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May Day is a public holiday celebrated on May 1st every year in Hawaii. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: May Day in Hawaii is Lei Day, a celebration of Hawaiian culture where people wear lei garlands and participate in hula dancing and music festivals.

In this comprehensive 3000 word guide, we will uncover the origins and traditions behind Lei Day, explain the significance of May 1st to Hawaiian history, detail the popular public festivities and events that happen across the islands, and highlight the cultural importance of this special holiday.

The Origins and History Behind Lei Day in Hawaii

How May Day Became Lei Day in Hawaii

The tradition of Lei Day in Hawaii grew out of the May Day celebrations that were happening in the continental United States in the early 1900s. As Hawaiian culture experienced a resurgence in the islands, the traditional May Day festival was transformed into a celebration of Hawaiian culture, with a special emphasis on lei and Hawaiian music and dance.

According to the Native Hawaiian Hospitality Association, the first Lei Day celebrations were organized in 1927 in Honolulu by poet and civic leader Don Blanding and local journalist Grace Tower Warren as a way to encourage Hawaiian cultural pride.

What started as a small local festival grew over the years into a larger statewide event.

King David Kalakaua’s Contribution and the Merrie Monarch Festival

The Hawaiian cultural renaissance that helped give rise to Lei Day wasdue in large part to the efforts of King David Kalakaua in the late 1800s to revive many aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture like the hula, Hawaiian music, arts, and mythology that had been suppressed after the arrival of Christian missionaries.

Today, Hawaii’s Merrie Monarch Festival, which began in 1964 and is dedicated to King Kalakaua, helps honor his legacy by hosting an annual week-long hula competition and festivities that exemplify Hawaiian music, crafts, and customs.

The timing of the festival also coincides with Lei Day celebrations, making it a focal point for cultural events.

The Evolution of Lei Day Celebrations Over Time

From those early beginnings in 1927, Lei Day celebrations have expanded over the decades to become a beloved tradition across Hawaii. While the first Lei Day events were mainly centered in Honolulu, neighbor islands also began hosting local celebrations.

Each island puts its own unique spin on the festivities – from lei contests and Hawaiian music performances on Oahu, to aquatic sports competitions on Maui. But common threads run throughout, like special lei-making workshops and opportunities for residents and visitors alike to experience Hawaiian food, dance, and customs.

Today, the gathering of Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians during the Lei Day festivities demonstrates an ongoing bridging of cultures and shared appreciation for the islands’ host culture. Just as the many colorful lei bring a vibrant diversity, the aloha spirit of the islands continues to unite all in celebration.

The Cultural Significance of Lei in Hawaii

The Hawaiian Art of Crafting Lei Garlands

The craft of making Hawaiian lei garlands is an important cultural tradition passed down through generations. Skilled lei makers use various local flowers, leaves, seeds, nuts, and even feathers to create beautiful, symbolic pieces of wearable art.

The process of gathering materials and stringing a lei by hand is meditative and spiritual. According to old Hawaiian legends, the first lei was created by Hi’iaka, goddess of healing, who strung frangipani flowers together to form a bikini top.

Though lei-making was originally done by noble women called lei wahine, today both men and women carry on the tradition.

The Different Plants Used to Make Lei

There are many endemic Hawaiian plants used in lei-making, each with special meanings. Fragrant flowers like pikake (Arabian jasmine), puakenikeni (crepe ginger), and tuberose convey love and affection. Ferns like palapalai symbolize longevity and strength.

Seeds and nuts like kukui represent enlightenment and peace. Feathers were traditionally worn by Hawaiian royalty. More exotic, imported flowers like orchids, carnations, and roses are incorporated into modern lei designs.

The materials, colors, and style of crafting all contribute to the symbolism and intended message of each lei.

The Symbolism Behind Lei in Hawaiian Traditions

In old Hawaii, lei garlands and wreaths held great cultural significance. They were used to honor royalty, welcome visitors, celebrate milestones, show affection, and even make peace during war times. Today, the tradition continues at graduations, weddings, festivals, and other events.

Receiving a lei still represents being crowned with love and spiritual blessings. During May Day celebrations, lei are freely given in a showing of aloha spirit. As Mark Twain once wrote after visiting Hawaii, “the air was filled with the perfume of flowers…those cream-colored wreaths ‘lei garlands’ rested like haloes on every human brow…” To locals, nothing encapsulates the islands’ vibrant culture and warm welcome quite like a beautiful, handmade Hawaiian lei.

Popular Public Festivities and Events on Lei Day

Lei Draping Ceremonies and Contests

Lei draping ceremonies kick off the festivities on Lei Day across Hawaii. Ceremonies take place at historic landmarks like the statue of King Kamehameha in Honolulu, where local officials drape vibrant flower leis around the statue. Lei draping shows respect for Hawaiian history and culture.

Contests are also held for the best lei designs. Entries are judged on creativity, craftsmanship, and use of native Hawaiian flowers and materials. Prizes are awarded in amateur and professional categories.

Hula Dancing and Music Performances

No Lei Day celebration would be complete without hula! Stages are set up for halau (hula groups) to perform ancient and modern hula dances in colorful costumes. Some tell stories passed down over generations. Upbeat music from ukulele bands, guitarists, and singers fills the air.

The rhythms get crowds clapping and dancing along. Performances showcase Hawaii’s living culture and the beauty of hula.

A Family Friendly Holiday Atmosphere

Lei Day offers fun for keiki (children) and the whole ohana (family). Booths sell Hawaiian food like shave ice, kalua pork, and poke bowls. Arts and crafts activities teach kids how to make flower leis and other cultural items.

Exciting contests range from hula dancing to the long-standing tradition of “Who Can Wear the Most Leis?” In 2022, elementary teacher Kua Patten-Shim set a new record wearing over 4,500 leis! With vibrant colors and fragrances, live music, and hands-on crafts, Lei Day creates delight for all ages.

For over 90 years, Lei Day has brought locals and visitors together to honor Hawaiian culture. While celebrations take different forms across the islands, the holiday atmosphere and spirit of aloha stays the same.

Fragrant leis, swaying hula, island treats, and family bonding make Lei Day a beloved tradition through the generations.

How People Celebrate Lei Day Across the Islands

O’ahu Lei Day Celebrations in Honolulu

O’ahu hosts the largest and most famous Lei Day celebrations in Hawaii. The highlight is the lei draping ceremony of the King Kamehameha Statue in downtown Honolulu. Thousands gather as local officials drape vibrant flower leis over the iconic statue.

Live Hawaiian music and hula dancing entertain spectators throughout the day. Many attendees wear colorful Hawaiian shirts or dresses and creative lei for the festivities.

Other O’ahu Lei Day events include a lei contest at the Royal Hawaiian Center mall, a lei exhibition at the Hawai’i State Art Museum, and cultural demonstrations at the Bishop Museum. The fun lasts all day with craft fairs, food booths, and music across Waikīkī.

Maui’s Annual May Day Festival in Lahaina

The island of Maui hosts an annual May Day festival in the historic whaling town of Lahaina. The festivities kick off with a floral parade through downtown led by the Queen Liliʻuokalani troupe. Spectators sport their best and brightest lei creations to compete for prizes across multiple categories.

After the parade, visitors enjoy hula and folk dancing, live music, Hawaiian crafts, and local food booths along Front Street. A highlight is watching skilled cultural practitioners demonstrate the intricate process of collecting and weaving maile lei—a traditional Hawaiian emblem of high honor.

Kaua’i Festivities and the Lei Making Contests

On the “Garden Island” of Kaua’i, multiple towns host family-friendly Lei Day gatherings full of music, dance, and lei-making contests. In Līhu’e, a lei contest at the county building displays creative floral designs with up to $200 prizes.

Kapa’a’s Coconut Market Place also holds a popular competition for both keiki (children) and adults with handmade lei that represent the aloha spirit.

For visitors and locals looking to enter contests or simply craft lei, numerous shops provide classes and materials. Attendees can learn how to braid maile vines, sew vibrant feathers, or string fragrant flowers like tuberose, orchids, and pikake.

It’s a wonderful chance to experience Hawaiian culture first-hand!


In conclusion, May Day or Lei Day in Hawaii encompasses the islands’ welcoming spirit through vibrant cultural traditions. On this cheerful spring holiday, locals and visitors alike revel in the festive music, dancing, lei, and aloha that bring the community together to honor Hawaiian heritage.

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