May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

May 1st is the Lei Day holiday in Hawaii, we celebrate it by wearing and giving Lei ( garland usually worn around the neck ) made of flowers, ferns, vines, shells, ribbons, etc..

How did this holiday start? It began as an idea of a poet Don Blanding who wanted a special day where people could display the beauty of the Hawaiian tradition of lei making. Later a writer, Grace Warren suggested that the holiday be on May 1st, and on May 1, 1928 the first Lei Day was begun. The tradition is continued till this day.

People adorn themselves with Lei made in various ways. The Kui style is the simplest, using a needle and thread the sew flowers into a necklace strand. Hili, is done by braiding flowers, ferns, vines together. Haku, also uses the braiding technique, but instead of braiding the items together you insert the items into the braid that could be ti leaves, raffia, ribbon, etc.. Humu, is the style my aunty used when making Lei Hulu (feather Lei) for hat bands. You lay the feather or other material onto a piece of fabric and sew it down. Wili, is the quickest for me. You Place the flowers, ferns, etc. onto a base and wrap it into place with raffia, vines, ribbon, etc.. Hilo, is the common method of making ti leaf Lei by twisting two strands of ti leaves together, adding strips as you go until you reach the desired length. During the May Day celebrations there are many places you can go to to watch a demonstration or participate in making a lei.

My husband’s grandmother’s papale (hat) with lei hulu.

Lei Day Programs

Throughout the islands many schools will be having May Day programs. These range from the simple to the eleborate. When I was in kindergarten I was chosen to be the Princess of Molokai. It was a simple program.

Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Elementary May Day.

Years later when our son was chosen to be May Day King and our niece May Day Queen it was a more eleborate program.


Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Elementary May Day

During the May Day program classes or individuals perform followed by the court.

There are Lei that represent each island. Starting with Ni’ihau, Lei Pupu (shell) that come in shades of white, pink, and beige only found on Ni’ihau. Kauai, Lei Mokihana, a green berry with a pleasant fragrant. O’ahu, Lei Ilima, a paper thin yellow flower. It takes hundreds of flowers to make one lei. Molokai, Lei Kukui (this tree has tiny white blossoms). Lana’i, Lei Kaunaoa, a vine that grows on the sandy beaches of Lana’i. Mau’i, Lei Lokelani (a delicate pink rose) brought to Hawaii in the 1800s. Kaho’olawe, Lei Hinahina. Hawaii island, Lei Red Ohi’a Lehua. Unfortunately there is a disease that is attacking the Ohi’a trees called “Rapid Ohi’a Death.”

This is a picture of a healthy Ohi’a blossom.

The Giving of Lei

When someone presents you with a lei it is a show of love, respect, appreciation, congratulations, to say farewell, or it reminds them of a special memory shared. When presenting a lei to someone who is hapai (pregnant) it should be open ended, it is believed if you give a closed lei to someone who is hapai the baby’s umbilical cord will wrap around the baby’s neck. Also, it is bad manners to refuse a lei (unless you’re allergic).

My favorite lei is the Pikake (peacock). It’s a tiny white blossom with a sweet fragrance that brings back precious memories.

May the fragrance of the abundant flowers, ferns, and vines of Hawaii bless you with the love of the lei giver, that will become a part of your special memories, or make you smile as the fragrance permeates your mind with beautiful memories of your past. 

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