Hawaiian Lei Culture

October 16, 2012 3 Comments »

Lei shop sign

A common sight on Hawaii – a lei shop

While in in New York City for a month I’m dreaming about my next destination, the Hawaiian island of Lanai.  One of the things that struck me on my last trip to Hawaii was the culture and industry around leis.  A lei is basically any series of objects strung together with the intent to be worn. This explains why I received not only the more typical flower leis  but also some non-flower leis on my last visit.  However, the most popular concept of a lei in Hawaiian culture is a wreath of flowers draped around the neck presented upon arriving or leaving as a symbol of affection.

Leis are given for any important event in people’s lives.  Welcoming, birthdays, anniversaries, marriage, and births to name a few.  Since you receive leis upon arrival historically, that explains the fact that there are lei stands at the airport for locals to pick up their leis before picking up their guests.  They even had signs at the airport that pointed the way to the lei stands along with long term parking lots and rental car dropoffs.

Various designs and flowers for leis

Leis are made of various flowers and designs

Leis are found all over Hawaii

Leis are found drying all over Hawaii

Most are made by hand and the most common material is normally some sort of fresh flower. The fragrant plumeria was my favorite.  As I walked around Honolulu I saw ladies string them together (kui) en mass getting ready for a big occasion no doubt.

making a lei

Women make leis in China Town Honolulu

Stringing a lei

Making a lei is still done by hand

My hosts Mark and Ron informed me that a lei should never be thrown away casually, or tossed into the trash. Traditionally they are 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.  I chose to leave my many,many leis at a sacred place – a Heiau.

My many leis - ready to go to a good home

My many leis – ready to go to a good ‘home’

I left my leis at a Hieau

I left my leis at a sacred Hieau

Lei left on a gravesite in the Punch Bowl

Lei left on a gravesite in the Punch Bowl

Hawaii is one of the few places I’ve been where I’ve felt so welcomed  – and I”m pretty sure the leis had something to do with that!  I look forward to arriving in Lanai as their final New Media Artist in Residence beginning October 29th!


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