Celebrated annually on May 1, Lei Day, is a special day in the Hawaiian calendar as it honors the tradition of giving and receiving leis and celebrating the spirit of aloha. Leis are essentially beautiful floral garlands made from various flowers, leaves, and other materials found on the islands.
During Lei Day, people come together in music and dance to celebrate the beauty and significance of these floral garlands which are a symbol of love, friendship, and appreciation. They are an integral part of the Hawaiian culture.
Lei Day History - How It Is Celebrated
The tradition of celebrating Lei Day dates back to 1928 when a group of artists and musicians in Honolulu, Hawaii organized a celebration to honor the Hawaiian custom of lei-making. They picked May 1 as the ideal date for this celebration because it was already a holiday in Hawaii -and elsewhere across the world- known as May Day. The huge success of their first Lei Day celebration motivated them to make it an annual event and it has since been celebrated annually across the islands.
The traditional skill of making the leis has, for years, been passed down through generations. It is a skill that is still practiced and celebrated today just as it was during the inaugural Lei Day festivities.
On Lei Day, people across Hawaii gather to create and exchange leis. Music, dance, and other cultural activities that showcase the beauty of Hawaiian traditions also fill the air. They term it a time to honor the natural world as well as the importance of community. That's why they come together in the spirit of aloha!
Lei Day Celebrations Are Filled With Fun Activities and Contests
The Lei Contest is one of the key activities held during the Lei Day celebrations. In the contest, people from across the islands compete to see who will create the most beautiful and creative leis.
There are different categories for different types of leis in the contest. Such include flower leis, shell leis, and ti leaf leis, with the winning leis displayed at various locations throughout the islands, and without a doubt, the leis are usually great works of floral artistry.
Parades, hula performances, and other cultural events also take place during the Lei Day celebrations with the participants proudly wearing their lei’s around their necks, wrists, and in their hair. Hawaii’s streets are usually filled with a rich mix of floral colors and the sweet fragrance of flowers during these celebrations.
On Lei Day, Hawaiians Celebrate the Spirit of Aloha. What Does It Mean?
While aloha may come across as simply a form of greeting, for Hawaiians it is more than that. To them, aloha means love, affection, peace, sympathy, pity, kindness, mercy, compassion, and a lot more. It is their way of life that is rooted in love, respect, and compassion for others.
Aloha, according to Hawaiians, is a way of life that acknowledges community, its values, giving, and also recognizing the natural world that we live in. Through these elements, aloha seeks to create harmony and balance in virtually all aspects of their lives.
Which Are the Quintessential Flowers and Plants for Lei Day Celebrations?
There are many different flower varieties that can be used to create leis. Each flower and plant has its own unique meaning and symbolism. Here are some of the ideal flower and plant varieties for your Lei Day celebrations and what they represent.
Iconic Plumeria Is the Symbolic Lei Flower
Also called pua melia or frangipani, plumeria is one of the most significant flowers in Hawaiian culture. It is the quintessential lei flower and it is easy to see why. Frangipani’s vibrant and fragrant blooms come in a variety of colors, including pink, yellow, white, and red. The flower’s waxy petals are ideal for stringing into the leis.
Apart from being quite an enthralling flower, plumeria also has an inherent meaning among Hawaiians. In the Hawaiian culture, the flower represents love, birth, and new beginnings. It is therefore a popular flower of choice for graduations, birthdays, weddings, and other such celebrations that denote new beginnings.
It also symbolizes a woman’s romantic status when worn in the hair. When worn behind her left ear, she is in a relationship and if it is worn behind the right ear, it means she is ready to meet a romantic partner.
The Sturdy Yet Versatile Ti Leaf
Flowers may be the main elements that make up the biggest composition of leis but Ti leaf is an equally important component of leis. Ti leaf, which comes from the Hawaiian ti plant, is a versatile foliage mostly used in lei-making. It has long, pointed leaves that come in a variety of colors, including red, purple, and green. These leaves are usually braided to create elaborate designs in the leis.
For Hawaiians, the Ti leaf is a symbol of good luck. Hawaiian traditional rituals and ceremonies often use this foliage in some of their activities. The rigid leaf is used to create a sturdy base for attaching flowers and blooms when making leis.
Orchids Are Always a Perfect Choice
Orchids are a popular flower variety for making leis. They have an aura of delicate beauty and a graceful appearance. The exotic orchids range in color and shape making them an ideal choice for incorporating variety in the leis. They could be boldly colorful with a variety of vibrant hues, or delicate and subdued with white petals. These flowers are also easy to work with when making the leis.
Luxury and elegance are qualities that are usually associated with orchids. And this extends even to the Hawaiian cultures where this flower represents refinement, elegance, sophistication, beauty, and luxury in lei-making during the festivities. You can also just gift them to those you love on this day.
The Delicately Sweet-Scented Tuberose
Widely regarded as one of the most fragrant flowers in the world, tuberose is an aromatic flower commonly used in making leis. These flowers are native to Mexico but were brought to Hawaii by Spanish explorers.
This tuberose plant produces clusters of beautiful, large, pure white blooms on stalks growing up to 4 feet tall. The sweet fragrance that the tuberose flower produces, as well as its delicate appearance, are the key qualities that make it a popular flower for leis.
Tuberose represents love, purity, and sincerity in Hawaiian culture, making it one of the important flowers for Lei Day.
The Bold and Statement-Making Heliconia
The eye-catching Heliconia is a bold, tropical flower used in making leis to create unforgettable dramatic designs. The flower has really vibrant blooms that are large and come in a variety of colors ranging from red to orange and yellow. When making leis, Heliconias are usually used together with other flower types and Ti leaves to create stunning designs.
Heliconia flowers represent youth, pride, and great returns. They are often associated with the catchphrase, ‘Forever young, forever beautiful’, as the flowers are usually harvested at the peak of their beauty and can enjoy a vase life of up to three weeks.
Pua Kenikeni, the Beauty With a Fragrance
Also known as the perfume flower tree, Pua kenikeni is a fragrant flower that is indigenous to New Guinea and northern Australia. It is however widely distributed throughout the South Pacific. Pua kenikeni got its name from the fact that it is extensively used in making leis. Its fragrant flowers are known to hold up well over time and their scent tends to linger longer on whoever wears leis made using them.
Pua kenikeni, whose flowers are small, and yellow in color, is a symbol of love, affection, and friendship, and is often used in traditional Hawaiian ceremonies and rituals. The sweet scent that it produces is believed to attract positive energy and good fortune. This Is why it is always a popular choice for gifting friends and loved ones.
The Beautiful and Fragrant Ginger
Thanks to its sweet, spicy scent, ginger is a fragrant flower often used in making leis. It has bright, and bold blooms, with its long, tubular flowers coming in a variety of colors, such as red, pink, and yellow. In lei-making this flower is used alongside other flower varieties to create outstanding, multi-colored designs.
The flower symbolizes hospitality and generosity in Hawaiian culture. This makes it a perfect choice as Lei Day celebrations are all about welcoming guests and honoring loved ones. The flower’s spicy scent is also believed to send off evil spirits, which is why it is also mostly used in traditional Hawaiian healing practices.
The Durable Yet Affordable Carnations
Also called Ponimo’i in Hawaii, carnations are thought to be affordable and at the same time durable, and hence why they are quite popular in making leis. The flower comes in a variety of colors, from red to yellow, pink, and white, creating quite an impression when incorporated into the leis. Carnations are also easy to work with in lei-making due to their strong stems and many colorful petals on each stem. Used in combination with other flower varieties and foliage, carnations can create beautiful leis.
Hawaiians hold that carnations (Dianthus) represent love, gratitude, and admiration which is why it is one of their most popular flower gifts for those they love and their friends.
The Sweetly Fragrant Pikake
Pikake is a fragrant flower that is a type of jasmine and is often used in making leis. It is also called Arabian jasmine and is native to South Asia and Southeast Asia but was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants. The flower comes in white or yellow colors and has a sweet, delicate scent. It was named so by Hawaii’s Princess Kaiulani whose favorite bird was a peacock. Pikake translates to ‘peacock’. The flowers are often worn by brides, hula dancers, and honored guests during festivities.
In the Hawaiian culture, the Pikake flower is a symbol of romance and love. Brides often wear leis made from white pikake flowers. They are also popularly worn by others who attend ceremonies and celebrations such as weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries and are usually worn by women.
Hawaii’s State Flower, Hibiscus
Hibiscus is a popular flower variety used in making leis. It comes in different colors ranging from red to yellow to pink and even purple. The yellow hibiscus is known for being Hawaii’s state flower. There are numerous different types of hibiscus, each with its own unique color and appearance.
Some of the most popular hibiscus varieties used in making leis include red hibiscus, yellow hibiscus, and white hibiscus. The flower is often used in leis because of its beauty and vibrant colors.
For Hawaiians, hibiscus symbolizes joy, beauty, royalty, and respect, which is why it is so commonly worn by locals, hence making it an ideal flower for Lei Day.
Leis Showcase Hawaiians’ Friendly and Welcoming Nature
With that in mind, in the end, Lei Day remains simply a fun and festive holiday and whether you're in Hawaii or elsewhere in the world, you can join in the celebrations. There are plenty of ways through which you can join in on the festivities and celebrate the spirit of aloha.
And as they would say in Hawaii, Welina mai i ka lā lei! (welcome to the leis day!), you can join and have fun from wherever you are. After all the leis and floral decorations associated with the island make the people exude a feeling of friendliness and welcoming nature.