Sasha and Malia and Michelle Obama with their leis. I bet the secret servicemen in the background wish they could have gotten leis, too.
(Photo by Samad/AFP/Getty, from the New York Daily News)
I've never been that interested in leis, I think because I have only ever experienced the fake cheap plastic ones that don't even look like flowers. But when I saw these particular leis, they looked really enticing. I think maybe because I was outside in the snowy winter cold yesterday and there were barely any living things out and moving. Those flower leis, by contrast, looked beautifully colorful and fragrant and lively.
And what a gift, eh? A ring of fresh, fragrant flowers to wear? How luxurious and beautiful!
Plumeria flower, from which lots of leis are made. Imagine, someone giving you a ring of these!
(Photo from Photobucket)
History and Customs
- Historically, leis were given to honor and celebrate the tremendous voyage of the Polynesians in navigating across the waters of the South Pacific to the islands.
This map is super-simplified, but it gives the best sense of the distances involved. Tahiti, at the middle right, is one of the hundreds of islands in Polynesia. Hawaii, above it and about even with Japan, is one of the Hawaiian islands. From Tahiti to Hawaii is about 2,600 miles. Polynesians made the journey some time in the 3rd century.
(Map from Cruising Plus)
- Hawaiians also gave leis to each other to express all sorts of important emotions -- respect, honor, love, peace, a bond of welcome, a wish for children. They were cherished and carefully protected.
- People also made leis as offerings to the gods to ask for a good harvest, for healing, or for fertility.
Leis were also given to confer a title on a chief. Here, fans have draped leis on the statue of Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, or the Duke, who was born on Waikiki in 1890 and is generally considered the father of modern surfing. He was also an Olympic medalist in swimming.
(Photo from photolulu)
- If a lei falls into the hands of an enemy, this is considered terrible bad luck.
- Flowers traditionally used include plumeria, dendrobium orchids, ginger, pikake, and ilima.
This lei is made from dendrobium orchids in purple, lavender, and white.
(Photo and lei from With Our Aloha)
- Leis were originally made not just of flowers but also of leaves and grasses and seashells and nuts. They were also not closed to make a necklace but open-ended, more like a shawl.
- Maile, a plant that grows on vines, was one traditional plant used in leis. These types of leis used to be given reverentially to older people or were used to signify the arrival at a peace agreement among chiefs. Today, perhaps because of their connection with traditional culture, these are used more often in ceremonial dances and weddings.
Traditional open-ended maile lei. This one is made of two strands of the vines.
(Photo and lei from Hawaii Flower Lei)
- Maile is not very plentiful these days, so it's hard to find maile leis. Don't get your heart set on using these types of leis in your wedding, either, because there are restrictions on where maile plants can be shipped.
- Ti leaves are another plant traditionally used in leis, and they are still quite common today. People plant them around their houses to ward off evil spirits.
Traditional open-ended lei made of ti leaves
(Photo and lei from Hawaii Flower Lei)
- During the late 1800s and early 1900s, a time referred to as "Boat Days," when more white people began traveling by ship to the islands, visitors were welcomed to the islands with leis.
- Also around this time, more European flowers were introduced to Hawaii, flowers such as carnations, gardenias, pansies, roses, and violets. Leis were redesigned to include these flowers.
This lei is made of roses and crown flowers
(Photo from Sweet Blossoms Hawaii, which hosts lei-making demonstrations)
- A legend grew at about this time that, as you were leaving the islands, if you threw your lei into the ocean as you were passing Diamond Head, the lei might wash ashore and that would mean you, too, would someday return.
- The tradition of giving leis has extended so that visitors arriving not just by boat but also by plane are also welcomed with leis.
Here's the Brady Bunch being given leis upon their arrival in Hawaii. The part I mean for you to see starts at 3:58. The sound is really bad so you'll have to turn your speakers way up to hear it.
- Leis no longer must be given at very sacred times, but may be given during any celebration such as weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, or on any occasion.
- Technically, the plural of lei does not add an "s" but is still lei. Oops.
What to do when someone approaches you like this:
(Photo from Aloha V.I.P. Tours)
- A lei is a symbol of the giver's affection and welcome to the recipient. Therefore, refusing a lei is considered extremely rude. Always accept a lei when it is offered.
- For the same reason, it is rude to take it off in the presence of the giver. If you really don't want to wear it, wait until the giver is out of eyesight before taking it off.
- If you are allergic and can't wear the lei, put it in some place of honor or respect.
- It is also very bad form to ask another person if you can have his or her lei.
- You're supposed to wear it, not like a necklace, but over the shoulders so that it hangs down equally in front and back.
- If the lei is not tied, keep it that way, with the ends hanging down in front.
- It is considered disrespectful to throw a lei in the trash. When the flowers have wilted, remove them from the string and scatter the flowers in a yard or over water, or bury them.
- This seems a bit out of keeping with the rest of the rules, but you can store a lei in a plastic bag and keep it in the crisper of your refrigerator. Keeping it in the regular part of the refrigerator will make it too cold.
Making Your Own
Someone in the process of making a lei out of jade flowers.
(Photo from Active Rain)
- You can make your own lei, whether you live in Hawaii or not. Here's how:
- Gather about 50 medium-sized flowers -- daisies, carnations, even roses. But I think flowers that are wide and would lie flat would be the best choices. Remove the stems.
- Find some sturdy cotton string or even dental floss, and cut it to 100 inches long.
- Find a large needle -- one that's about 12 to 18 inches is best, but any large needle will work.
- Thread the string on the needle so that the needle is at the half-way point of the string. This will leave you with a string that's 50 inches long.
- Leaving about five inches extra at the very end of the string, tie a large knot. The knot will stop the flowers from sliding off the string, and you'll want the extra on the other end of the knot so you can tie the lei into a necklace when you're done.
- Now you're ready to start stringing the flowers. Push the needle through the very center of the face of the first flower. Push very carefully all the way through to the back of the flower.
- Slide the flower very carefully down the length of the string to the knot. Don't force them. You may find it works better to coax them a little ways along at a time.
- Add other flowers in the same fashion, in whatever pattern you wish.
- Continue until you have about 40 inches worth of flowers on the string.
- Knot the other end of the string and then tie the two ends together. You may want to tie a ribbon over the place where you've tied the ends together, or you could leave it plain.
- Some people use this same technique to make a long string of flowers that they use as decoration, around a wedding cake, for example.
A lei of orchids around a wedding cake
(Photo from Hawaii Flower Lei)
Or Just Order Them
- If you don't live in Hawaii and you don't want to do all that work, you can have leis shipped to you. One lei florist that does this, Hawaii Flower Lei, guarantees that they will arrive fresh and intact at your door.
- But of course it will cost you. They have all sorts of leis you can choose from, and they range in price from about $14 to $25 for single strands, and $28 to $50 for multiple strands.
- Shipping, of course, is extra, and since you don't want those flowers to wilt or perish, your shipping choices begin at FedEx 2-day and get more rapid from there, which means shipping starts at $20. And apparently since each lei requires careful handling, the charge is per item.
- So if you want one lei shipped to you, the cost starts at $34 and goes up.
This lei is made of purple micro ginger, and is very fragrant.
(Photo and lei from Hawaii Flower Lei)
Mooleo, talk story, The History of the Hawaiian Lei
Hawaii Flower Lei, lots of pages from this site
Hawaii Web, Island Leis
Gecko Farms, A Short History of Hawaiian Leis
Aloha Hawaii Lei, History of the Hawaiian Lei
Hawaii for Visitors, How to Give and Receive a Lei