Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lei tradition

"L" is for lei - a symbol of Hawaiian "aloha." The lei was originally used as decoration by the ali'i (rulers) as well as the common people and was brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesian settlers from Tahiti. They brought flowering plants with them specifically for making leis.

Tourism in the islands quickly elevated the lei to the symbol of Hawaii to millions of visitors worldwide. Today, visitors can easily bring back the nostalgia of old Hawaii by ordering a traditional flower lei greeting for their arrival at the airport. Greeters welcome visitors with a warm “aloha” and adorn them with beautiful fresh leis. It's a wonderful way to begin a Hawaiian vacation.

Hawaiin leis mark any important event in a person's life. There are leis of grief, and leis of love, leis of love-making, leis of marriage, of dying, and of birthing. There are leis for political, community, social, personal, farming, and religious ceremony. The ancient Hawaiians excelled in the creation of permanent leis, constructed of feathers, ivory, beads, and even teeth.

The proper way to wear a lei is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back. The only protocols in relation to the giving and receiving of leis is that a lei should never be refused and it should not be taken off in the presence of the giver.

When visitors think of a lei, the plumeria flower lei generally comes to mind since it is widely available at airports and hotels. But plumeria is a relative newcomer. Leis can be made of just about anything, limited only by the maker's imagination. There is the lei pikake with its unequaled perfume, or the lei of the magnificent red or turquoise jade vine. Another lei frequently used, is the maile leaf lei. Historically the maile lei was perhaps the most significant. Among other sacred uses, it was used to signify a peace agreement between opposing chiefs. In a Heiau (temple), the chiefs would symbolically intertwine the green Maile vine, and its completion officially established peace between the two groups.

Lei hua, or seed lei, were made from all types of native seeds or nuts strung on cord. Today kukui lei remain very popular. Made from kukui nuts that have been sanded, polished, punctured and with the nut meat removed, the lei can be blond, dark brown or black in color.

Naturally the lei became an integral part of Hawaii's religious system and offerings of lei can often be seen on the altars of heiaus (temples).

When we held the memorial service for John, we were surprised by the number and variety of leis each one of our family members received. Often at an event such as a graduation, the young person receives so many leis they can't see over them. Although we didn't receive that many, the demonstration of caring and "aloha" as we received each lei touched us deeply. Some of John's co-workers had spent a lot of time collecting the materials and making the leis for us.

Did you know there were leis made of permanent material, not just flower leis?


  1. Thank you for the excellent information about leis. They are lovely creations. I did not know they should be draped loosely to dip front and back.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.


  2. Very interesting, indeed. I love that I can come and learn something from your site. :)

  3. I learned something new today - thank you! I visited Hawaii with my parents as a kid and receiving a lei was a wonderful experience.

  4. I've always admired the custom, but had no idea they could be made from seeds or nuts. That's neat.

  5. Visiting here from A to Z. My daughter lives on Kaua'i. My father was career Navy, and we visited Oahu a few times, and I spent the summer I was 16 there. Love the islands.

  6. I'd love to see photos sometime of the unusal seed or nut leis you received while you were there.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts.