The History of the Hawaiian Lei: Birth, Etiquette, Aloha
The Birth of the Lei
Early Polynesian voyagers who traveled from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands would do so by the navigation of the stars in their sailing canoes. Their journeys were dangerous and amazing. With this brave and incredible race of early settlers came the birth of the lei.
Their leis were constructed of many different materials which included flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts and feathers. Sometimes bone and teeth from different animals were used.
Through their tradition, ancient Hawaiians would wear these garlands to adorn themselves as well as distinguish themselves from others. This would include royalty, family, elders, and spiritual leaders. The leis would also be created for certain occasions, such as ceremonies, weddings, coronations, etc.
The most significant lei were the Maile lei, a long vine with long dark green leaves. The Maile lei were used for sacred occasions and also peace agreements between opposing chiefs. The two chiefs would come to the temple (Heiau) and together would intertwine the Maile vine. When completed, it would symbolically establish peace between the two groups.
Lei of Aloha
With the birth of tourism in the Hawaiian Islands, the lei became the symbol of Hawaii to visitors from all over the world.
During the “Boat Days” of the early 1900’s, lei vendors would line the pier at Aloha Tower to welcome all the malihini (visitors) to the islands and also the kama'aina (locals) back home.
Tradition has it that departing visitors would throw their lei into the sea as their ship passed Diamond Head with the hope that like the lei, they too would return to the islands someday.
Today, visitors can enjoy a lei greeting by many of the welcoming groups around the islands and also at luaus. (Hawaiian feast)
Anyone can wear lei anytime. You do not need an occasion. It is okay to purchase or make a lei for yourself. It is very common for locals to have a kukui nut, seed or shell lei on hand to wear when a special occasion arises. It is also very common to have a hat adorned with flower, fern or even feather leis.
There are however, a few rules that are “unspoken” that everyone should know when receiving a lei.
A lei is a symbolic celebration of one’s love or affection to another. Therefore, ALWAYS accept a lei, never refuse. The correct way to wear a lei is to gently drape it over the shoulders with it hanging down both in the front and in the back. Never remove a lei in front of the person that gave it to you. This is considered rude.
Almost any occasion you can think of would be a regular part of lei giving: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, showers, and graduations. It is very common to see a young graduate receive so many leis around their neck that they can no longer see!
May Day is Lei Day
May 1stis Lei day. It has become the tradition throughout the islands to celebrate the artistry of lei making. Thousands of visitors every year come to the islands just for this traditional celebration. Hundreds of lei makers create some of the most beautiful leis for the neck, the hat, and Haku (head.) Awards are given to the most creative, authentic, and beautiful.
Hawaiian Halaus (School of dance) come to pay their respect to those who have designed such a beautiful creation by dancing to special songs and chants.
Every island celebrates May Day. Part of the celebration includes selecting a Royal Court which consists of a King, Queen and eight princesses that represent an island in the Hawaiian chain. Each princess wears the island colors and lei that represent that island.
If you ever have the opportunity to visit the Hawaiian Islands, plan your trip around May 1st.
You will be surrounded by the beauty of craftsmanship of the most beautiful leis in the world, exquisite dancers from all over the islands and the "Aloha" that continues to bring back visitors year after year.
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About the Author
Lisa has directed and acted in musical theatre for nearly 30 years. Her musical upbringing allowed her to pursue her career in teaching and directing and continues to direct shows today. As the owner of 2 online Home Décor sites, Lisa’s passion for Rustic Living all begins with her love for the home, outdoors, and her many hobbies. Lisa loves to laugh, and she share’s that love through her comedic hubs centered on her MOM. Lisa’s passions include writing, directing, acting, photography, singing, cooking, crafts, gardening, and home improvement, including decorating. Lisa also writes under her penned name, Elizabeth Rayen.
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