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The colorful flower garlands you often see people wearing in Hawaii are called lei. Leis are an important part of Hawaiian culture and make a beautiful accessory. If you’re wondering what exactly a lei Hawaii is and want to learn more, read on for a complete guide.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: A lei Hawaii is a wreath of flowers, leaves, seeds, nuts, feathers or shells worn as an accessory around the neck or head in Hawaii. Leis hold cultural and spiritual significance in Hawaiian traditions and are often given as a symbol of affection or to honor someone.

In this comprehensive article, we will cover everything you need to know about Hawaiian leis including:

The History and Significance of Leis in Hawaiian Culture

The origins of the traditional Hawaiian lei

Leis have a long and storied history in Hawaiian culture. According to Hawaiian legends, the first lei was created by Hi’iaka, the sister of the volcano goddess Pele, who made a lei out of flowers and leaves and gave it to her sister as a gift of love.

From these mythical beginnings, the tradition of making and giving lei became an integral part of Hawaiian customs.

Early Hawaiians made leis out of flowers, plants, shells, feathers, bones, teeth, and even hair. The materials were chosen according to their availability on each island. On O’ahu, popular lei choices included pikake,Puakenikeni flowers, while on Maui protea and bougainvillea were more common.

The skill of lei making was passed down in families, with each island developing their signature styles and techniques.

By the 19th century, visitors to the Hawaiian islands often wrote about the beautiful and fragrant leis they received as a symbol of the islands’ warm hospitality. Today, Hawaii is still renowned for its vibrant culture of lei giving on momentous occasions or as a simple, everyday expression of love and friendship.

The spiritual meaning and legends behind leis

In old Hawaii, leis were much more than beautiful accessories. Each lei carried spiritual meaning relating to Hawaiian mythology and was used ceremonially to honor the gods, symbolize ranks and status, offer blessings, and adorn places, objects and people with the mana or divine power of the plants it contained.

According to legends, the sweet smell of some flower leis were meant to lure Hawaiian gods close in rituals so they could absorb the prayers and mana being offered.

Different types of Hawaiian leis also signified hierarchal levels in society. Leis made of maile leaves or ava stems were symbols of high social status often worn by alii (royalty) and kahuna (priests and healers).

More simple kui leis made of woven ferns or shells were commonly worn among Hawaiian commoners.

Finally, it is believed that as a lei-wearer dances and perspires, their mana leaches into the lei so that when removed, the lei carries part of their spiritual essence. This is why it’s considered disrespectful to throw these leis on the ground after use.

How leis are used in Hawaiian customs and ceremonies

Leis remain an integral part of Hawaiian customs and ceremonies today. From birthdays to weddings to graduations to retirement parties, most momentous life events in Hawaii are celebrated by the presentation of leis.

Even upon death, many Hawaiians are buried with a maile lei draped over their caskets.

As a symbol of love and respect, it is also Hawaiian tradition to present a lei to honored guests. This is why nearly all visitors to Hawaii’s airports today are greeted with the gift of a fresh flower lei as soon as they step off the plane.

Important dignitaries are also customarily welcomed with a lei ceremony upon arrival.

Leis may be given as casual, everyday gifts as well. Children make leis for their parents, romantic interests exchange leis to signify affection, and leis are commonly traded as tokens of friendship and caring between people of all ages and backgrounds.

So the next time you’re in Hawaii, keep an eye out for this enduring cultural icon. Each delicate flower and leaf of life speaks volumes about the islands’ generous spirit and vibrant living history.

Common Materials Used to Make Leis

The vibrant colors and sweet scents of Hawaiian leis beautifully capture the Aloha spirit. These ornate garlands come in incredible variety, crafted from local fauna ranging from vivid blossoms to intricately braided vines.

Common lei materials reflect both traditional Hawaiian culture and the islands’ rich biodiversity.

Flower Leis – Plumeria, Orchids, etc.

Flower leis remain the most quintessential Hawaiian icon. Their bright petals and sweet perfume encapsulate the islands’ warmth and welcoming spirit. The two most popular blossoms are fragrant frangipani (plumeria) and stunning orchids.

Other frequently used flowers include pikake, carnations, roses, and tuberose.

Leaf and Vine Leis

In addition to vivid blooms, Hawaiian artisans craft gorgeous garlands from local plant life. Intricately woven maile vines emit a soft, forest-like scent. Glossy green ti or ki leaves add vivid color and represent strength. Ferns like palapalai and hala pepe narrow leaves add delicate texture.

Seed, Nut, and Shell Leis

Lei makers also incorporate natural beauty from the land and sea. The small red berries of the kukui tree shine like drops of blood or ink. Polished kukui nuts symbolize enlightenment and peace. Intricately strung pupu shell and puka shell garlands reflect the islands’ marine bounty.

Feather and Whale Tooth Leis

Feather and whale tooth leis hold deep cultural meaning for Native Hawaiians. Vibrant feathers from endemic forest birds like the i’iwi and ʻapapane honor Aliʻi (royalty). Polished sperm whale teeth represent strength, endurance, and good fortune.

Both feather and whale tooth leis are rare and extremely precious.

Lei Type Common Materials Meaning
Flower Plumeria, orchids, carnations Aloha, celebration
Leaf/Vine Maile, ti, ferns Strength, greeting
Seed/Nut/Shell Kukui, puka shells Wisdom, nature
Feather/Whale Tooth I’iwi feathers, sperm whale teeth Royalty, endurance

Whether crafted from vivid blossoms, woven vines, polished nuts, or rare feathers, Hawaiian leis encapsulate the Aloha spirit through natural beauty and cultural symbolism.

How to Make Your Own Lei

Gather your materials from nature or purchase supplies

The most traditional lei are made from natural materials gathered in Hawaii, like flowers, leaves, seeds, shells, and feathers. Popular flowers include plumeria, orchids, carnations, and pikake. Ti leaves, maile vines, ferns and palm fronds are also commonly used.

If you don’t live in Hawaii, you can order supplies online or visit your local craft store. high-quality lei material kits with the essential components, including pre-cut leaves, vibrant flowers, needle and thread are available for purchase.

Some kits even include Hawaiian music and easy step-by-step lei-making guides.

Prepare materials properly for stringing

Once you have your lei ingredients, you’ll need to prepare them before stringing. For fresh flower lei like plumeria and carnation, remove excess foliage from the flowers so the blossoms can be strung close together. Trim any thorns as well.

Soak delicate buds like orchids and gardenias overnight before stringing so they last longer.

For leaf and vine lei like ti leaves, hala and maile, wipe dirt off the leaves. Trim leaves into 6-12 inch sections. Soak leaves in water to make them pliable. For seed lei using job’s tears and lau hala nuts, clean and polish seeds before stringing.

Stringing techniques for different lei types

There are a few common techniques used to string lei, depending on the materials used:

  • Knotting: Best for heavy flowers with sturdy stems like plumeria, carnations or roses. Tie each blossom securely with a double knot.
  • Sewing: Ideal for more delicate materials like orchids, pikake, leaves and vines. Use a needle and nylon thread (traditionally fishing line) to string through materials.
  • Braiding: Works well for ferns, ti leaves and vines. Weave pieces together to form a braid, then secure ends with knotting or sewing.

The way a lei is strung and knotted is considered an art form in Hawaiian culture. With an experienced hand and high quality lei material, gorgeous lei with hundreds of pieces can be crafted.

Tips to make your lei long-lasting

Follow these tips for making lei that will last longer:

  • Use fishing line, sinew thread or nylon thread instead of cotton thread
  • String flowers and materials tightly together
  • Prep leaves by scraping off shiny backs with a knife or shell to help them absorb more moisture
  • Mist lei with water and keep refrigerated when not being worn
  • Consider using flower preservatives or commercial products like Flower Care or Chemique to help extend the life of your fresh lei.

The spirit of aloha is beautifully captured in a handmade Hawaiian lei. With some creativity and patience, you can craft gorgeous, long-lasting lei to share with ohana (family) and friends.

Lei Etiquette and How to Wear a Lei

Proper lei etiquette when giving and receiving leis

When presenting a lei, it is proper etiquette to drape the lei gently over the recipient’s head, allowing the lei to rest on their shoulders. It is considered rude to toss or drop a lei over someone’s head. As you present the lei, say “Aloha” and share a warm smile.

The recipient should bow their head slightly to allow the lei to be placed. Once received, the recipient can adjust the lei to sit comfortably.

According to Hawaiian tradition, it is impolite to refuse a lei when presented as a gift or symbol of affection. But if offered in a business situation, it is acceptable to politely refuse – especially if you have allergies to flowers.

The significance behind a lei makes removing it in front of the giver rude. Wait until later to take it off if needed.

Different ways to wear leis based on type and occasion

How you wear a lei depends on the occasion and lei type. On formal occasions, floral leis are traditionally worn hanging evenly around the neck. For casual everyday wear, leis may be worn loosely draped on one shoulder.

Shell leis are versatile accessories that can be worn long and loose or wrapped twice around the neck for a choker-style necklace.

The occasion also dictates lei length. Long, formal floral leis that reach your abdomen are fitting for ceremonies and celebrations. Shorter leis are ideal for casual gatherings. At luaus, multiple short kukui nut leis are stacked from neck to chest for festive flair.

Bold feather leis make dramatic fashion statements when draped across shoulders.

Caring for your lei to make it last longer

To extend the lifespan of your floral lei, keep it refrigerated until ready to wear. Before putting it on, remove any leaves and trim the stems. Avoid getting the lei wet to prevent wilting. If needed, use floral spray to refresh the blooms.

Handle the lei gently when putting it on and taking it off to avoid crushing the petals or breaking stems.

Leis made from materials like shells, seeds, and feathers are durable keepsakes. To clean, dust them with a soft brush. Store in a dry, cool place away from direct sunlight. To prevent feather damage, lay feather leis flat instead of hanging.

Cover with a pillowcase to prevent dust buildup and maintain vibrant colors over time.

Where to Buy Leis When Visiting Hawaii

Airport lei stands

One of the most convenient places to buy fresh, fragrant leis is at the airport lei stands when you arrive in Hawaii.

  • Honolulu International Airport has several lei vendors right near the gates and baggage claim offering colorful leis at affordable prices.
  • They sell the common leis made from vibrant orchids, plumerias, carnations, or maile leaves, as well as special keepsake leis using shells, nuts, and seeds.
  • Leis make wonderful first gifts to welcome guests to the islands, so picking some up at the airport as soon as you land is highly recommended.

    Local flower markets and shops

    Visiting any of Hawaii’s bustling outdoor flower markets or floral supply shops lets you see leis being handmade on the spot.

  • Nalo Farms near Waimanalo on Oahu has a sprawling outdoor market with leis, loose flowers, and plants for sale from local growers.
  • Hilo on the Big Island hosts a daily Moongate Market where leis of rare Hawaiian foliage like palapalai ferns or maile vines can be found.
  • These local hotspots let you support small businesses while finding unique leis to commemorate your Hawaiian vacation.

    Lei vendors at luaus and events

    Luaus and other Hawaiian cultural events typically feature local lei artisans selling their intricate creations on site.

  • A typical commercial luau provides fresh flower or kukui nut leis for guests when they arrive.
  • The Merrie Monarch Festival on Hawaii Island celebrates hula with an extensive craft fair where attendees can browse top-quality lei and accessories from respected crafters across the islands.
  • These colorful events offer atmospheres steeped in Hawaiian tradition and opportunities to get limited-edition leis to mark the occasion.

    Lei artisans selling handmade leis

    For premium, custom-designed Hawaiian leis, lei artisans craft one-of-a-kind pieces that make extraordinary gifts and keepsakes.

    Masters such as Marie McDonald on Maui pluck rare Hawaiian foliage like the golden hinahina from remote valleys, then hand-stitch each intricate lei to order.

  • A single unique fern and blossom lei from an esteemed Hawaiian lei designer generally costs $100-200.
  • Custom lei sellers at Waikiki’s International Marketplace create personalized combinations of flowers, nuts, seeds, and shells while you watch.
  • For once-in-a-lifetime Hawaiian mementos, custom-made leis from respected local artisans are well worth the price.


    Leis are more than just beautiful garlands – they represent the Aloha spirit and connect us to Hawaiian lands and traditions. Now that you know exactly what a lei Hawaii is and how much culture is woven into each flower, leaf or nut, you can better appreciate their significance when visiting the islands.

    Whether you make your own lei from natural materials or purchase one handcrafted by artisans, wear your lei with respect. Let the fragrant petals and tactile materials transport you to the Hawaiian way of living rooted in community, nature and the expression of love.

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