value in Hawaiian cultural practices, but the manner in which a lei is given is symbolic in itself. Typically, when visitors arrive in Hawai`i, a welcome lei is presented. The receiver bows their head and the giver drapes the lei around their neck. A kiss of aloha on the cheek completes the tradition.

Lei Etiquette

Lei can be given, received, or worn for almost any occasion. However, there are a couple of unspoken rules when receiving a lei. Since lei are given in the spirit of love and generosity, it is considered rude to refuse one or to remove a lei in the presence of the person who gave it to you. When you are finished with your lei, you should return it to the earth, hang it from a tree, or bury it because regardless of who gave it, a lei is also a gift from the `āina (land).

May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i

In Hawai`i, May Day is celebrated on May 1 and is known as Lei Day. It’s a statewide celebration of the aloha spirit and the giving of flower lei. It was Don Blanding, a writer, and poet, who first suggested that a holiday be dedicated to the beautiful Hawaiian tradition of lei making and giving. But it was another writer, Grace Tower Warren, who came up with the idea that the holiday should coincide with May Day.

This tradition was started on May 1, 1928, and continues to this day with a Lei Day Celebration. Each island’s colorful parade is symbolized in pageantry. Adorned in the colors and flora of their island, regal princesses outfitted in long-flowing pā`ū (skirts), are the highlight of the parades.

Graduation Lei

During May and June, graduation season, you’ll see many `ohana (family) stringing beautiful flowers to make lei. What kind of lei do you typically see? Anything from candy to money to the ever-popular flower lei. And graduates are often bedecked with lei up to their faces!

As lei are given when someone is arriving or leaving, it’s no surprise that lei are given to graduates as they leave school and arrive to a new stage of lives.

It’s no wonder that you can discover the spirit of aloha through the beautiful Hawaiian tradition of lei-making and giving.

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