Lei (garland)

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Fragrant lei of fresh pikake (Arabian jasmine) Lei pikake.jpg
Fragrant lei of fresh pikake (Arabian jasmine)

Lei ( /l/ ) is a garland or wreath. More loosely defined, a lei is any series of objects strung together with the intent to be worn. The most popular concept of a lei in Hawaiian culture is a wreath of flowers presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection. This concept was popularized through tourism between the Hawaiian Islands and the continental United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Garland decorative wreath or cord, used at festive occasions

A garland is a decorative wreath of flowers, leaves, or other material. Garlands can be worn on the head or around the neck, hung on an inanimate object, or laid in a place of cultural or religious importance.

Wreath assortment of flowers, leaves, fruits, twigs, or various materials that is constructed to form a ring

A wreath is an assortment of flowers, leaves, fruits, twigs, or various materials that is constructed to form a ring.

Flower Structure found in some plants; aka: blossom

A flower, sometimes known as a bloom or blossom, is the reproductive structure found in flowering plants. The biological function of a flower is to affect reproduction, usually by providing a mechanism for the union of sperm with eggs. Flowers may facilitate outcrossing or allow selfing. Some flowers produce diaspores without fertilization (parthenocarpy). Flowers contain sporangia and are the site where gametophytes develop. Many flowers have evolved to be attractive to animals, so as to cause them to be vectors for the transfer of pollen. After fertilization, the ovary of the flower develops into fruit containing seeds.


Children and sweethearts are poetically referred to as "lei" and many ancient and modern songs and chants refer to this imagery.


A lei can be given to someone for a variety of reasons. Most commonly, these reasons include peace, love, honor, or friendship for another person. [1] Common events during which leis may be distributed include graduations, weddings, and school dances. [1] Often the composition of a lei determines its significance; a lei made using a hala fruit, for instance, is said to be connected to love, desire, transition, and change. [2]


Lei hulu, made from feathers Lei Hulu.jpg
Lei hulu, made from feathers

A lei may be composed of a pattern or series of just about anything, but most commonly consists of fresh natural foliage such as flowers, leaves, vines, fern fronds, and seeds. The most commonly used flowers are those of plumerias, tuberose, carnations, orchids, and pikake , though maile leaves, ferns, and leaves are extremely popular as well as traditional among hula dancers. Other types of lei may include sea or land shells, fish teeth, bones, feathers, plastic flowers, fabric, paper (including origami and monetary bills), candy, or anything that can be strung together in a series or pattern and worn as a wreath or a necklace. The Hawaiian Island of Niʻihau is famous for its lei made of tiny gem-like shells (pūpū). [3]

<i>Plumeria</i> species of flowering plant

Plumeria is a genus of flowering plants in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. Most species are deciduous shrubs or small trees. The species variously are indigenous to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and as far south as Brazil and north as Florida, but are grown as cosmopolitan ornamentals in warm regions. Common names for plants in the genus vary widely according to region, variety, and whim, but Frangipani or variations on that theme are the most common. Plumeria also is used directly as a common name, especially in horticultural circles.

<i>Agave amica</i> species of plant

Agave amica, formerly Polianthes tuberosa, the tuberose, is a perennial plant in the family Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae, extracts of which are used as a note in perfumery. Now widely grown as an ornamental plant, the species was originally native to Mexico.

<i>Dianthus caryophyllus</i> species of plant

Dianthus caryophyllus, commonly known as the carnation or clove pink, is a species of Dianthus. It is probably native to the Mediterranean region but its exact range is unknown due to extensive cultivation for the last 2,000 years.


Wili method of making leis Lei Wili.jpg
Wili method of making leis

The eight most common methods of making lei are:

Haku: three-ply braid incorporating additional materials. A method of making a lei by using a base material, such as softened tree bark or long leaves, and braiding it while adding the decorative plant material into each wrap of the braid. Normally used for flowers and foliage with long pliable petioles or stems. [4]

Braid complex structure or pattern

A braid is a complex structure or pattern formed by interlacing three or more strands of flexible material such as textile yarns, wire, or hair. The materials used have depended on the indigenous plants and animals available in the local area. Braids have been made for thousands of years, in many different cultures around the world, for a variety of uses.

Plant stem One of two main structural axes of a vascular plant (together with the root), that supports leaves, flowers and fruits, transports fluids between the roots and the shoots in the xylem and phloem, stores nutrients and produces new living tissue

A stem is one of two main structural axes of a vascular plant, the other being the root. The stem is normally divided into nodes and internodes:

Hili: braid or plait with only one kind of material. Most commonly made from three or more strands of supple vine or fern braided together. [4]

Hilo: twist, double helix, intertwine. A method of making a lei by twisting two strands together to form a "rope". The popular and simple lei lāʻī ( leaf lei) is made using this method. [4]

<i>Cordyline fruticosa</i> Species of plant

Cordyline fruticosa is an evergreen flowering plant in the family Asparagaceae. The plant is of great cultural importance to the traditional animistic religions of Austronesian and Papuan peoples of the Pacific Islands, New Zealand, Island Southeast Asia, and Papua New Guinea. It is also cultivated for food, traditional medicine, and as an ornamental for its variously colored leaves. It is identified by a wide variety of common names, including ti plant, palm lily, cabbage palm, and good luck plant.

Hipuʻu / nipuʻu: a method of making a lei by knotting the stems of the decorative plant material and stringing the next stem through the knot. It requires a very long stem on the decorative material. Similar to a daisy chain. [4]

Humu / humuhumu: sew to a backing, usually using a basting stitch. A method of making a lei by sewing the decorative material to a backing such as hala, laʻi, paper, or felt. Each successive row of lei material is overlapped on the previous to create a scale-like effect. Bougainvillea lei and feather hat lei often are made with this method. [4]

Kui: pierce, piercing stitch. A method of making a lei by sewing or piercing the decorative material with a needle and stringing it onto a thread. This is probably the style with which most Westerners are familiar. This method is commonly used to string flowers such as plumeria, rose, carnation, etc. [4]

Wili: wind, twist, crank, coil. A corkscrew-type twist, as found in a pig's tail and the seed pod of the wiliwili tree. A method of making a lei by winding fiber around successive short lengths of the decorative material. Sometimes base materials such as hala , laʻi, strands of raffia, or even strips of paper are used to make wrapping easier. [4]

Haku mele: to braid a song. A song composed out of affection for an individual is considered a lei.

Lei may be open or closed, depending on circumstance.

These leis are traditionally constructed using natural foliage. [4]

Historical context

Leis were originally worn by ancient Polynesians and some Asian people as part of custom. [5] They were often used by Native Hawaiians to signify their ranks and royalty. [5] They are also worn as a form of honor to each other and their gods. [6] The religion of the Native Hawaiians as well as the hula custom is tied into the leis that they wore. [5] Native Hawaiians, who are Polynesian, brought the tradition of lei making and wearing with them to the Hawaiian islands when they arrived. [5] On the first of every May, an event called Lei Day is celebrated to honor the act of lei making and the custom surrounding it. [7]


There are many customs and protocols associated with the giving, receiving, wearing, storing, and disposing of lei. [2] A story that originated during World War II tells of a hula dancer who dared to give a lei to a US soldier along with a kiss, leading it to become a tradition of lei distribution in modern times. [2] To this day, leis remain a notable aspect of Hawaiian culture. [2] Traditionalists give a lei by bowing slightly and raising it above the heart, allowing the recipient to take it, as raising the hands above another's head, or touching the face or head, is considered disrespectful. By tradition, only open lei are given to a pregnant or nursing woman. If due to allergies or other reasons a person cannot wear a lei which has just been given (for instance a musician who would tangle the lei in his or her guitar strap), the lei is displayed in a place of honor, such as the musician's music stand or microphone stand. Lei should never be thrown away casually, or tossed into the trash. Traditionally they should be returned to the place they were gathered, or if that is not possible, they should be returned to the earth by hanging in a tree, burying, or burning. A lei represents love, and to throw one away represents throwing away the love of the giver. Many types of lei can be left in a window to dry, allowing the natural fragrance to fill the room. This technique is often used in cars as well.


In Polynesian cultures, a lei is something that is created by someone and given to another with the intent to decorate that person for an emotional reasonusually as a sign of affection. Common reasons include greeting, farewell, affection or love, friendship, appreciation, congratulation, recognition, or to otherwise draw attention to the recipient. In Samoa, similar garlands fashioned of entire flowers, buds, seeds, nuts, plant fibers, leaves, ferns, seashells, or flower petals are called "asoa" or "ula", [8] while single flowers or clusters worn in the hair or on the ear are called sei. In Tahiti such garlands are referred to as "hei" and in the Cook Islands they are called an "ei". [9] Tongans are known for creating unique "kahoa" leis made of chains of flat, crescent or triangular arrangements made of flower petals and leaves sewn onto a leaf or cloth backing. [10] In Niue the iconic lei is the kahoa hihi which made from strings of tiny, distinctively yellow snail (hihi) shells. [11] Many modern Polynesian celebrations include the giving and receiving of leis in various forms, including recent adaptations of the flower/plant lei in which candy, folded currency bills, rolls of coinage, and even spam musubi are tied into garlands. "Non-traditional" materials such as cloth ribbon, sequins, cellophane wrap, curling ribbon, and yarn are often used to fashion leis in various forms today.


U.S. President Lyndon Johnson wears lei while visiting Hawaii Patsy Mink Lyndon Johnson.jpg
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson wears lei while visiting Hawaii

Among residents of Hawaiʻi, the most popular occasions at which nā lei can be found are birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals, retirement parties, and bridal showers. [12] [13] It is not uncommon for a high school or college graduate to be seen wearing so many nā lei that they reach his or her ears or higher. [14]

On May 1 each year, Hawaiians celebrate "Lei Day", first conceived in 1927 by poet Don Blanding. At the time, Blanding was employed by the Honolulu Star Bulletin , and he shared his idea with columnist Grace Tower Warren, who came up with the phrase, "May Day is Lei Day". The Hawaiian song, "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii" was composed in 1927 by Ruth and Leonard "Red" Hawk. [15]

At the 81st Annual Mayor's Lei Day Celebration at Kapiolani Park in 2008, Honolulu set the record for the World's Longest Lei. Unofficially, the lei measured 5,336 feet in length, more than a mile. [16]

All of the major islands celebrate Lei Day, and each island is symbolized in pageantry by a specific type of lei and a color.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Niʻihau anglicized as Niihau is the westernmost and seventh largest inhabited island in Hawaiʻi. It is 17.5 miles (28.2 km) southwest of Kauaʻi across the Kaulakahi Channel. Its area is 69.5 square miles (180 km2). Several intermittent playa lakes provide wetland habitats for the Hawaiian coot, the Hawaiian stilt, and the Hawaiian duck. The island is designated as critical habitat for Brighamia insignis, an endemic and endangered species of Hawaiian lobelioid. The United States Census Bureau defines Niʻihau and the neighboring island and State Seabird Sanctuary of Lehua as Census Tract 410 of Kauai County, Hawaii. Its 2000 census population was 160; Its 2010 census population was 170.

Laka Polynesian mythological figure

In Hawaiian mythology, Laka is the name of two different popular heroes from Polynesian mythology.. Lengthy legends of their exploits extend throughout the islands, and the kings of Tahiti and Hawaiʻi claimed them as their ancestors.

Tongan is an Austronesian language of the Polynesian branch spoken in Tonga. It has around 187,000 speakers and is a national language of Tonga. It is a VSO (verb–subject–object) language.

Hula Polynesian dance

Hula is a Polynesian dance form accompanied by chant (oli) or song. It was developed in the Hawaiian Islands by the Polynesians who originally settled there. The hula dramatizes or portrays the words of the oli or mele in a visual dance form.

Luau Traditional Hawaiian feast

A luau is a traditional Hawaiian party or feast that is usually accompanied by entertainment. It may feature food such as poi, Kalua pig, poke, lomi salmon, opihi, and haupia, beer, and entertainment such as traditional Hawaiian music and hula. Among people from Hawaiʻi, the concepts of "luau" and "party" are often blended, resulting in graduation luaus, wedding luaus, and birthday luaus.

King Kamehameha I Day

King Kamehameha I Day on June 11 is a public holiday in the U.S. state of Hawaii. It honors Kamehameha the Great, the monarch who first established the unified Kingdom of Hawaiʻi—comprising the Hawaiian Islands of Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui, and Hawaiʻi. In 1883 a statue of King Kamehameha was dedicated in Honolulu by King David Kalākaua. There are duplicates of this statue in Emancipation Hall at the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C. and in Hilo, island of Hawaiʻi.

<i>Alyxia stellata</i> species of plant

Alyxia stellata, known as maile in Hawaiian, is a species of flowering plant in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae, that is native to Hawaii. It grows as either a twining liana, scandent shrub, or small erect shrub, and is one of the few vines that are endemic to the islands. The binomial nomenclature means "chain resembling olive" in Latin. The leaves are usually ternate, sometimes opposite, and can show both types on the same stem. Flowers are quite inconspicuous and have a sweet and light fragrance of honey. The bark is most fragrant and exudes a slightly sticky, milky sap when punctured, characteristic of the family Apocynaceae. The entire plant contains coumarin, a sweet-smelling compound that is also present in vanilla grass, woodruff and mullein. Fruit are oval and dark purple when ripe. Maile is a morphologically variable plant and the Hawaiian names reflect this.

Paper mulberry species of plant, Paper Mulberry

The paper mulberry is a species of flowering plant in the family Moraceae. It is native to Asia, where its range includes China, Japan, Korea, Indochina, Burma, and India. It is widely cultivated elsewhere and it grows as an introduced species in parts of Europe, the United States, and Africa. Other common names include tapa cloth tree.

Ipu percussion instrument made from gourds

Ipu is a percussion instrument made from gourds that is often used to provide a beat for hula dancing.

Jewellery in the Pacific

Jewellery making in the Pacific started later than in other areas, due to relatively recent human settlement. Early Polynesian jewellery, which was made of bone, wood and other natural materials, has not survived. The precise start of island jewellery-making is difficult to pinpoint, due to many of the island nations' founders migrating there from other areas, such as Tahiti.

Tēfui are the unique garlands of the Pacific Island, Rotuma. They are made by tying multiple "fui", with modern adaptations using wool or ribbon. The number of fui used is dependent on the situation. The Rotuman tēfui is used primarily as part of traditional ceremonies and celebrations (kato'aga), both happy and sad.

Grass skirt skirt made of long stems of grass bound to a waistband

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<i>Plumeria rubra</i> species of plant

Plumeria rubra is a deciduous plant species belonging to the genus Plumeria. Originally native to Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela, it has been widely cultivated in subtropical and tropical climates worldwide and is a popular garden and park plant, as well as being used in temples and cemeteries. It grows as a spreading tree to 7–8 m (23–26 ft) high and wide, and is flushed with fragrant flowers of shades of pink, white and yellow over the summer and autumn.

Wreath (attire)

A wreath worn for purpose of attire, , is a headdress made of leaves, grasses, flowers or branches. It is typically worn in festive occasions and on holy days and has a long history and association with ancient pageants and ceremonies. Outside of occasional use, the wreath can also be used as a crown, or a mark of honour. The wreath most often has an annular geometric construction.

<i>Gardenia taitensis</i> species of plant

Gardenia taitensis, also called Tahitian gardenia or tiaré flower, is a species of plant in the family Rubiaceae. It is an evergreen tropical shrub that grows to 4 m tall and has glossy dark green leaves that are oppositely arranged along the stem. The flower is creamy white and pinwheel-shaped with 5–9 lobes and fragrant. Native to the highland shores of the South Pacific, it has the distinction of being one of the few cultivated plants native to Polynesia. It is the national flower of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands.

Lei Day is a statewide celebration in all of Hawaii. The celebration begins in the morning of May first every year and continues throughout the entire day and even continues onto the next day. Lei day was established as a holiday in the year of 1929 and continues to this day. Each Hawaiian island has a different type of lei that is used for the celebration and for its people to wear. The festivities have consistently grown each year and the state of Hawaii has had to move the location of the event. Lei day was first held in the Courts and Town Halls but has since been moved to Kapi'olani park where it is still being held today.

<i>Sphenomeris chinensis</i> species of plant

Sphenomeris chinensis, commonly called lace fern, is a fern indigenous to Hawai'i, the Philippines, and other parts of the tropics and sub-tropics. It is commonly found in forest openings and disturbed areas such as landslides, along trails or roads. It grows in moist, shady areas from sea level to an elevation of 4,000 feet. The subspecies in the Philippines, S. chinensis biflora, locally called tubho is sometimes elevated into a new species.


  1. 1 2 "Symbolism". Flower Leis. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  2. 1 2 3 4 "The Evolution of the Lei". Flower Leis. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  3. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-23. Retrieved 2009-08-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) The Flowers of Niihau by Sky Barnhart Maui No Ka 'Oi Magazine June 08
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 "The Different Types of Leis". Aloha Island Lei. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "The History of the Lei". Flower Leis. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  6. "A Custom of Aloha". Flower Leis. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  7. "The Lei Tradition Continues". Aloha Island Lei. Archived from the original on 2015-12-08. Retrieved 2015-12-04.
  8. "'ulafala (pandanus key necklace)". Collections Online. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
  9. "Pacifica Mamas adorn the Town Hall with a giant ei as a gift of love". Auckland Council Te Kaunihera o Tāmakimakaurau. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  10. "Kahoa Kakala: Sione Monu". Objectspace. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  11. Talagi, Salote. "The beautiful Kahoa Hihi of Niue Island – Niue language week 2014". Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Retrieved 12 October 2019.
  12. Kakesako, Gregg (25 May 1998). "Hero's farewell". Star-Bulletin. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  13. "Ceremonies at Sea". Whipsaw Sportfishing. Retrieved 17 September 2019.
  14. Sweeten-Shults, Lana. "No lei-ing low for these GCU nursing graduates". GCU Today. Grand Canyon University. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  15. "A History of Lei Day" (PDF). Lei Day Celebration. City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation. 2008. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-05-29. Retrieved 2008-05-09.
  16. Fischer, John. "Lei Day in Hawaii". About.com.

Further reading