You’ll see lei at birthdays, weddings, graduation parties, luau, even at the airport when you arrive. Defined as a garland or wreath, lei is so much more than just a beautiful adornment. In Hawai’i, it’s the symbol of aloha, it’s something you give to someone you love, it’s a way of showing appreciation – a welcome.
The first time I remember wearing a lei was when I graduated from kindergarten. It’s customary in Hawai’i to drape lei — as many as possible! — on graduates, even as young as preschoolers.
It’s not uncommon to see high school seniors decked in dozens of lei stacked so high on their shoulders you can barely see their faces. I wore a fragrant triple-strand white pīkake (jasmine) lei at my wedding and a haku (braided lei for your head) on my 40th birthday — one from my mom, the other from my husband.
Lei is everywhere in Hawai’i — and most travelers will encounter it as soon as they arrive in the Islands. Many hotels will greet their guests with lei as soon as they enter the lobby. There are lei stands at the airport, lei shops in Chinatown and most supermarkets and convenience stores, including 7-Eleven, sell lei.
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History of Lei
The stringing of flowers into ceremonial garlands has taken place for centuries in Asia. Early Polynesian voyagers who arrived on the Hawaiian Islands from Tahiti as early as the 5th century brought their lei customs with them.
Over time, Indigenous Hawaiians developed their own unique traditions found nowhere else in the world. In the early days of Hawai’i, lei was created as an adornment and made mostly from flowers, leaves, ferns, seeds, nuts, shells and bright feathers for sacred ceremonies, in hula and on special occasions.
Today, you can find lei made out of candy, ribbon and origami-folded dollar bills. (Locals don’t wear plastic flower lei.)
Lei’s popularity with tourists and celebrities
During the 1900s, tourism to Hawai’i started to grow, and lei greeters lined the pier at Aloha Tower on Oʻahu to welcome visitors disembarking from ships with strands of lei. When the visitors left the Islands, some tossed the lei into the ocean as the ship passed Lēʻahi — or Diamond Head — hoping for a quick return.
In 1961, American crooner Elvis Presley famously wore a yellow-and-white plumeria lei to promote the movie Blue Hawaii. He donned a red and pink carnation lei — striking against his jeweled white jumpsuit — in his live broadcast of Aloha from Hawaii in 1973.
US Presidents John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (who hails from Hawai’i) and celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz and Bradley Cooper have worn lei on visits to the state. In 2018, Sigourney Weaver donned a custom gown by Native Hawaiian designer Manaola Yap to the New York Botanical Garden’s Conservatory Ball paired with strands of pīkake lei.
There are several different methods for making lei © RightFramePhotoVideo / Getty Images
Different kinds of lei
There are different kinds of lei, based on how they’re made. The kui method is the most common, which strings flowers lengthwise with a needle and thread. Haku starts with a base material, often softened tree bark or long leaves, braided.
Lei makers add decorative flowers and foliage without thread. Haku is often worn on the head and shouldn’t be confused with lei poʻo, or flower crowns, which have a different crafting method.
The most common lei visitors will see on the Islands is the Dendrobium orchid lei. Hawai’i typically imports these flowers from Thailand. Lei makers have found innovative ways of turning these purple flowers into stunning works of art.
The flowers are sturdy and long-lasting. They don’t have much of a smell. Pīkake, or Arabian jasmine, has tiny, delicate flowers that are incredibly fragrant; you’ll want to wear more than one strand of this lei because a single strand is thin and fragile.
The trumpet-shaped flower of the pua kenikeni tree (Fagraea berteroana) turns from white to orange as it ages. Maile, a native twining shrub, is used in an open-ended lei and worn on very special occasions, such as weddings and at graduations. And the sweet-smelling awaʻawapuhi keʻokeʻo, or white ginger, is a popular flower used in lei among locals; it lies flat with the petals facing outward.
You can join a lei-making workshop in Hawai’i © Jotika Pun / Shutterstock
Now you try
Many hotels and shopping centers in Hawai’i — like the Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea and the Royal Hawaiian Center on Oʻahu — offer lei-making classes, usually for free and led by cultural practitioners. Here, you can learn how to make a simple kui-style lei – stringing flowers with a needle and thread.
There are lei makers who hold hands-on workshops, too. Haku Maui in Makawao runs several lei-making workshops a month, and Lei By Dillyn offers both community workshops and private classes on making lei poʻo at the Queen Emma Summer Palace on Oʻahu.
Visitors lucky enough to be in Hawai‘i on May 1 can participate in the annual Lei Day festivities, a celebration that began in 1927 to recognize the tradition in Hawai’i. There are lei exhibits, a prestigious lei contest with more than 100 entries in a dozen categories, and other activities. A lei queen and court have been crowned every year since 1928.
You can buy lei just about anywhere, even at the neighborhood grocery store. There are crafters who own shops or sell their lei on every island, from the fourth-generation-run Cindy’s Lei Shoppe in Chinatown on Oʻahu to the Native Hawaiian–owned Kolonahe Creations on Maui.
Lei etiquette – what you should know
A lei is given and received with love. So when presented with lei, you shouldn’t reach for it or push it away. The custom is to lower your head and allow the giver to place the lei on your shoulders. (If you have a medical or another justified reason why you can’t receive a lei, explain that respectfully but still show appreciation for the gesture).
You don’t have to hug or kiss the cheek of the giver — though you will see a lot of locals do that. And you should wear the lei — not immediately take it off. At least wait until the giver is out of sight.
If you’re pregnant, you may receive an untied lei. By tradition, hāpai (pregnant) or nursing women are not supposed to wear a closed lei because it’s believed to symbolize the umbilical cord wrapping around the baby’s neck.
Lei can be bought practically everywhere in Hawai’i, but there are restrictions on what you can take with you © Hiro_photo_H / Getty Images
Take lei home with you
Want to bring lei back with you? You can — but it depends on the materials of the lei. It cannot contain any citrus or citrus-related flowers, leaves or other plant parts.
You also can’t take back gardenia, jade vine or Mauna Loa. Some kukui (candlenut) lei may not be allowed as they often have citrus or citrus-related leaves strung in. See the rules on the Hawai’i Department of Agriculture website. That means ginger, tuberose, maile and orchid lei are fine as long as they pass agricultural inspection at the airport.
And what if you don’t want your lei anymore? While tossing used lei in the nearest garbage can may seem normal, it’s actually disrespectful. You should return the lei to nature. Remove anything that’s not natural — string, ribbon — and place the flowers and foliage in a natural environment — on a hiking trail, in a park, in a forest, in the ocean. It has to be flowers and leaves only, otherwise, you’re littering.