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The History of the Hawaiian Lei: Birth, Etiquette, Aloha

Updated on February 5, 2013
The Hawaiian Lei: Birth, Etiquette, Aloha
The Hawaiian Lei: Birth, Etiquette, Aloha | Source
Beautiful dancer presenting a "Lei of Aloha"
Beautiful dancer presenting a "Lei of Aloha" | Source

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.

Traditional Lei Greeters
Traditional Lei Greeters

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)

Beautiful White Ginger Lei on a Ti Leaf
Beautiful White Ginger Lei on a Ti Leaf | Source
Young Graduate Receives an Abundance of Leis
Young Graduate Receives an Abundance of Leis

Lei Etiquette

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 (Lei Day) May 1st: Traditional Leis are shown on display for public viewing after being awarded various ribbon awards
May Day (Lei Day) May 1st: Traditional Leis are shown on display for public viewing after being awarded various ribbon awards | Source

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.


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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Comments: The Hawaiian Lei: Birth, Etiquette, Aloha

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    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 5 years ago from California

      LOL... too funny Kelly.... But somehow, I think you and your husband have many May 1st's :)

    • RealHousewife profile image

      Kelly Umphenour 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Sweet - wait till my husband hears about May 1!! hahahaha

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 5 years ago from California

      Thank you Express10. Living in Hawaii for over 20 years, I was fortunate to learn many things regarding the culture and traditions. It is a wonderful place. :)

    • Express10 profile image

      H C Palting 5 years ago from East Coast

      This is a very interesting hub, showing me things I probably would not have otherwise known despite having relatives in Hawaii.

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 5 years ago from California

      Mahalo nui Stephanie. I'm pleased you had a wonderful time in Hawaii. Aloha!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

      Thank you so much for this history of the lei. It is such a beautiful tradition! When we visited Hawaii, receiving a welcoming lei was one of the highlights of our visit. Beautiful hub, voted up and shared!

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 6 years ago from California

      That's awesome. Which island did your daughter live on? I bet she had a wonderful time. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. Aloha nui :-)

    • Sunshyne1975 profile image

      Sunshyne1975 6 years ago from California, US

      Awesome hub! My daughter just returned from living in Hawaii for a year. She loved it. She is back to finish her last year of high school and then she may go back for a year with her dad to take a break before college. I kind of wish she wouldn't because I am afraid that kind of break she won't want to return to school. lol. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 6 years ago from California

      Thank you Vellur. You have a blessed day as well!

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 6 years ago from California

      Thank you alocsin. Have a blessed day!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 6 years ago from Dubai

      Voted up. Interesting and informative with great pictures.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I did not know this about the lei and appreciate the information. Voting this Up and Interesting.

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 6 years ago from California

      Thank you Tammy. I actually have much to share about Hawaii. Most of my recipes I learned in Hawaii as well. It was wonderful living there. I miss it a lot!

    • tammyswallow profile image

      Tammy 6 years ago from North Carolina

      How fascinating RusticLiving! I bet it is just a dream living there. I hope you will continue to show more the culture like this. It is awesome!

    • Rusticliving profile image

      Elizabeth Rayen 6 years ago from California

      Thank you Veronica! I'm from Kauai, but I loved going to Oahu to play. I also took a lot of my students there for competition at the Waikiki Shell and Ala Moana Center. How fortunate to have met a chief from Fiji! I have a very good friend from Fiji who performs in shows on Oahu.

      Mahalo nui loa for your comments!


      ~Pulelehua Wailele (Lisa RL)

    • VeronicaFarkas profile image

      Veronica Roberts 6 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Aloha! =]

      This is a very well-crafted hub, with beautiful pictures!

      The white ginger lei is gorgeous!

      When I went to Hawaii (both times), I was only able to visit Oahu. It was stunning. I visited the Polynesian Cultural Center twice (I highly recommend it to anyone visiting that island) where I met an actual Chief from Fiji. I also interviewed a man whom was alive during the attacks on Pearl Harbor. I'm hoping to travel back sometime soon, and do an island tour. I also hope to visit New Zealand sometime! That'd be amazing!

      Anyway, voted up, useful, and beautiful!