The Hawaiian Lei Tradition
The History of the Hawaiian Lei
The lei custom was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by early Polynesian voyagers, who took an incredible journey from Tahiti, navigating by the stars in sailing canoes. With these early settlers, the lei tradition in Hawaii was born.
Leis were constructed of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even bone and teeth of various animals. In Hawaiian tradition, these garlands were worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify themselves and distinguish themselves from others. The Maile lei was perhaps the most significant. Among other sacred uses, it was used to signify a peace agreement between opposing chiefs. In a Heiau (temple), the chiefs would symbolically intertwine the green Maile vine, and its completion officially established peace between the two groups.
A Custom of Aloha
With the advent of tourism in the islands, the lei quickly became the symbol of Hawaii to millions of visitors worldwide.
During the “Boat Days” of the early 1900s, lei vendors lined the pier at Aloha Tower to welcome malihini (visitors) to the islands and kama’aina (locals) back home. It is said that departing visitors would throw their lei into the sea as the ship passed Diamond Head, in the hopes that, like the lei, they too would return to the islands again someday.
Today, visitors can easily bring back the nostalgia of old Hawaii by ordering a traditional flower lei greeting for their arrival at the airport. Greeters welcome visitors with a warm “aloha” and adorn them with beautiful fresh leis. It’s a wonderful way to begin a Hawaiian vacation.
There are very few “rules” when it comes to wearing a Hawaiian lei. Anyone can wear one, anytime – there need not be an occasion. It is perfectly fine for one to purchase or make a lei for themselves. It is common for locals to have a nut, seed or shell lei on hand to wear on special occasions. And hats are often adorned with flower, fern or feather leis.
There are, however, a couple of “unspoken rules” one should know when receiving a lei for the first time. A lei should be a welcomed celebration of one person’s affection to another. Therefore, always accept a lei, never refuse. The proper way to wear a lei is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back. It is considered rude to remove a lei from your neck in the presence of the person who gave it to you, so if you must, be discreet.
Lei giving is a regular part of any special occasion such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and graduations. It is not uncommon for a graduating senior to have so many leis around their neck that they can no longer see!
Lei or Leis?
The Hawaiian language does not distinguish between singular and plural. Therefore, the proper way to say the plural form of lei is actually just “lei.” However, on our website we have chosen to use the anglicized version of this word to prevent confusion.