A Brief History of the Lei

When you landed on Maui, it’s quite possible you received a lei. If not, you’re at least familiar with them, right? Why do people share leis in Hawaii? Where did they come from? Here is a quick history of the lei in Hawaii.

In the Hawaiian language, the word “lei” means garland or wreath. Ancient Hawaiians wore leis made of leaves, flowers, shells and feathers as accessories, much like we wear jewelry today. They also wore leis made of bones, teeth, sticks and kukui nuts. Though, the kukui nut lei was only worn by royalty. Leis were often presented to honor friends and gods. Today, people still throw leis into volcanoes as an offering to Pele, the volcano goddess.

It was during the late 19th century that visitors arriving by steamship were first presented with leis as they stepped off the boat. The visitors would keep their leis for the duration of their trips. Then, when heading home, as the ship departed they would toss their leis into the ocean as sign of luck that they would one day return to the Islands.

Today, leis are given for basically every life event in a person’s life: births, birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals, friendship, and of course, love. The most common flowers used in making “na lei”, the plural form of lei in Hawaiian, are plumeria, orchids and tuberose. Hula dancers will often incorporate maile and ti leaves, as well ferns. Beyond flowers, basically anything that can be strung together, from shells to bones to feathers to candy to origami, can be used during the lei making process.

Traditionally, we do not throw away leis as they represent love, and to throw away a lei is to throw away the love of the person who presented it. So, if you were given a lei while here on Maui, while we no longer throw them into the ocean (the strings can entangle ocean life), find a place to hang the lei like trees and large rocks, bury it, or even burn it… with love, of course!