Leis are a traditional Hawaiian flower necklace that is often given to welcome guests, visitors or tourists to show affection, kindness, and good will. It is also commonly given during celebrations such as birthdays and graduations. Traditionally it is made from flowers of different colors found in various parts around Hawaii but in more recent years it has been created from a variety of materials.
Early Polynesian voyagers from Tahiti first introduced the Hawaiian leis. Because of these early colonists, the lei tradition was born. Leis were commonly made of flowers, leaves, seeds, nuts, shells, feathers, and sometimes bone and teeth of different animals. Flowers such as orchids, pikake, plumeria, ohia, lehua and maile are frequently used to create beautiful leis. These flowers are generally put together using a steel needle and string, but may also utilize strategic braiding, knotting and threading techniques. These garlands were worn by ancient Hawaiians to grace themselves and most importantly to be recognized from others. In the past, leis have also been used to signify peace agreeements between opposing leaders or chiefs. The chiefs would intertwine the green maile vine and its completion would symbolize peace among the people.
There are several types of leis, the materials used as well as the technique used to bind the materials determines the type. Below we’ve listed the more common leis you’re likely to encounter.
Haku – This is a three-ply braid. The lei is made using a base material such as tree bark or leaves that is then braided with ornaments to enhance its appearance.
Nipu’u – This lei starts with stems of a plant, generally a flower, that are then knotted together. Common binding styles used are overhand or square knots.
Hilo – To create this style of lei a rope is formed by twisitng two strands together. While one of the more basic designs it is also one of the most common.
Hili – This lei involves just one type of material, frequently a vine or a fern that is braided together.
By the turn of the century, Hawaiian lei makers and sellers became one of the most common occupations by native Hawaiians. As of today, the business is well established in the state capital and most populous city of Hawaii, Oahu. Leis are almost always made locally from local materials and can be seen for sale in areas frequented by tourists. Addtionally they can be found in all Hawaii airports and can even be purchased online.
In previous decades, leis made from non-natural material such as ribbon, rattail cord, and yarn have boomed and worked their way into the mainstream. This brought on the evolution of designs and more and more people entered the field and created their unique lei styles.
The Hawaiian lei tradition lives on today. Tourists and visitors are often greeted upon their arrival with a lei as part of the Aloha spirit. Beyond just receiving leis as a welcoming gift they are also frequently used as a send off and to celebrate special events. Lei giving at High School and College graduations, birthdays, retirement parties and even funeral is commonplace.
If you are fortunate enough to receive a lei, recognize it for what it is, a symbol of love and freindship from the giver and therefore should be treated as such. Traditionally leis such as flowers they can be left to dry which will frequently create a nice aroma extending the life of the gift.
Never has there been such a unique and simple gift to give to others that symbolizes so much.