On May 1st Hawaiians celebrate Lei Day. Everyone wears leis. Festivities include hula dancing, music, exhibits, and lei making contests. Schools crown Lei Day kings, queens, and princesses.
The origin for this celebration comes from writer and poet Don Blanding, who in 1928 wrote an article for the local paper suggesting for a special day to focus on the Hawaiian tradition of leis. Another writer Grace Tower Warren suggested it take place on May 1st in conjunction with May Day. Grace Tower Warren coined the phrase “May Day is Lei Day.” The first Lei Day was held on May 1, 1928. In 1929, Lei Day was made an official Hawaiian holiday.
“…May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Garlands of flowers ev’rywhere,
All of the colors in the rainbow
Maidens with blossoms in their hair
Flowers that mean we should be happy,
Throwing aside a load of care,
Oh, May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i
Lei Day is happy day out there.”
~ Red Hawke, 1928 ~
Leis may be worn any time and for any reason. One should never refuse a lei, rather smile and graciously accept the gift. If you are allergic to the flowers after a bit simple slip it off discreetly.
A few superstitions:
- Don’t give a lei to a pregnant woman as it is thought to bring bad luck to the fetus.
- Don’t give a hala lei to a politician, at the hala tree means to “move on ” and “things are ending”.
Each island has its own traditional lei.
- Hawai’i – lehua
The feather red blossoms grows on the volcanic slopes of the Big Island. The flowers, sacred to the goddess Pele, are most commonly red although they are also found in white, yellow, and orange.
- Kaua’i – mokihana
The small round seeds only found on Kaua’i carry the aroma of anise which intensifies as they dry.
- Kaho’olawe – hinahina
Found on the sandy beaches of this island just above the high water line. The hairy silver-gray stems and flowers of this plant are used.
- Lana’i – kaunaoa
The stringy, orange strands of this parasitic vine are scooped up and loosely twisted together.
- Maui – lokelani
Also known as the “rose of heaven” this pink flower is sweetly scented and delicate. It is often paired with ferns.
- Moloka’i – kukui
The tiny white flowers of this tree are braided together. The polished nuts are often strung together to make leis as well.
- Ni’ihau – pupu
Shells of various colors are gathered, pierced, and strung together to make these popular leis.
- O’ahu – ‘ilima
This yellow-orange flower is paper thin. It requires hundreds of these flowers and a lot of work to make just one lei. This lei is often referred to as the royal lei as they were once only worn by the high chiefs.
Caring for Leis
Leis are not meant to last forever with exception of the shell lei, but you can extend the life of your lei by lightly sprinkling the foliage with a small amount of cool water, then wrapping it in damp newspaper, and storing it in the refrigerator or cool place. Some flowers are easily bruised so handle them gently. The ‘ilima leis’ life can not be extended, it will last only through the night.