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May Day is Lei Day in Hawai'i

May 18, 2015

May Lei

As the song goes, May Day is Lei Day in Hawai'i, where we celebrate local history and heritage through the beautiful and iconic flower garlands given to loved ones.

This past May 1 followed in that same tradition, with various celebrations across the islands, including festivities at Waikiki Beach and Kapiolani Park on O'ahu.

Looking for more? Celebrate lei year-round and join Hula Supply Center owner Sylvia Kop every Friday from 3 to 5 pm for flower and haku lei making at Na Mea Hawai'i / Native Books on the first floor corner of Ward Warehouse. For just $8 to drop in (or $20 for a month), guests have the opportunity to learn about lei, enjoy stories about its history and meaning, and string their own using seasonal flora (from Kop's own backyard!)

"I like seeing [the lei makers] very engrossed and having fun," says Nā Mea Hawai'i owner Maile Meyer, about her favorite part of the weekly class. "Stringing lei is a group activity for sure; it's very social. You can hear them laughing from across the room!"


For Meyer and others, lei is a local tradition steeped in symbolism and significance. Just as how each of the Hawaiian islands has its own color, nickname, and flower, so do they also have their own proper accompanying lei: the anise-scented rare mokihana berry lei for Kaua'i, golden 'ilima lei for O'ahu, polished kukui nut lei for Moloka'i, leafless vine kauna'oa for Lānaʻi, small rose lokelani lei for Maui, and the silvery heliotrope hinahina lei for Kaho'olawe. Often these lei have special significance and derive meaning from the islands they are associated. For example, the Big Island has an ʻōhiʻa lehua lei, a native honey plant and often the first shrub that will sprout from lava flows. Ni'ihau's lei consists of a native pūpū shell lei that can only be found on the island. The ways used to create lei vary widely, with methods including braids or plaits featuring one kind of material (hili), three-ply braids featuring different materials (haku), a corkscrew-type twist coil (wili), double helix strands which form a kind of rope (hilo), and the often-seen sewing method, which use a needle and thread (kui).

To give a lei is to share a personal experience with another person, transferring a handmade artifact carefully with two hands, as a way to show honor, love, and high regard. Native Hawaiians believed that lei held a connection to the land, and to wear one imbued it with that person's individual spirit. Disposing of a lei meant returning it to the Earth, either through scattering, burying, or burning. Never by simply throwing it into the trash--a tradition that continues today.

"Even the process of lei making is respectful; you can find all the materials at home, in your own backyard, or from friends and neighbors," says Meyer. "It's about taking only what you need and sharing."

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