What Is A Hawaiian Lei? | The Beckoning Aloha Tradition

Last Updated August 5, 2022

There’s something about coming to Hawaii that makes us feel overly welcome as we arrive. A greeting so powerful, it starts a sense of place in arriving and even departing from this place. This distinct greeting symbolizes the islands and affection for loved ones.

The Hawaiian Lei.

Early Polynesian voyagers who traveled on the long and tiring journey from Tahiti to the Hawaiian Islands established the tradition of receiving and gifting a lei. But, what is this tradition, and why is it still widely practiced despite modern times.

Find out what is a Hawaiian Lei as this article unfolds the beautiful Aloha tradition and culture that we all love.

What Is A Hawaiian Lei?

A Hawaiian Lei is a decorative garland worn around the neck or on the head. Lei comes in various materials and lengths (flowers, leaves, nuts, ribbons, candy, money, etc.). In Hawaiian culture, Lei was traditionally offered to symbolize love, friendship, honor, celebration, and greetings.

The wearing of Lei in ancient Hawaii symbolized riches, monarchy, and status. It’s also linked to the hula hoop, religion, and geography.

The History of Hawaiian Lei

Early Polynesian voyagers brought the lei tradition to the Hawaiian Islands, sailing by the stars in sailing canoes from Tahiti. Hawaiian Lei custom began with these early settlers.

Flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even animal bone and teeth were used to make the Hawaiian Lei. According to Hawaiian tradition, ancient Hawaiians used these garlands to beautify themselves and distinguish themselves from others.

Perhaps the most important was the Maile lei. It was used to represent a peace accord between rival chiefs, among other holy applications. The leaders would symbolically tie the green Maile vine in a Heiau (temple), and its completion would officially create peace between the two groups.

Hawaii is a state made up of eight major islands. Each island has its unique Lei, reflecting a harmonious combination of texture and color. Due to rigorous agricultural rules, most of these Lei cannot be shipped to the mainland.

  • Hawaii (Big Island) – Red or the Ohia Lehua flower
  • Oahu – Yellow with the gold ‘Ilima
  • Maui – Pink and the Lokelani rose
  • Kauiai – purple with the Mokihaa
  • Molokai – Green with Kukui
  • Lanai – Orange with Kauna’oa
  • Niihau – White with Pupu o Ni’ihau (shells)
  • Kaho’olawe – Hinahina

Lei And the Custom of Aloha

With the introduction of tourism to the islands, the Lei quickly became a symbol of Hawaii for millions of visitors worldwide.

Tourists and visitors came to Hawaii by boat before the familiar hum of airline jets could be heard in the sky. Many elderly Hawaiians reminisce about their “boat days” with fondness. As the boat arrived at the port, it was a social party with lei greeters, hula dancers, music, and photographers.

Tossing one’s leis into the ocean near Diamond Head Crater was a common custom for departing travelers. This gesture is practiced in beliefs that they’d be safe and sure to return to Hawaii if their Lei drifted to shore.

Every May 1st has been designated as Hawaii’s official “Lei Day” since 1928. It’s known as “May Day” in Hawaii. The flower lei is celebrated on May Day with Hula, parades, and music. Most parents request a day off work on May Day so that they may watch their children engage in school-sponsored May Day activities and programs. On May Day, everyone in Hawaii is urged to wear a lei.

Hawaiian Lei Flower Meaning and Lei Flowers Used

There are several materials used to produce Lei, including raffia, yarn, fish line, or even dental wax for stringing, and the most common flowers used for lei garlands include:

  • Carnations – The Missionaries introduced Ponimo’I to Hawaii, with women wearing white and men wearing red carnations.
  • Plumeria – also known as Melia in Hawaiian or Frangipani, is a five-petal flower with a beautiful tropical aroma and a rainbow of hues ranging from white to yellow to orange to pink to deep red.
  • Arabian Jasmine – This flower, known in Hawaii as Pikake, was brought to Hawaii by Chinese immigrants. It has a mellow and sweet aroma commonly used in weddings and special events.
  • Roses – also known as the Lokelani rose, are a favorite accent flower on Lei and come in various hues to match any event.
  • Orchids – are preferred to be utilized with the white and purple dendrobium kind used for producing an orchid type of Lei because of its sturdiness and beauty.
  • Ginger – traditional Micronesian or Malaysian ginger blossoms have a powerful, enticing scent and are commonly used for anniversaries, birthdays, or other special occasions.
  • Stephanotis – or Pua Male in Hawaiian is called the wedding flower with its sweet-smelling scent. The name Pua Male translates into “Marry Flower,” making it a fitting choice for weddings.

Lei Etiquette

There are very few rules when it comes to wearing a Hawaiian Lei. There is no need to wait for a special occasion to wear one. It is totally acceptable to buy or manufacture a lei for oneself. Locals keep a nut, seed, or shell lei on hand for special occasions.

Flower, fern, and feather lei are frequently used on hats.

When getting a Hawaiian Lei for the first time, there are a few “unspoken guidelines” to keep in mind. A Hawaiian Lei should be a joyful expression of one person’s love for another. As a result, always accept a lei and never refuse one.

Accept the lei as described above, then discreetly and apologetically slide it off if you are unable to wear it due to allergies or sensitivities. If you are unable to wear the lei, it is appropriate to give it to your significant other.

A Hawaiian Lei should be softly wrapped over the shoulders and hung down both in front and behind the wearer. Removing a lei from your neck in front of the person who presented it to you is considered impolite, so if you must, be discreet.

Birthdays, anniversaries, marriages, and graduations are among those occasions when lei-giving is customary. A graduating senior may wear so many leis around their neck that they can’t see!

Different Weaving of Hawaiian Lei

Traditional Hawaiian Lei is crafted from native vegetation and embellished with seeds and flowers. The strands that keep these Lei together are frequently made of bark and vines. The sought-after orchid, the lucky ti leaf, the lovely carnation, and the dazzling plumeria are the common flowers used in traditional Lei.

There are also a variety of additional flowers and materials used in Hawaiian Lei and a variety of ways to make the finished Lei. Here are seven different ways to make a lei:


The piercing process is used to create this style, which is one of the most popular. The Hawaiian Lei maker pierces the materials being utilized with a needle. Each piece is put together to form a necklace-like lei. This is commonly done with plumerias, but it can also be done with other flowers.


Only one material is used throughout this braided lei shape. It was usually fashioned by braiding at least three strands of ferns or vines together.


This knotted Hawaiian Lei is constructed in the same way a daisy chain is made. Each stem is twisted together to form the chain, and the next branch is strung through the knot.


A braid is used to start this mounted form of Hawaiian Lei. The material of choice is then inserted into each braid wrap to secure it to the strands. The braid was commonly made from long leaves or tree bark.


This kind of basting uses a sewing stitch to secure the ornamental material to the Hawaiian Lei. The effect is similar to scales by basting the material to each row in an overlapping manner.


For this twisting procedure, short lengths of material must be held in place with a coil wrapped around them. Raffia is a popular material for the wrap.


This twisting method of lei manufacturing frequently used ti leaves and a rope comprised of two twisted strands.

Hawaiian Lei or Leis?

There is no distinction between singular and plural in Hawaiian. As a result, the correct way to say the plural version of Lei is just “lei.” Most websites, however, have chosen to use the anglicized version of this word, maybe to avoid confusion.


The Hawaiian Lei is regarded as the universal emblem of aloha. The materials used to manufacture it are gathered with great care. The materials are prepared and fashioned into a Hawaiian Lei after being collected.

The mana (or spirit) of the Lei’s maker is sewn or weaved into it as this is done. As a result, when you offer a Lei, you are really donating a piece of yourself. Similarly, you acquire a part of Lei’s creator when you receive one.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Q: Does everyone get a lei when arriving in Hawaii?

A: Hawaiian leis are commonly offered as a sign of welcome, congratulations, and devotion. Usually, you would not purchase one for yourself.

Related Resources

Leave a Comment