Thursday, September 14, 2023

Lore of leis -- Hawaii's welcoming floral necklace has proud history

Wearing leis at Hilton Hawaiian Village are Bruce William Keller and Christene "Cookie" Meyers.
The lei is an ancient tradition of welcome, love, respect and friendship in the Hawaiian culture.



Lei making is taught in many hotels and resorts in Hawaii.  At both
Hilton Waikoloa Village on the Big Island and in Rainbow Tower,
Hilton Hawaiian Village in Honolulu, the art of lei making is taught
in popular complimentary classes several times a week.

THE LEI is as much a part of Hawaiian culture as the luau, ukulele or hula.
In fact, the lei is part of a luau, and a proud hula accompaniment.
It is primarily Hawaii's colorful custom of welcome, introduced to the Islands by early Polynesian voyagers centuries ago.
When they made their remarkable journey from Tahiti, they brought the tradition of floral and shell necklaces with them.
Navigating by the stars in sailing canoes, they created leis soon after landing, as a thank you to the gods for their safe arrival.
With these early settlers, the lei tradition in Hawaii was born. and is still a much loved part of the culture.
LEIS ARE used at parties, luaus, celebrations. They are also present in memorial services and funerals. Often dozens of leis are tossed gently into the waters during  burials at sea.
Leis can be constructed of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even bone and teeth of various animals. At a luau, the chief wears a magnificent one, sometimes several.
In ancient Hawaiian tradition, these garlands were worn by royalty and the wealthy, to beautify themselves and set them apart from others.
Leaves of the fragrant maile vine
are a popular presence at weddings. 

A memorial to Queen Lili'uokalani is honored
with the placement of shell and flower leis.

The lei also played a part in religion, politics and peace making. 
A happy Texas family wears leis created in a Hilton resort class.
Hotels keep the lei tradition by teaching how to make them.
In ancient times, the exchange of maile leis signified a peace agreement between opposing chiefs. In the heiau or temple, the chiefs symbolically intertwined the green maile vine, showing their people that peace now prevailed between the two groups.
The indigenous maile vine is also used in leis for bridal couples. The fragrant maile is found in wet forests in all the Hawaiian Islands. It has striking dark green leaves and when the stems are stripped of bark, maile's fresh, pungent scent blossoms forth with the leaves tied into loose open knots.
DURING THE “Boat Days” of the early 1900s, lei vendors lined the pier at Aloha Tower to welcome malihini -- visitors -- to the islands. They were also used to send kama’aina or locals back home. Departing visitors still throw their leis into the sea as their ships pass Diamond Head. This is done in the hopes that, like the lei, the tides will return visitors to the islands again someday.

Leis abound at the Honolulu airport, where visitors buy one
for themselves, or hosts often pick one up to greet a guest.

TODAY'S VISITORS to Hawaii recall the nostalgia of old Hawaii by purchasing a traditional flower lei greeting at their arrival. Greeters welcome visitors at the port and airport with a warm “aloha” of a  beautiful fresh lei, a wonderful way to begin a Hawaiian vacation.
Since the flourishing of tourism, following World War II, the lei has become the symbol of Hawaii to millions of visitors worldwide.
Bruce Keller admires his first attempt 
at making his own orchid lei.
There are very few “rules” when it comes to wearing a Hawaiian lei. Anyone can wear one, anytime – there need not be an occasion. It is perfectly fine for one to purchase or make a lei for themselves. It is common for locals to have a nut, seed or shell lei on hand for special occasions. And hats are often adorned with flower, fern or feather leis.
There are, however, a couple of unspoken rules one should know when receiving a lei for the first time. A lei should be a welcomed celebration of one person’s affection for another. It is considered rude and disrespectful to decline the offering of a lei. 
"One should always accept a lei, never refuse," one expert lei maker told us. She also instructed on the proper way to wear a lei.  
Elaborate feather capes, headdresses and leis
played a key role in ancient royal traditions,
as this painting at the Bishop Museum shows. 

It is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down on both front and back.  Many first-time "lei wearers" wear it as a necklace, with the lei hanging snugly around the neck, dangling in front only.
It should be draped equally around front and back.
The floral lei is an important part of a luau, here
at Waikoloa. Oahu's Hawaiian Village also offers
a popular luau with a colorful welcome lei.

It is considered rude to remove a lei in the presence of the person who gave it to  you. If you must remove it -- for allergies or other reasons -- you must be discreet.
Hilton properties host world class luaus and lei-making lessons where you'll create your own lei.

The Allen Elizabethan Theatre is one of three at OSF.

UP NEXT: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been a staple in America's arts for more than 75 years. Founded by an enterprising Scotsman, Angus Bowmer, the Tony winning festival is fighting back from a disastrous blow struck by the pandemic and fires.  The show must go on so millions are being raised for the theater complex to  continue its outstanding work.  The 2023 season is less than the usual 8 or 10 productions; there have been staffing changes and layoffs but the festival is fighting back. We visited and enjoyed. Remember to explore, learn and live and catch us weekly for a fresh spin on nature, travel, the arts, family and more. 




  1. The lei has wonderful history. Thanks.

  2. We go often, easy trip from the Bay Area. Always appreciate the lei welcome.

  3. We use leis to welcome our mainland cousins. Always appreciated.