By Kait Hanson
April 30, 2019
Courtesy of Meleana Estes

While May Day—which falls every year on May 1st—has long been associated with spring baskets, garlands, and even the occasional maypole dance, another floral celebration on the same day has been in force in the Hawaiian islands for 90 years. It also has a fantastic, unforgettable name: Lei Day.

What Is Lei Day in Hawaii?

Anyone who has been lucky enough to arrive anywhere in Hawaii has likely been gifted the famed garland or crown of blooms, greenery, and other organic material, which is synonymous with welcome and aloha. In the late 1920s, a few locals had the notion to wear lei around town on May 1st; writer Grace Tower Warren suggested that a celebration of lei coincide with May Day forevermore and coined the rhyming name so no one could forget. In 1929, the holiday was made official.

How Is Lei Day Celebrated?

Each of the Hawaiian Islands honors the day in their own meaningful way, complete with flowers representative of that island.

  • Hawai’i Island: red lehua blossom
  • Maui: pink Lokelani
  • O’ahu: yellow ‘Ilima
  • Kaua’i: green mokihana berry, but is often represented as a purple color
  • Moloka’i: green Kukui
  • Lana’i: orange-yellow Kauna’oa
  • Kahoolawe: silver Hinahina
  • Niihau: Pupu shell

O’ahu hosts the largest Lei Day fête, with hula dancing, food vendors, live music, and lei demonstrations and competitions, in Queen Kapi’olani Park in Waikiki. The event is free to the public.

The celebratory spirit of the day transcends generations and welcomes both locals and tourists alike to take part in traditions that make Hawaii so special. Lei are gifted and schools nominate Lei Day courts of kings and queens.

“Growing up here, a school May Day celebration was yellow Plumeria lei, Hawaiian music, classes performing hula, parents watching in Mu’umu’u—it was the celebratory spirit of the day," says Meleana Estes, a third-generation lei maker based on O’ahu. "The smell of a plumeria lei takes me right back to that wonderful feeling."

What Is the History and Meaning of Lei?

Traditional lei, worn around the neck, and haku lei, or lei po’o, traditionally worn around the crown of the head, are steeped in history and represent the ultimate expression of kindness and aloha.

Lei in Polynesian culture can be traced back to ancient Hawaiians who wove them not just from plumeria and pikake blooms, but from sticks, shells, leaves, bones, and even kukui nuts (reserved only for royalty). Adorning oneself with a lei was a means of beautification and distinguishing you from others.

Today, the tradition of lei making and gifting signifies friendship, love, and welcoming.

“Making a lei for someone, whether for a birthday, wedding, or just because you are thinking of them, takes time and thought, and we put our own love and aloha into the making of that lei before we share it,” says Estes. 

Estes got her love of flowers and technique of lei making from her tutu, Hawaiian for grandmother.

“She taught me so many little tricks about caring for flowers and lei prep, but it was her care about the recipient of the lei that I admired,” says Estes.

“She would think of their favorite color or one associated with the occasion being celebrated and incorporate it. Or she would drive an extra 20 minutes to pick up 10 white ginger buds, which would be the smallest detail in a lei, but essential to include because that was the recipient’s favorite flower. She was so diligent and thoughtful in her craft.”

While Estes crafts leis for sale, she also leads workshops and private classes, which is a wonderful opportunity to connect with the care and patience that goes into creating such a special object.

“I love teaching to visitors and always encourage them to make lei in their own home and take the tradition with them,” says Estes. “Lei making in a group setting is special too in that it becomes a time when people, sit, slow down, their hands are occupied, so no phones, and they can just enjoy the process and people they are making lei alongside.”

So whether it's for Lei Day or any day (and with flights to Hawaii cheaper than ever and Southwest launching island routes), there's no time like the present for a little flower power, Hawaiian style.

Related: The Perfect Weekend on Hawai'i Island:

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