What Does the Hawaiian Lei Symbolize?

Giving a lei in Hawaii is almost as special as receiving one. Leis are a symbol of love, respect, welcoming, or appreciation. They are traditionally given to mark special occasions such as the birth of a child or other birthday, to recognize an achievement or show honor to a public figure, along with just showing warm feelings on just about any occasion. Over the years, giving a fresh flower lei to arriving visitors has become a popular way to welcome them with the spirit of Aloha.

Leis are not always made of flowers. Many materials can be hand-woven into a loop, such as feathers, shells or other plant materials. Men might wear a maile lei on their wedding day, which isn’t circular at all. A long string of woven, dark green vine leaves, the maile lei is worn as an open-ended lei draped loosely around the shoulders. It has a unique spicy and earthy scent from the rainforest jungles of Hawaii. Maile is associated with Laka, the goddess of hula, was also coveted by Hawaiian royalty, and symbolically used to bring peace to warring factions. So how did it get incorporated into modern weddings?

Prince Alexander. CC license

The maile lei is also a symbol of courtship and love. In ancient Hawaii, a wahine would deposit one on the doorstep of the kane she hoped to marry, which also announced her intentions to the whole village.  During a traditional wedding ceremony, the kapuna (priest) binds the hands of the bride and groom together with a strand of maile to symbolize their commitment and union.

There is much more history in the tradition of giving a Hawaiian lei. The journals of Captain Cook were first to document lei giving in 1779, though the practice is believed to go back several centuries before this written document.

Queen Emma. CC license

Our early understanding of this aspect of Hawaiian culture is regarding the lei wearer’s social rank, and could be read by  both the type of flower used and how the lei was woven.

Several lei rituals have carried forward to today, including weaving a lei to ask the gods for safety when traveling or fishing or for fertile crops. Some may choose to include a lei in an offering  to various deities and spirits on a shrine or heiau. The first of May is Lei Day in Hawaii, honoring these traditions.

Lei services can be arranged at the airport, or leis can be purchased at most nearby grocery stores. When you arrive at your condominium, laying the lei on a counter or table will spread fragrance throughout the room. If you choose to set your lei free in the ocean when it begins to wilt, please remove the string and any plastic connector- these are harmful to marine life.

In the tropical paradise of Maui, the beautiful, scented flowers given to visitors is not only lovely to wear, but helps keep important cultural traditions alive. Those that get “leid” in Maui are destined to return again and again.

2022-09-27T06:04:02+00:00September 14th, 2021|Culture, Travel|

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