Most people know leis as those fragrant chains of fresh flowers that get placed around one’s neck at Hawaiian resorts. Yet, you may be wondering, what are leis for in Hawaiian and South Pacific culture beyond promoting tourism? Because it turns out leis are a lot more than a gimmick invented to bolster the tourist industry—in fact, leis have long been used in Polynesia, and later Hawaii, as a way of bestowing love, respect and honor on someone .
Though in the popular imagination leis usually take the form of a garland of fresh flowers, my research has uncovered that leis can be made out of all sorts of objects. The only requirement for something to be a lei is that it be a collection of objects woven or strung together into a garland that is typically worn around the neck . Hawaiian and Polynesian leis are frequently made from flowers, with the most common being plumeria, orchids, tuberose and carnations . They may also be made from vines, leaves, seed pods, bone or shell, feathers, even paper money! The only constant is that leis are intended to be worn, and that they function as a sign of affection, honor or respect bestowed on the recipient [2, 3].
The cultural tradition of the lei spread from an origin in Polynesia to Hawaii with the first human immigrants to the islands. People are often given leis at occasions where they are the guest of honor: birthdays, weddings, graduations, retirement parties and the like . With the introduction of Lei Day on May 1st, 1927—the same day as May Day in the rest of the United States—the lei has also become a symbol of cultural solidarity for indigenous Hawaiians. The concept of Lei Day was first proposed in 1927 by Don Blanding, a poet and writer for the Honolulu Star Bulletin. Each island in the Hawaiian archipelago now marks Lei Day with its own color and style of lei woven from native flowers .
Even though leis orginated in Polynesia, today they represent a uniquely Hawaiian experience for many tourists, who are often given leis upon their arrival at resorts and other attractions. The type of lei most visitors are familiar with is the plumeria lei, made from fragrant fresh plumeria flowers strung on a cord or string. However, there are many other kinds of lei that are even more significant in indigenous Hawaiian culture. For instance, the maile leaf lei made from the maile vine was once used to cement peace agreements between warring chiefs: the two leaders would meet in a heiau, or temple, to intertwine their maile leaf leis in a symbolic expression of renewed harmony and peace .
Fortunately, lei etiquette is pretty casual these days: despite the garland’s ceremonial contexts, it’s also fine for anyone to wear a lei outside of a formal occasion, or even buy one at an airport giftshop . Basically, there are only three rules of lei etiquette you need to follow :
1. Always accept a lei that is given to you. If someone gives you a lei, it is a sign of their respect, affection or esteem for you, so refusing it–or removing it in their presence–is considered rude.
2. If you cannot wear a lei someone gives you (due to allergy, for example), display the lei in a prominent place close to you.
3. Never discard a lei into the trash. A lei is a symbol of respect and love, so throwing it away is like symbolically throwing away the love of that person. Alternatives are to return the lei to the place where the flowers and vines that make it up were collected—or if you don’t have that option, return the lei to a natural spot such as a wooded area where it can return to the earth.
You can also leave your lei to dry in the sun over a few days; dried leis make a great decoration and will also perfume your house with a wonderful tropical fragrance. It’s hard to think of a better way to bring a little piece of the South Pacific back home… except perhaps bringing back a nice bundle of dried kava root!
1. “Lei (Garland)”. Wikipedia. Accessed April 30th, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lei_(garland).
2. “What Are Leis?” WiseGEEK: Clear Answers for Common Questions. Accessed April 22nd, 2014. http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-leis.htm.
3. “The Hawaiian Lei Tradition”. Hawaiian Flower Lei. Accessed April 24th, 2014. https://www.hawaiiflowerlei.com/leitradition.aspx.