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Lei Day, recognized each year on the first of May, is a day in which the people of Hawai’i celebrate the tradition and beauty of the lei. Also referred to as May Day, it is a time when island schools celebrate with performances and entertainment that parents look forward to with camera in hand. Lei making is an integral part of the festivities with contests held all over the islands.
LEI OR LEIS?
The Hawaiian language does not distinguish between singular and plural. Therefore, the proper way to say the plural form of lei is actually just “lei.”
THE HISTORY OF THE HAWAIIAN LEI
The lei custom was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by early Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti. The lei was worn by ancient Hawaiians to beautify and distinguish themselves from others. Among other sacred uses, the Maile lei became a symbol of peace between two groups when opposing chiefs ceremoniously intertwined the vine.
Today the fragrant Maile lei is a popular choice for grooms at weddings and is used in place of the “red ribbon” cutting of new businesses. Maile used in this manner is never cut, but rather untied. After the ceremony, it is hung for display and once dried, is then buried in a corner of the business to continue its protective qualities.
THE CUSTOM OF ALOHA
With the advent of tourism in the islands, the lei quickly became the symbol of Hawai’i to millions of visitors worldwide. Today, the custom of lei giving is a significant part of everyday life in Hawai’i, marking special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and graduations where it is not uncommon for a graduating senior to receive so many lei that they can barely see over them! In business, lei is often given to guest speakers or visiting dignitaries and you will see our legislators adorned with a myriad of lei on various occasions.
This beautiful tradition is not limited to gender or age and there need not be a specific occasion. It is even perfectly acceptable to purchase or make a lei for yourself. Many local people keep a nut, seed or shell lei on hand to wear on special occasions and hats are often adorned with flower, fern or feather leis.
Always accept a lei that is offered as this is a celebration affection. It is also considered rude to remove a lei from your neck in the presence of the person who gave it to you. The proper way to wear a lei is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back.
Because the natural flowers, seeds, pods and vines of the islands are used in lei making, the lei maker must practice malama ‘aina – caring for the land. Mindful foraging, with the natural cycle of these plants in mind, is necessary in order to respectfully perpetuate the continuation of this art form.
TRADITIONAL AND CONTEMPORARY LEI
Permanent traditional lei were intended to last a long time and consisted of hair, shells, bone, teeth, wood and seeds. Temporary traditional lei included natural materials selected for beauty, color, mobility, healing powers, symbolism, durability and lasting freshness – generally in that order.
With the discovery of the islands, ivory, glass, ceramic, wood and semi-precious stones were introduced along with flowers, leaves and vines from foreign plants, all of which were incorporated into contemporary Hawaiian lei making. Permanent contemporary lei may consist of silk, satin, ribbon, yarn, currency or plastic flowers and shells.
Traditional lei were sewn or weaved with coconut husk, banana or hau fibers. Common contemporary materials include: raffia, ribbon or even fishing line. Today, as in ancient times, ti leaves are primarily used as the base.
While there is no wrong way to string the flowers, there are 6 basic methods:
1. Kipu`u - knotting. Short vine lengths or leaves with a long stem were knotted together, as seen with the maile lei or kukui leaf.
2. Hili - plaiting or braiding. Used only when braiding one material, seen in the modern ti leaf leis and maile lei.
3. Haku - braiding. A central binding cord and mixture of flower, leaf and/or fern.
4. Wili - winding. Similar to the haku with no knots till the very end.
5. Humu papa - sewing to a foundation. The traditional head lei, or as in feather lei and feather hatbands.
6. Kui - three types of stringing:
- Kui pololei - stringing through the center of the flower or shell.
- Kui poepoe - stringing through stem or ovary of flower, arranging as in spokes of a wheel. The beautiful double plumeria lei is often strung in his method.
- Kui lau - stringing flat through stem or ovary of flower, arranging Alternating side to side. The intricate cigar flower lei is string with this method.