The Hawaiian lei is possibly the most recognized symbol to represent the aloha spirit in the rest of the world. A lei, or Hawaiian lei, in its most widespread form, is a necklace of flowers worn as a symbol of affection and celebration, of welcome or farewell, in a protocol in which the host shows respect and good wishes to the visitor by placing it around the neck (or on the head as a hat).
You can also use the concept of lei in a broader way, referring to a garland, a wreath or a chain, or any kind of ornament, almost always made with plant materials, flowers and fresh leaves of Hawaii (although you can use all kinds of materials, natural or not), with which a person, as a token of good wishes, gives to another, which corresponds with the commitment to wear it and take care of it.
History of flower necklaces
Leis in Hawaii are worn interchangeably by men, women and children of all ages and social strata. They tell the story of the Hawaiian people, their mythology, legends and culture.
Since the beginning of time, men and women of all cultures across the globe have adorned themselves with flower garlands, wreaths or necklaces. What has made Hawaii’s case so special and different is that its culture has been isolated from the rest of the world for a long time, coupled with the diversity and abundance of flowers, pearls and leaves that tropical areas offer due to their particular climate.
It is difficult to know when the first flower necklaces appeared in Hawaiian culture, but there is some consensus among experts that they have been part of ceremonies and celebrations since the beginning of their history. What we do know is what it has become: a ceremony of welcome and affection in the tropical islands of Hawaii and Polynesia, which because of its beauty and symbolism has spread more or less recreationally throughout the world.
It seems that the ancient Hawaiian leis, were related to religion and ceremonies related to love (the Hala flower necklace was used to invoke changes, either to attract a new partner or for transitions in life after traumatic or negative events).
In ancient times, the lei was also used to differentiate bosses or high positions. The complexity or difficulty in making their lei was a sign of distinction that allowed their rank to be recognized.
It was also a tradition (even today it happens in some cases), to prevent pregnant women from wearing flower necklaces, justifying it in the belief that the rope around the mother’s neck could be a bad luck that would lead the umbilical cord to wrap around the baby’s neck.
There are countless legends related to flowers, and how they are collected to make leis. The island of Hawaii is the island of the lehua flower, lehua ohia, the flower of the tragic story of the sisters Pele and Hi’iaka. The emotional legend of Hi’iaka and her fragrant red lehua color is still sung in Hawaii. Even today, one should not pick the lehua flower on the way to the volcano, Pele’s home.
It is said that if a tourist plucks its fruits or flowers without practicing the necessary ritual, consequences can occur, from storms to rivers of lava. These flowers are protected under a state law and cannot be plucked in state parks.
Another frequently used lei is the Maile leaf lei. This Maile lei was used by anyone from all walks of life and on all occasions, but above all, it was associated with the worship of the Hula gods. The sweetly scented Maile flower has many variants. In Hawaiian legend there was once a greedy Maile, a fragile Maile, a lush Maile and a sweetly scented sweet Maile. They were abandoned in the forest by their angry demi-god brother, because they were not able to help him in his conquest of a beautiful Chiefess.
Beyond old stories and legends, a very important type of Lei was the one used in the ceremonies of union between men and women. The meaning was of Honor, respect and love for the newlyweds, they were woven with traditional flowers, kukuis seeds and Ti leaves, which placed around the neck had the power to ward off evil spirits and attract peace; the ti leis healed the spirit and were usually worn by the kahuna (chief and ancient master of Hawaiian wisdom) during the marriage ceremony.
Meaning and Ceremonial
A Hawaiian lei is a very unique gift that has a protocol that must be known and appreciated; it is not important simply for its beauty and what it represents, but also for the time and dedication that the person who gives it has dedicated, since they are made by hand and with great delicacy and affection. Making a Hawaiian flower necklace can take from several hours to several days.
Some lei have very sophisticated designs, combining different types of flowers, vegetables and other materials, and can last for several days if care is taken in their maintenance.
Today’s flower necklaces are obviously no longer the same as they were in the past, some of the flower species have disappeared, others are protected, and in addition, the tradition does not stop, and continues to innovate and search for new materials and forms of presentation. If you receive a lei made with exotic or hard to find flowers, you should know that the person who has made it has made a great effort, which should be a great honor and gratitude on your part.
Tradition dictates how the lei flower necklace should be worn. To wear it in a correct way, it should be worn equally on the front and back and should not be removed in the presence of the person who has given it to us. It can also be placed on the head as a hat (Lei Papale). You should never refuse a lei, it would be a very serious affront. It may happen that you are given so many that they cover your face completely, but even so, you should never refuse it. Nor can you take it off in front of the person who gave it to you.
Occasions on which they are worn
In Hawaii, the flower necklace marks any important event in a person’s life: leis of love and grief, marriage and sex, mourning and birth, commerce, education… There are leis for different activities, political, communal, social, agricultural or fishing, and for religious ceremonies or as a symbol of peace.
In Polynesian cultures, the lei is something that someone makes with his or her own hands and offers to another to honor him or her. Typical reasons include welcome or farewell, love, friendship, appreciation, congratulations, recognition or to get the recipient’s attention in another way Among Hawaiians, the most typical occasions for giving lei may be birthdays and graduations. It is typical for a college graduate to wear so many leis that they practically cover his or her face.
Hawaiian leis are also worn at tourist or even political events. It is not uncommon to see the governor and other important personalities wearing leis during public appearances, at big events or celebrations, or even in their daily lives.
Lei Day. «may day is a lei day».
May Day, the workers’ day, in Hawaii is Lei Day. It has been celebrated since 1928. It is a holiday where everyone makes leis and exchanges them, there is music, parades, entertainment events and festivities of all kinds. It is also celebrated in schools, where contests are organized and the best Leis are awarded.
Each island has its official lei:
Oahu – lei ilima (yellow)
Maui – lei lokelani akala (pink)
Kauai – lei mokihana (purple)
Hawaii – lei lehua (red)
Molokai – lei kukui (silver/green)
Lanai – lei kaunaoa (orange)
Kahoolawe – lei hunching (silver/grey)
Niihau – lei pupu (white shells)
Molokini – lei limu kala (blue)