Hawaii Tradition of Giving Lei

The floral garland is celebrated every May

The last time Louise Alina was part of Oahu’s Department of Parks and Recreation’s annual Lei Day celebration was when she was in high school.

“I can just picture her,” Alina says as she gushes about seeing the Lei Day court queen for the first time. “She was so pretty. Her white satin gown … all the flowers around her, it was all so beautiful.”

Fast forward to 2014, after a friend convinced her to run for the kupuna (elder) division in the Lei Day court, Alina was chosen as the 87th annual Lei Day queen.

“I hadn’t experienced Lei Day again until I was actually in it,” chuckles the Kaneohe resident who would only attribute “Lei Day” with lavish school programs at her elementary and high school—a fond memory of many locals who were born and raised in Hawaii. “We were a working family so we didn’t really go out as much. And if you live on the countryside, like we did, the last thing you want to do is drive into town.”

After experiencing the 2014 Lei Day and all the hands and hearts that went into the special day, Alina grew a renewed sense of appreciation of the state’s momentous occasion.

Queen and her court
In previous years, the Queen, seated, and her court have been draped with lei. (©Dave Miyamoto)

“What a wonderful experience it was,” Alina says. “The flowers, the halau (hula group) dancing, arts and crafts, the lei competition … I told my family we all have to go and see it every time now.”

From weary arms holding up wilted strung-up plumeria flowers on Hotel Street to the bountiful McCoy Pavilion at Queen Kapi‘olani Regional Park in Waikiki, Lei Day has evolved into a momentous occasion that celebrates Hawaii’s most popular symbol of love.

In the newly bloomed tourism year of 1927, when Matson Navigation Company’s luxury liner service began between California and Honolulu, Don Blanding—an artist and a poet laureate—suggested to his Honolulu Star Bulletin co-workers that they name a specific day in celebration of lei making.

“Hawaii observed all of the mainland holidays,” Blanding explained in Hula Moons, his 1930 book of memoirs. “‘Why not have a Lei Day?’ Let everyone wear a lei and give a lei. Let it be a day of general rejoicing over the fact that one lived in a paradise. Let it be a day of remembering old friends, renewing neglected contacts, with the slogan ‘aloha,’ allowing that flexible word to mean friendliness on that day.”

After Blanding discussed his idea with “Kamaaina Kolumn” columnist Grace Tower Warren, she enthusiastically pursued it and suggested that the day should be May Day, coining the popular phrase (and song) “May Day is Lei Day.” In 1929, Governor Wallace Rider Farrington signed a Lei Day proclamation urging the citizens of Hawaii to “observe the day and honor the traditions of Hawaii-nei by wearing and displaying lei.”

As interpretations of Lei Day range from a child’s May Day program at school to locals donning their favorite aloha wear and exchanging or wearing a beautifully strung lei, what’s often forgotten is the actual art and diligence of lei-making.

Kapiolani Bandstand
Attendees can enjoy live music during the Lei Day celebration at Kapiolani Park's Bandstand. (©Tor Johnson/HTA)

“Lei is so much a part of our local life,” says Brian Choy, a retired Department of Health manager and currently a lei-making teacher at the Honolulu Museum of Art School. “(It’s for) any occasion to express your love—birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals, or just to say aloha.”

In 1976, a year after enrolling in Beatrice Krauss’ “Ethnobotany of the Hawaiian Island,” Choy has submitted his lei (and won many) in the Lei Day competition up until his last in 2007. Choy says that lei-making, like the essence of Lei Day itself, represents peace and love for yourself and others. A quality needed to make a beautiful lei, and harvest the benefits of the joyous state holiday.

“Lei is a tradition that we give to others to say how we feel,” Choy says. “You can never make a good lei if you’re not in a good mood. You have to find peace within yourself to be comfortable with your lei.”      

To get a glimpse of the different weavings and artistic talents of lei-makers, the annual Lei Contest Exhibit will be featured and open to the public between the park bandstand and the shell from 1 pm to 4:30 pm.

There will also be a section of Hawaiian artisans, storytelling sessions, games, crafts for adults and keiki (children), and lei and food vendors from 9 am through 4:30 pm.

If you don’t have a child to watch in a May Day program or have yet to experience the appreciation of Hawaii’s most festive event, Alina says the Parks’ Lei Day celebration at Kapi‘olani Park is the place to be.

“I think (people) will get a really warm and happy feeling being in Hawaii for our world is so troubled now,” she says with a heavy sigh. “This will help everyone see the other side. How we have such a variety of people and cultures. Hopefully they can take that with them and share it with other people: the aloha spirit.”