The History and Cultural Significance of Hawaiian Leis
Posted: Jan 26, 2019
Leis are one of the most well-known symbols of Hawaiian culture, but many people know very little about the history and significance of leis in Hawaiian culture.
Although they are frequently called leis, the plural of lei is technically "lei" because the Hawaiian language has no letter s. "Leis" and "lei" are frequently used interchangeably, though, even in Hawaii.
The tradition of wearing lei was brought to Hawaii by ancient Polynesian voyagers. These ancient lei were made from natural materials, including flowers, leaves, seeds, shells, feathers, bones, and even animal teeth! Ancient Hawaiians frequently wore them to represent their social standing and wealth. They were also used to signify royalty.
The lei making tradition flourished and grew in isolation on the Hawaiian islands for hundreds of years. The ancient Hawaiians developed specific lei connected to their rituals, special occasions, and even everyday tasks.
When tourism to the Hawaiian islands began in the early 1900s, lei quickly became a symbol of aloha. Lei vendors would set up stands along the piers to welcome visitors coming by boat, just like there are lei vendors at the Honolulu airport today.
Although leis are frequently worn like a necklace, they are traditionally supposed to be worn draped around the shoulders, not hanging around the neck like a necklace.
Leis may be worn for special occasions, like graduation, weddings, and homecomings, or no particular reason at all. It is perfectly acceptable to purchase or make yourself a lei and wear it simply for the joy of wearing a beautiful lei. Because lei symbolize aloha, it is rude to refuse a lei or to remove one where the giver can see you.
There are many types of lei available today. Some of the most popular are Maile lei, flower lei, ribbon lei, and eyelash yarn lei.
The Maile lei has always been particularly significant in Hawaii. It is made from the leafy maile vine, which has a woodsy, spicy scent, and is usually open, like a garland, instead of closed like a necklace. The Maile lei was traditionally used by royalty and as a symbol of peace between opposing chieftains. Today, the Maile lei is popular in wedding ceremonies because it symbolizes respect and devotion.
Flower lei, especially orchid lei and plumeria lei, are very popular. Many commercial orchid leis are made with dendrobium orchids because they’re a durable and long-lasting flower. Plumeria are sweetly scented, but wilt much more quickly. Sometimes you can find people selling plumeria lei at beach parks made from flowers they gathered.
To dispose of a leaf or flower lei, you can simply leave it in nature or unstring it and return the flowers to the sea.
Ribbon lei are popular for graduations, sporting events, and homecomings when a lei made from flowers or leaves might stain the recipient’s clothes or gown. Ribbon lei are also a good choice for people with allergies. Because ribbon doesn’t fade or wilt, ribbon lei make nice keepsakes. A simple braided lei is easy to make in special colors for a graduate or team!
Eyelash yarn leis are also popular for graduations and special events. Many stores in Hawaii, even local pharmacies, sell eyelash yarn during graduation season. Eyelash yarn leis are either made by crocheting the yarn or wrapping it around large milkshake or bubble tea straws to make a one straw lei, two straw lei, or even a three straw lei. The straws are not a permanent part of the lei - they are just used while making it. Like ribbon lei, eyelash leis become a keepsake that last a lifetime.
Leis are so much more than the cheap plastic necklaces sold at party stores. They are a symbol of aloha and unique aspect of Hawaiian culture.
Natasha is a certified high school history teacher and blogger at The Artisan Life where she shares her love of crafting and gratitude.