Nā Lei o Hawaiʻi – The Lei of Hawaiʻi

Orchid Lei
The ever popular orchid lei.

Lei are an instantly recognizable symbol of Hawai`i. The wreaths of flowers and foliage worn by both men and women add fragrance and beauty to island life. There are even entire festivals devoted to sharing the beauty and culture of the lei.

But lei are more than flowers sewn on a strand. There are lei of seeds, shells, feathers, and even words. A special song composed for a loved one can be a lei. But all of them are a tangible expression of aloha, and as such are given to show love, joy, or sympathy, and as greetings and farewells.

In fact, poetically, a child is called a lei, because the child is the weaving together of the love of his or her parents and ancestors.

In modern times, a lei is often given with a kiss. The story goes: During World War II, a hula dancer at one of the USO clubs was dared by her girlfriends to kiss a handsome young officer. She met the challenge by going up to him and giving him her lei, saying, “It is our custom to give a kiss with a lei.” Thus a new “ancient” custom was born.

Thelma and Leilehua making lei
Kumu Leilehua Yuen learned lei making from her grandmother, Thelma Yuen, during summers and weekends spent at Kehena in Puna on ka Moku Hawai`i.

In ancient times, however, a lei was never placed over a person’s head and given with a kiss – pleasant as that modern tradition is. To “na po`e kahiko”, the people of olden times, the head was sacred. People did not put their hands or arms above another’s head. A lei was carefully wrapped in a special container, often made of fresh ti leaves, and handed to the recipient. If the lei was for a very high ranking ali`i, then the lei would be handed to a retainer to give the ali`i.

Robert Elwes, an artist who visited the Hawaiian islands in 1849, wrote that Hawaiian women “delight in flowers, and wear wreaths on their heads in the most beautiful way.”

When, people often wonder, is it appropriate to wear a lei? Why, any time at all! A lei is always an appropriate gift, though the symbolism of some specific lei make them more appropriate at some times than others. At left, my husband and I wear lei given to us at the announcement of our engagement. At right, our friend Kahalelaukoa wears lei given to her at a cultural presentation she conducted.

We wear lei on our heads, on our hats, and around our necks. We give and wear lei at birthday parties, graduations, and weddings. We take them as hostess gifts, and to give to the departed at funerals.  We wear lei when performing hula, and we give lei to esteemed elders.

We are careful as to what kind of lei we wear and give. Hala is not appropriate for someone running for political office. But it is appreciated at a funeral, or as a gift to someone from Puna. La`i, ti leaf, is always appropriate, as is maile.

Even the kaʻahuila wears a lei!
Even the kaʻahuila wears a lei! Henry and Thelma Yuen celebrate their new car.
George Aki (?) wearing lei lāʻī
A kūpuna of the extended Yuen ʻohana wears a lei lāʻī.

My grand-parents celebrated the arrival of their new car with lei for all – even the car! And a patriarch of our `ohana wears the lei la`i.

Learn even more about the lei at LeiDay.org, the official website of the Hilo Lei Day Festival!

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