History of the Hawaiian lei

April 24, 2018

History of the Hawaiian lei

History of the Hawaiian lei or garland as some call it starts first with plant materials, normally flowers strung together with the intent to be worn.  The Hawaiian lei is commonly made from Orchid blossoms, Pikake blossoms or Maile leaves and can be combined with seeds, seashells or other plant materials and is considered Hawaii’s sacred item. The Lei is woven in the shape of a garland or wreath and in Hawaiian the word lei originally comes from ‘nā lei’ which is the plural form, so the proper use of this word is lei and while even the plural name remains lei. 

Hawaiian Lei

The early Polynesian voyagers came to Hawaii by canoe and are thought to have originated from Tahiti. The Polynesians first started using the Hawaiian lei as an ornament to honor their gods by combining greens into wreaths and adding up with strings of flowers and vines. Furthermore, the Hawaiian lei can be used in various aspects such as conveying feelings, denoting social status or celebrating significant events including congratulatory events, appreciation, friendship, birthdays, graduations, love, greeting and also a farewell. Going back to the ancient time to the lei’s giving tradition here they were presented to another person through bowing, to show more respect.  They would place the lei above your heart and interestingly the lei were never put around somebody’s necks. Later during World War II, this custom would change when the American soldiers would arrive back to Hawaii. The lei were placed around the neck and also the recipient was given a kiss on the cheek in order to show a warm greeting and affection.

The history of disposing of the lei is also something to note.  The lei was seen as something special, hence the lei would never be put in the trash. If someone put the lei into the trash, that person is throwing away the love of the person who gave it. So, in the past, the way to return the lei must be returned to the earth by hanging it on the tree branches, burying or burning it. When it comes to the lei making tradition, it is considered as a heart-made object representing the giving of time. Some lei exclusively made with alternating flowers are strung with that pattern to enable it to last for days in the fridge. Currently, the components of the lei are quite different from the old days because they were replaced by the readily available materials. The importance of the lei is considered a high honor and the highest honor is to receive a Hawaiian lei made from rare flowers growing in remote areas. 

Hawaiian lei

Lei making history has formed a unique kind of art. Two categories were found today; the traditional and the contemporary. The first one also called Polynesian lei are made from the native Hawaiian plants and every piece holding a specific symbolism. For the contemporary lei which occurred after European contact, the components can be made from permanent materials for example; satin, faux flowers, cellophane, silk and ribbon. Moreover, there are the essential manners that everyone should know when you are facing the lei giver, do not remove the Hawaiian lei in front of them because it indicates a rude gesture. To wear it perfectly, drape the lei on your shoulders with half of it hanging to the front and half to the back.  All the pregnant women should not wear a closed lei but rather an open-ended Hawaiian lei which is considered more appropriate and symbolizes life and energy flowing in and out of you. 

The Hawaiian lei has become a unique symbol of Hawaiian tradition for all ages worldwide and its history is also embedded and represented in every lei given.  So do not forget the history of the Hawaiian lei and treat it appropriately while receiving a lei then next time you are celebrating an occasion or are perhaps arriving to Hawaii for your first time.