Hawaiian Leis: Flowers, Customs, and Respect

Published on:
August 30, 2023

The Hawaiian lei stands as a symbol of affection, love, respect, and honor. In times of both joy and sorrow, traditions help us find a common language, grounding us with their inherent symbolism and shared understanding. The nā lei remind us that even in our darkest hours, we are bound by a circle of life and community that endures, capable of offering and receiving love in all its forms.

In Hawaiian culture, the concept of 'ohana, or family, extends beyond blood relations to encompass the broader community. Those who have departed remain part of that 'ohana, their memories and impacts lingering like the fragrance of a flower. They will be remembered not just for the roles they filled in life, but for the love they shared, the joy they brought, and the lives they touched.

In this guide, we will explore the Hawaiian lei as not just a symbol of Aloha but also a powerful cultural gesture of connection—especially important in these times of sorrow. Gaining insight into the lei's roles in celebrations, ceremonies, and farewells enriches our understanding, helping us to honor those who have departed and connect more deeply with a culture that holds profound respect for the earth and its people.

What is a Hawaiian Lei?

A Hawaiian lei is a wreath of fresh flowers, leaves, shells, or even feathers, traditionally worn around the neck. In English, we often refer to them as 'leis,' but in Hawaiian, the plural for "leis" is "nā lei." This symbol is deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture and has parallels in various Polynesian and Asian cultures. Particularly on the island of Maui, the lei-making tradition is vibrant, often incorporating unique local flora such as the fragrant plumeria and the stunning orchid.

Where are Hawaiian Leis Worn?

Where are Hawaiian Leis Worn?

Leis are typically worn around the neck but can also adorn a hula dancer's head, hips, or even serve as ceremony decor. In each setting, the lei acts as a vibrant yet respectful mark of life's special moments. During events like a Hawaiian wedding or graduation, you’ll frequently see leis worn in a variety of styles. Wearing a lei can signify the celebration of a special event or mark a significant milestone or achievement.

Head leis are often referred to as "lei po'o" or "haku leis." A haku lei is typically a braided lei worn on the head, and it is popular during various celebrations like weddings, hula performances, and May Day (Lei Day) celebrations. They can be made of the same materials as neck leis, including flowers, leaves, and even vines.


What does a Lei Symbolize in Hawaii?

What does a Lei Symbolize in Hawaii?

In Hawaii, the lei is more than a decorative garland; it serves as a silent yet potent messenger of complex feelings, often carrying the weight of words left unspoken. Whether conveying love, friendship, or even condolences, a lei communicates deeply ingrained cultural meanings. Its significance goes beyond its immediate beauty; the type of flower used and the color chosen often convey personalized messages understood within the community. For example, a lei made of Pikake flowers might be given to signify romantic love, while a Maile lei could represent respect or honor. Particularly poignant is the tradition of crafting leis using school colors, which adds a layer of meaning at graduation ceremonies. Such leis serve as a visual representation of academic achievement, collective identity, and the transition to a new phase in life.

Over the years, Hawaiian lei stands have offered a variety of colors and types of leis to visitors and locals alike. On the island of Maui, local artisans often integrate indigenous flora into their leis, crafting each one as a homage to the island's unique landscape and cultural history. These garlands are often given upon arrival to the Hawaiian Islands as a symbol of Aloha, a term embodying love, peace, and compassion. From ancient times to modern times, the lei has retained its cultural significance, beautifully hand-woven into the rich traditions of the Hawaiian people.


Hawaiian Leis: Ancestral Traditions & Customs

Hawaiian Leis: Ancestral Traditions & Customs

Leis have a history dating back to ancient times, when Hawaiians initially used them to signify peace agreements among competing tribes. These beautiful flower arrangements have roots that trace back to the era of Hawaiian royalty. Historically, the lei was worn by ali'i, or chiefs, to signify their elevated status and as a symbol of their divine connection to the gods. Now, in modern times, they've become a universal sign of affection, often used in special occasions from luau parties to school dances. The practice of exchanging leis is embedded in Hawaiian culture, adding festivity and significance to common events.

What are the Flowers on Hawaiian Leis?

Leis in Hawaii can feature an array of colors and a diverse range of flora, each imbued with unique significance. Orchids, for instance, are a popular choice for their long-lasting beauty and come in a variety of colors, contributing to the lei's overall message. Hibiscus, particularly the yellow hibiscus which is Hawaii's national flower, is often included to add a layer of cultural richness. Plumeria, another native flower, is favored for its sweet fragrance and is commonly associated with love and femininity.

In some cases, tuberose or even pikake (jasmine) might be used for their exquisite scent. Each flower chosen for a lei is like a word in a sentence, contributing to a larger, unspoken narrative. Some leis go beyond floral elements and incorporate unique features like native bird feathers, shells, or intricate beads, each lending its own symbolism. These custom elements make each lei suitable for special events, ceremonies, or even as intricate hand-woven wreaths for ceremonial decor.

How Are Hawaiian Leis Made?

How Are Hawaiian Leis Made?

Creating a lei involves various methods, with eight common ways to string and arrange flowers or other materials. These methods include hili (braiding), haku (weaving), kui (piercing through the center of the flower), wili (twisting), hilo (twisting two strands), and others. The choice of method often depends on the materials being used and the desired aesthetic. Common flowers of Hawaiian leis include orchids, plumerias, pikake (jasmine), tuberose, carnations, and the vibrant yellow ilima.  

For more fragrant options, mokihana berries and maile leaves are sometimes incorporated. Each stitch and every flower carries intention, making the lei a crafted expression of care and significance. Orchid leis, for example, often feature exotic orchids, imbuing the lei with both beauty and complexity. Additional elements like bird feathers or leaves may also be added to enrich the design.


Is it OK for Non-Hawaiians to Wear a Lei?

Is it OK for Non-Hawaiians to wear a Lei?

Yes, it is generally acceptable for non-Hawaiians to wear a lei. A lei is a sign of affection and is often shared with visitors to the Hawaiian islands as a warm welcome. However, doing so carries the responsibility of honoring its rich tradition and the culture it comes from.

While it's an honor to receive or give a lei, understanding its cultural tradition and significance enhances the experience. Exploitative actions, like selling leis without acknowledging their cultural roots or wearing one as a mere fashion accessory without understanding its meaning, can be seen as disrespectful. Thus, wearing a lei should be an act of genuine engagement with Hawaiian culture.

When Is It Inappropriate to Wear a Lei?

When Is It Inappropriate to Wear a Lei?

Traditionally, leis are worn to mark joyful and significant occasions, but there are specific cultural taboos to consider. For example, in some traditions, pregnant or nursing women were advised not to wear leis made from plants like maile, due to beliefs about their spiritual properties. These views can vary from community to community, and it's always advisable to consult with cultural guides or experts if you have questions about this or other cultural practices.

However, it's worth noting that leis can indeed be appropriate and even respectful at funerals. Funeral leis often have specific symbolic meanings and can be made from specific types of materials and colors that reflect mourning and respect for the deceased. Green maile leis, which are especially popular in Maui due to the abundance of maile vines on the island, are often associated with spirituality and can be used at funerals to honor the departed. In this way, the wearing of leis at funerals aligns with their broader cultural role as symbols of respect, affection, and community ties.

Why are Leis Hung on Trees or Laid on Beaches in the Hawaiian Islands?

In Maui and throughout Hawaii, you may sometimes notice leis hung on trees or near the shores of beaches. This practice is deeply symbolic and carries cultural and spiritual weight. Leis may be hung as offerings to gods or ancestral spirits, particularly in places considered sacred. They may also serve as a tribute to the 'aina, or land, acknowledging the nourishment and beauty it provides. This act could symbolize respect for the ocean, which is a crucial element in Hawaiian culture.  

On a community level, hanging leis can mark gatherings, celebrations, or memorials, encapsulating wishes for unity and love within the 'ohana, or family. Importantly, this tradition should be approached with reverence and understanding of its cultural and spiritual context. Most importantly, biodegradable materials should be used, respecting the environmental essence of the island.


Hawaiian Leis: Frequently Asked Questions

Are leis only for special occasions?

While leis are often associated with special occasions like luaus, weddings, and school dances, they can also be given simply as a symbol of affection. In fact, it's common to see them at all types of events, both festive occasions and somber ones like funerals.

Do all leis have fresh flowers?

Not all leis are made from fresh flowers. Leis can be made from a variety of materials including leaves, shells, feathers, and even silk flowers. The type of flower used can often have personal significance or even affiliation with Hawaiian royalty.

Is it bad luck to refuse a lei?

In Hawaiian tradition, while not necessarily considered "bad luck," it can be considered disrespectful or impolite to refuse a lei. It's seen as rejecting the aloha spirit of the giver, or seen as rejecting these positive sentiments. However, there are circumstances, such as allergies or pregnancy, where it's acceptable to politely decline.

Do leis have bird features?

In ancient Hawaiian tradition, some leis did incorporate bird feathers into their design. These were often worn by Hawaiian royalty and had great cultural significance.

Are leis used in other cultures?

Yes, other Polynesian cultures, as well as some Asian cultures, have forms of the lei. In these cultures, similar garlands may be used for ceremonies, to honor guests, or as a sign of respect.


Hawaiian Leis: Honoring the Departed

Hawaiian Leis: Funerals & Honoring the Departed

In this dark hour for our community, understanding the role of the Hawaiian lei in expressing sorrow becomes particularly poignant. Traditionally, specific types of leis are chosen for memorial services and funerals. The maile lei, made from the fragrant leaves of the maile vine, is often used to symbolize respect for the deceased. These leis embody the collective memory of a community, serving as a reminder that even in death, the individual continues to be a part of the tapestry of life and culture.

During a funeral, the lei often serves a dual role. It not only honors the departed but also provides comfort to the bereaved. Wearing a lei at a funeral can act as a physical expression of a metaphysical connection, a bridge between the earthly and the spiritual, between those who have passed on and those they have left behind.

The choice of materials and colors in a funeral lei can also be a highly personalized tribute. Sometimes, flowers or elements that were dear to the departed are incorporated into the lei, offering a unique homage to an individual's life and passions. In this way, each lei becomes a story, a biography in blooms and leaves.

The beauty and scent of the lei during a funeral also serve to remind us of the fleeting nature of life, inspiring reflection and reverence. It's a practice that elevates our understanding of how to navigate the landscapes of grief and remembrance, teaching us that even in sorrow, there can be beauty, and even in loss, there can be a celebration of a life well-lived.

As we gather to say our final farewells, the lei becomes more than a garland of flowers and leaves; it transforms into a circle of love, encompassing everyone it touches. It's a symbol that even as we face the inevitable separations that life imposes, the lei teaches us that love, respect, and community can sustain us, making the burden of loss a shared experience rather than an isolated one.

Hawaiian Leis Green Maile

E hoʻomaha me ka maluhia. A Hui Hou.

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