Each year in Hawai’i, on May 1st, May Day is joyously celebrated statewide, sharing in the aloha spirit and tradition of the Hawaiian flower lei.
Lei (garland or wreath) making, using flowers, nuts, seeds, leaves, shells or feathers, is a Hawaiian custom and art form passed down throughout the generations. In traditional style, these garlands were worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify themselves and distinguish themselves from others. Among other sacred uses, it was also used to signify a peace agreement between opposing chiefs. When presented, the mana (spirit) of the lei maker is said to pass to its wearer.
The first official Lei Day was In 1928, when poet Don Blanding recognized that the act of giving a lei was being embraced all over the world, and thought Hawaii should have a day set aside to celebrate the flower lei and honor Hawaiian culture. Princess Helen Kawananākoa (pictured far right below) told Blanding, “Indeed, I do approve of the idea. I think it is a beautiful thought and you may count on me for anything you want to help it along.” May Day was seen as the perfect day for Lei Day because many varieties of flowers would be in bloom and it would make May Day a colorful day and occasion. Thus coining the phrase “May Day is Lei Day.”
*historic photos courtesy of Hawaii State Archives
There are a couple of unspoken rules of etiquette that one should know when receiving or offering a lei, in a May Day celebration or in general, for the first time. A lei is a welcomed celebration of one person’s affection to another. Therefore, one should always accept a lei, and never refuse it. The proper way to wear and to give a lei is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back. It is considered rude to remove a lei from your neck in the presence of the person who gave it to you. It is also customary to give a person a kiss on the cheek or hug when presenting the lei.
Across all of the Hawaiian islands, May Day is typically celebrated by schools with hula dancing, songs and other activities honoring the special day. All throughout the islands, people join in celebrations including live music, lei competitions, local food and shopping, to honor the holiday.
You can make your May Day Lei Day special by stringing together your own flower lei using any of the multitude of beautiful native flowers found right here in Hawai’i, for yourself and a loved one!