May Day is Lei Day.
In 1927 resident poet at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin Don Blanding had an idea for a new holiday. As he explained in his 1930 book Hula Moons, “the bright idea that I presented was, "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 for remembering old friends, renewing neglected contacts, with the slogan "Aloha," allowing that flexible word to mean friendliness on that day.” The idea was a hit and by 1929 it was made an official holiday on the first of every May, leading to the slogan, “May Day is Lei Day.”
While lei are widely associated with Hawaii today, they came to the islands by way of Polynesia during the settlement period that lasted from 750 AD to 1300. Polynesians across the South Pacific traditionally honored their gods by braiding greens into wreaths and decorating themselves with garlands of flowers and vines. As they travelled and began to settle on the islands of Hawaii, they brought their traditions with them, including the fragrant flowers used in their religious customs.
But then the influx of new settlers ceased and from 1300 until 1778 Hawaii entered a period of intense cultural isolation. Left to their own devices, Hawaiians developed a larger range of lei types and uses than anywhere else in Polynesia.
This close association with Hawaii is exactly what made Blanding choose the lei to build a holiday around. “Hawai`i observed all of the mainland holidays as well as those of a number of the immigrant nationalities in the Islands. But there was no day that was peculiarly and completely Hawaii's own,” he further explained in Hula Moons.
But if you’re thinking Hawaii honors its national heritage with the cheap, plastic lei you can buy at gas stations, banish that thought immediately. Authentic lei are created with fresh flowers, vines, leaves, ferns and sometimes even shells, nuts, fish bones and feathers. Lei are often crafted with fragrance in mind so flowers like Arabian jasmine (pikake), plumeria (melia) and stephanotis (Madagascar jasmine, pua male) are common lei materials. However, the most common flower used in lei making is the orchid (okika) and thanks to its introduction from Protestant missionaries in the 1800s, carnations (ponimo’i) are also fairly common.
Each island within the state is associated with its own type of lei and during Lei Day these associations to both color and flower are used during the pageantry. Hawai’i is represented by the color red and lei made from ōhiʻa lehua (a flower from an evergreen tree in the myrtle family). Maui gets the pink lokelani (commonly known as the damask rose) while Kaho’olawe gets the silver or gray hinahina (Polynesian heliotrope). Lānaʻi is symbolized by orange kauna’oa (cuscuta of the morning glory family) and O’ahu by yellow or gold ‘ilima (a flowering plant in the hibiscus family). Moloka’i is represented by green kukui (a flowering tree in the spurge family) and Kaua’i is represented by purple mokihana (meilcope). Ni’ihau is the only island not represented by a flower and instead uses white pupu shells for its lei.
In ancient times lei were reserved for royalty and denoted rank within the upper class, but today lei are for everyone and represent the spirit of aloha, i.e. affection, respect, honor and love. Lei are typically given to honor significant milestones such as weddings, graduations and birthdays.
In the spirit of aloha, lei first rose to fame beyond the islands due to its use as a way of greeting. Tourists would be greeted on the shores with a lei and tradition held that when departing the island by boat one should throw the lei into the ocean to ensure that, like the lei floated back to the shore, you too would someday return to Hawaii.
But even if you decide not to partake in that tradition, lei etiquette requires certain adherence to the customs. Lei are made entirely by hand, more intricate designs can take days to complete, and Hawaiians believe a piece of the maker goes into each lei so it is considered extremely rude to refuse one. Similarly, you cannot take off your lei in view of the person who gave it to you and once you are done with the lei it cannot be thrown away, but must be returned to the earth. This is usually done by hanging it from a tree, burying it or throwing it into the ocean.
Since 1929 Lei Day has grown and now includes lei making competitions, live music and a Queen of Lei Day pageant. Of course the day is also filled with gifts of lei to convey love, joy, hope and every other feeling that captures the spirit of aloha. And while, like all flowers, the gift won’t last forever, the sentiment will.