When most people think about Hawaii, the first vision that comes to mind is a woman wearing a grass skirt and a lei. The lei is actually a perfect symbol to represent the beauty of ancient and even modern day Hawaiian spirituality. This fragrant circle of flowers is a symbol of the spirit of aloha shared throughout all of the Hawaiian Islands.
Aloha is a very difficult word to translate into the English language. It has a similar meaning to the Sanskrit word namaste. Both words basically mean May the light of the Creator in you see the light of the Creator in me. Aloha expresses a greeting, a farewell, love, joy, hope, etc. And, in essence the beautiful and fragrant lei is a non verbal expression of aloha.
Many leis are created from fresh flowers including orchids, pikake, plumeria, ohia, lehua, and maile. A lei can also be strung with feathers, foliage, shells, seeds, dried flowers, candy and other materials. A steel needle and string are the common materials used to string a lei, but they can also be braided and knotted.
The giving of a lei is a very special gift. Not only is it given as a blessing, but it also represents the giving of time and love in its creation. Leis are hand-woven with care and patience. Some are intricately designed with patterns of alternating flowers. Leis may be worn around the neck, on the brim of a hat, or even wrapped around the head.
Unfortunately and tragically, the number of indigenous plants and flowers on the Hawaiian Islands is dwindling. So when a person receives a lei made from a rare or unusual flower, it is considered to be a very high honor. Leis made for the huge statue of King Kamehameha at Aliiolani Hale on Oahu are several feet in length and may take many hours or even days to create.
Lei making is an art form that requires practice, skill, and patience. To find the most prized indigenous plants and flowers requires days and weeks of exploration. There are two types of leis that are commonly made today, the more traditional or Polynesian and the contemporary. Traditional leis are created from native Hawaiian plants and based on ancient and specific symbolism. The more contemporary leis are sometimes fashioned from more modern plant varieties, or synthetic materials such as silk, satin, yarn, fake flowers, cellophane and ribbon.
At the Bishop Museum on Oahu there are priceless feather and shell leis on display that date back over a hundred years. Leis made from Niihau or other rare shells can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and are highly prized by lei collectors.
During ancient times in Hawaii, leis were worn as a symbol of rank. High ranking chiefs or queens may have been distinguished by the type, pattern or complexity of their leis. Leis were also worn to symbolize births, deaths, victories, and religious ceremonies. Different flowers and plants were used for different occasions depending upon their symbolism.
Bones, teeth and hair woven together with coconut husk, olona, banana or hau fibers were used in primitive leis. Even in modern day Hawaii, many people still think it is unlucky for a pregnant woman to wear a lei around her neck, as this may symbolize umbilical cord tangling.
The giving of a lei can symbolize love, friendship, affection, parting, good wishes, welcoming, rites of passage such as graduation, marriage, birth, and death. Leis are traditionally messengers of peace. Today, a kiss on the cheek is a customary tradition when a lei is given, although this is not part of the ancient Hawaiian traditions. A lei should fall equally on both the chest and the back. Tradition says that a lei recipient should not remove a lei while in the presence of the lei giver.
May Day or May 1, is Lei Day in Hawaii. Celebrations include the making and exchanging of leis among the local people, music, entertainment and food.
Lei day was first celebrated on May l, 1928. In early 1928 writer and poet Don Blanding wrote an article in a local paper suggesting that a holiday be created centered around the Hawaiian custom of making and wearing lei. It was fellow writer Grace Tower Warren who came up with the idea of a holiday on May 1 in conjunction with May Day. She is also responsible for the phrase, "May Day is Lei Day." At the end of the day, prizes are offered for the most unique or outstanding lei work.
Each Hawaiian Island has it own official lei color:
Oahu lei ilima (yellow)
Maui lei lokelani akala (pink rose)
Kauai lei mokihana (violet)
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)
Hawaii abounds with ancient spirituality. It is perhaps one of the only places that the ancient world is so totally interwoven with the modern world.