In Hawaii, it’s very common to see people wearing lei’s. These are the beautiful garlands of flowers and leaves that people wear around their necks. You sometimes see people wearing them at special events, ceremonies, or when arriving to the islands.
But what’s its meaning? And how did it all begin?
The tradition goes back more than a thousand years ago when the first Polynesian settlers found their way to the Hawaiian islands from Tahiti. They introduced the lei as a form of adornment and a way to honor their gods. Wearing the lei would often distinguish themselves from others.
There were different ways of making lei’s. But for the most part, they were made of flowers, leaves, feathers, nuts, shells, even teeth and bone from different animals. The different types of lei’s served different purposes. For example, the Maile lei was the most important. It was made with a green vine and when finished served as a symbol of peace between two opposing groups of people.
The tradition of the lei continued as tourists began visiting the islands and it quickly became a worldwide symbol of Hawaii. Visitors and locals alike would both be greeted with lei’s upon arrival to the islands. Lei’s would be given at special occasions like birthdays, weddings, and graduations. An official “Lei Day” was established by the state in order to celebrate its tradition. And people from all over the islands would participate in lei making contests every year.
When receiving a lei though, there are a few “unspoken rules” that one must remember. Always accept a lei and never refuse it. Make sure the lei is hanging down both in front and in back. And never remove the lei in the presence of the person who gave it to you. That would be considered rude.
You can wear a lei at anytime. There does not need to be a special occasion. Lei’s do not always have to be received either. You can even make one or buy one for yourself as well. Around the neck is not the only place to wear lei’s. They are often worn around hats as well.
Lei’s are never to be thrown in the trash. After they are worn, lei’s are draped over photographs or returned to the earth as compost. Many people would throw their lei’s into the ocean when leaving Hawaii as a prediction that they too would return to the islands in the future.
The Hawaiian lei shows our love and affection towards one another. It’s a celebration. And a symbol of Hawaii, now more than a thousand years old.