In Polynesian traditions, a lei is something that a person creates for another person as a sign of affection or respect, a tradition which lives on and is still practiced throughout the region today, including in Hawaii.

The lei and its traditions were brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the first Polynesian settlers to the archipelago, and the lei still plays a significant role in the local culture today.

And images of visitors to Hawaii being welcomed by traditional lei greeters holding beautiful and fragrant lei aloft with outstretched arms are etched into travelers’ minds.

But the Hawaiian lei has more cultural significance and meaning than a mere greeting. 

Here we show you the history, meaning, and etiquette surrounding the giving and receiving of these Hawaiian garlands, so you can avoid making a cultural faux pas on your upcoming Hawaiian vacation.

CONTENTS:

  1. History
  2. Cultural Significance
  3. Meaning Of Different Colors
  4. Lei Etiquette
  5. How To Give & Receive A Lei
  6. May Day Is Lei Day
  7. Where To Find The Best Lei
  8. What To Do With Your Lei At The End Of Your Trip
  9. Our Final Thoughts

The History Of The Hawaiian Lei

The history books are a little sketchy when it comes to revealing the dates when the first Polynesian settlers arrived in the Hawaiian Islands. Estimates range from between 124 and 1120 CE.

Regardless of when the first settlers arrived, they remained isolated from the rest of the world until the first European explorers reached their shores centuries later. But it was these first settlers to the region who brought with them their lei-making traditions, which live on today.

Those original Hawaiian lei were made from an array of materials: flowers, leaves, feathers, shells, seeds, nuts, and even animal bones and teeth. Originally worn by the ancient Hawaiians as a way of distinguishing themselves, the lei was also used as a symbol of peace between tribes, with the opposing chiefs sporting the lei.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the last century, when tourists first appeared on Hawaiian shores, that the lei developed into a global symbol of Hawaii, signifying the “aloha spirit.”

The first cruise ships arriving in Hawaii laden with visitors were greeted by the locals, who welcomed them ashore with lei. The early visitors were enamored by such a beautiful and different greeting, and the tradition stuck. Upon departing the Hawaiian Islands, it became tradition to throw the lei back to the ocean as the ships passed Diamond Head Crater shortly after leaving Honolulu.

As tourism grew and airplanes replaced ships, more and more visitors began visiting Hawaii. At first, the airlines kept this traditional Hawaiian greeting going, but eventually tourist numbers were too high for airlines to provide every passenger with a lei upon arrival. Nowadays, lei greetings at the airport need to be ordered and arranged in advance.

The Cultural Significance Of Lei

The Hawaiian Lei is much more than a greeting for foreign visitors. They are still prominent today in Hawaiian culture.

In fact if you attend a wedding or graduation ceremony in Hawaii, you will see the lei play a role. A Hawaiian lei symbolizes a connection between the giver and the receiver, a connection governed by affection or respect.

To make a lei, the giver must first venture into the forest to gather the required flowers, seeds, and/or feathers. After this, their time and effort are spent crafting the lei, carefully connecting the materials together to form the lei. The connections between the flowers represent the connection between the maker and the recipient.

Lei are still given in an array of situations when the giver wants to show respect or affection to the receiver. Such occasions include weddings, anniversaries, graduations, birthdays, luaus (traditional Hawaiian feasts), and funerals.

brown mountains

The Meaning Of Different Colors

There are many different types and colors of lei used in Hawaii. The different materials used and their differing colors have different meanings and uses.

The eight major islands within Hawaii also each have their own traditional flora used in lei-making, giving their lei distinctive coloring: 

The Big Island: red lei, made from ʻōhiʻa lehua

Maui: pink lei, made from lokelani

Kahoolawe: gray or silver lei, made from hinahina

Lanai: orange lei, made from kaunaʻoa

Oahu: yellow or gold lei, made from ʻilima

Molokai: green lei, made from kukui

Kauai: purple lei, made from mokihana

Niihau: white lei, made from pūpū o Niʻihau (Niihau shells)

Not all lei are worn around the neck either; a haku lei is worn on the head, as a crown. These are popular for brides to sport at their wedding, often being white or predominantly white.

While grooms at weddings may be seen wearing the maile lei, made from the maile vine.

Etiquette Around The Hawaiian Lei

As an item with cultural significance, the lei traditions and etiquette should be understood and respected by visitors.

Firstly, you should not refuse an offered lei. To refuse would be insulting to the person giving the lei. Upon being approached by someone offering a lei, you should bow your head to accept the offering.

Once you are wearing your lei it is also considered rude to remove it while still in the presence of the person who gave it. If you have an allergy to flowers or are uncomfortable wearing them, you may pass them to your partner to wear for you.

Traditionally, in Hawaii, you should not give a closed or tied lei to a pregnant lady. This is considered unlucky and is seen to represent the tangling of the umbilical cord. An open-style lei should be given to pregnant women instead.

How To Give & Receive A Hawaiian Lei

The first rule of giving a lei to someone else is to remember not to wear it first. It is considered bad luck to wear a lei that you intend to give to someone else.

To offer the lei, hold it aloft towards the recipient, who should bow their head to allow you to pass it over their head. It is then customary to kiss the recipient lightly on each cheek. If you are not comfortable with the small kisses, a hug may be used instead.

When being offered a lei to wear, it is considered impolite to refuse the lei, even from a complete stranger.

Accept the lei graciously with a smile, and bow your head to receive it. The lei should then not be removed in the presence of the giver. If you are not comfortable wearing the lei, accept it, then you may pass it to a partner or close friend to wear for you. And never throw an unwanted lei into a bin – that is considered very rude.

May Day Is Lei Day

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii. Since 1927, Hawaiians have used the celebrations to pay tribute to the Hawaiian culture, or “aloha spirit.”

The holiday was the idea of local journalist Don Blanding. By 1929, the day had been declared an unofficial state holiday, and the traditions of celebrating it continue today. The celebrations were popularized by a song composed especially for the occasion, “May Day Is Lei Day In Hawaii”, which is still heard during the celebrations today.

Lei Day is celebrated throughout the island group, with whole communities taking part. Schools will celebrate with song and hula dancing, and students often elect a king and queen to represent their islands.

Hawaii is buzzing on Lei Day, with the locals sporting colorful attire and queueing up to see the prize-winning lei. Prizes are given in different categories to the most impressive lei on display. There are different categories for the different kinds of lei, but the most sought-after prize is the Mayor’s Grand Prize.

Visitors to Oahu Island on Lei Day should head to Queen Kapiolani Park to join the locals in the celebrations. This annual event is free-of-charge and includes lei-making workshops, hula dancing, live music, and there are stalls offering local food, drinks, and handicrafts.

Where To Find The Best Lei

If you have a special occasion to mark or are looking for a Hawaiian lei during your visit, there are many options for where to buy one from. Finding a lei will not be difficult.

There will be lei on sale at the airports, but also at grocery stores and named chains like Walmart and Costco. At Costco and Walmart, the lei will not be too expensive, but these stores will not have the most choices on offer.

If you are looking for a well-made lei for a special occasion, try the florists. At florists, you will get more choice, and the lei will be of a better quality.

But for that personal touch, the best option is to make your own lei. There are several places offering lei-making classes throughout the Hawaiian Islands, giving you the chance to learn more about the history and traditions behind the lei.

What To Do With Your Lei At The End Of Your Trip

The most important rule here is that you do not throw your lei in the trash. This is considered rude, as you are throwing away the affection and respect of the person who gave you the lei.

The lei should instead be returned to the land or left somewhere with personal significance. Walking around Waikiki and Honolulu will reveal what many people do with their leis: adorn the statues with them.

One such statue that receives many lei is the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on Waikiki Beach. There is also an Elvis statue which is commonly covered with lei.

Lei are also commonly hung on trees when people leave. For this, people choose a tree or a location of personal significance. The other common way to dispose of a Hawaiian lei is to burn it, so the ashes return to nature.

The traditional way tourists disposed of the lei during the cruise-ship days was to throw them into the ocean as the ships sailed past Diamond Head Crater in Oahu. The idea is that the lei should be returned to the land from whence it came.

These days, if you are planning on throwing your lei into the ocean when you leave, please make sure there are no materials which will pollute the ocean, such as plastics. According to legend, if your lei returns to shore after you throw it into the ocean, you will be destined to return to the Hawaiian shores as well.

But what if you don’t want to dispose of your lei, and you want to take it home with you? 

Well, that’s okay too. Just treat it with respect. The only concern here is regarding the materials used in the making of your lei.  If you are returning to the US mainland from Hawaii, customs officers will want to check the lei to make sure there are no materials which are on the restricted list. 

Certain plants are not allowed to be brought from Hawaii to the US mainland as they may pose a risk to the native flora and fauna of the mainland. Certain citrus plants, diseased plant matter, and certain berries and fruits are on the list if prohibited items.

beautiful leis with pink white and yellow flowers

Our Final Thoughts…

The aloha spirit flows freely in Hawaii, and the lei plays its role. Be aware that the lei has cultural significance for the Hawaiians, and as such we should treat the lei with respect too.

However don’t expect a lei greeting at the airport when you touch down in Hawaii. Nowadays, arrangements need to be made in advance if you wish to receive this traditional greeting for yourself or others. Remember to accept any offered lei with grace and a smile, and never refuse one. Wear it with pride!

At the end of your trip, respectfully return your lei to the land, or take it home as a cherished souvenir (after ensuring there won’t be any issues with customs). But above all, respect the local traditions and culture when you visit the beautiful and welcoming Hawaiian Islands.