The Evolution of the Lei

The leis of today are much like the leis worn in Old Hawaii when the first Polynesians settled the islands. The meaning and presentation of them has changed over the years even as the enthusiasm for their beauty has remained constant. Leis in Old Hawaii were largely used to show the status of the wearer and were presented by bowing down and holding out the lei for the recipient to take. During World War II, the tradition of presenting a Hawaiian lei by placing it over the head with a kiss on the cheek began. Today, leis are used for a wide range of occasions and any type of lei can be worn by anyone.

Leis in Old Hawaii

In Old Hawaii, leis were created from both permanent and temporary materials. Permanent leis were often made from ivory, bone, seeds, hair, teeth, shells and feathers. The temporary ones were made from leaves and flowers and have become the type revered all over the world for their beauty and fragrant smells. They were made from the lush plants around the islands such as vines, leaf stems, seaweed from the rich Hawaiian waters and flowers of every kind from every island. Many times, these leis were referenced as being created in a circle to symbolize love and the circle of a family unit. One reference, from the work Na Mele Welo, Songs of Our Heritage, said “Like a living, first-born child is love, a lei constantly desired and worn.”

Many of Old Hawaii’s leis were related to Hawaiian myths and religious customs. When the hala fruit is made into a lei, it is connected to love and desire and is related to transition and change. There are many who don’t wear leis made from hala fruit because it could bring them an unwanted change. Others who seek out change wear only these leis.

Many people wonder about the customs surrounding leis, particularly when it comes to weddings. However, the traditions that surround leis make it appropriate to give them for many occasions- not just for weddings. Whether it’s for love, to honor someone, out of respect or simply because you enjoy the look and smell of leis, you can choose the one that symbolizes what you’re looking for or simply choose the ones that match your tastes. Try the maile lei, the ti-leaf and leis made from kukui nuts to experience the rich heritage of leis. You can also try the rare haku that is made from fine native blooms.

The major types of lei were each related to different spirits and used for different reasons. The maile lei was related to the spirit of the hula dance and to represent Laka as well as other spirits who were sacred to Old Hawaii. The ti plant has a long tradition of being planted outside homes to keep evil spirits away. Ti stalks were also used to proclaim peace and to call a truce. A lei could be made from tying two ti leaves together and wearing the open lei around the neck. This type was worn by physicians and priests.

In Old Hawaii, the lei was presented in a different manner than today. It was considered disrespectful then to raise your hands higher than someone’s head, particularly when that someone was a member of royalty. To keep the ritual respectful, the lei was generally handed to the person who was being honored with it. Leis were often wrapped in a container made of ti leaves or other local leaves to keep the lei looking great and ready to be worn.

Leis in World War II

When World War II brought many people from the mainland to the islands, the customs regarding leis began to change. The story told about the beginning of the new way to present leis begins with a hula dancer who saw a handsome officer at a USO club. Her friends then dared her to walk up to him and kiss him. To accomplish this, she took off her lei and presented it to him with a kiss, telling him that it was the custom to give a kiss along with the lei. With this presentation, a new tradition was born that so many have enjoyed over the years.

Leis in Modern Hawaii

Today, modern Hawaii has kept the lei as a visible and intrinsic part of its daily life. Many types of flowers and plants are used to create the modern lei, and many different techniques are used in order to create them. Today, lei makers use flowers from anywhere in the world and use them together to create the best quality leis that are beautiful as well as long lasting.

Of today’s amazing lei creations, some of the most common ways that flowers are being incorporated into them are by using many types of orchids in leis. Today’s leis also use fragrant blossoms from India, Mexico and anywhere else that beautiful blooms grow. New techniques for creating leis have come from around Polynesia, and many new nuts and seeds have been introduced into the process.

The kika flower is a long-lasting flower that is now often used in leis. Other additions to the world of leis include money leis created in the Japanese style and leis made from Micronesian leaves. Many people enjoy making these leis and striving to create the best, most beautiful leis possible. Competitions for lei makers as well as demonstrations of the process are often held on May 1st of each year. In Hawaii, this is known as Lei Day. Through the competitions, modern lei makers learn about the latest techniques, and these ideas are passed along until they are adopted by the commercial lei market. A lei event in April, the Merrie Monarch Hula Competition is a spectacular annual event that allows people to see amazing leis as well as staging parades and other community events that celebrate Hawaii and the lei. From small Hawaiian towns to the bustle of Honolulu, there are other lei events throughout the year on various islands.