The lei is arguably the symbol most inexorably
linked to the Hawaiian Islands. Around the world,
the lei goes hand-in-hand with hula skirts and surfing
as the universal icons of Hawaiÿi. To most visitors,
however, the lovely decoration draped around their
neck upon disembarking from their plane or at a
lüÿau (traditional feast) is simply a charming custom
in which they get to wear beautiful, sweet-smelling
flowers. But the history and meaning behind this
traditional adornment is far more intricate and
culturally significant than a simple decoration.
The loose definition of a lei is any group of objects
strung together and given as a symbol of affection.
While the most popular modern variation is a garland
of flowers, a lei can be comprised of just about
anything. Other materials could include leaves,
vines, shells, dollar bills, or even animal bones/teeth.
A lei can even be a child, so said because when the
child is carried on the parent’s shoulder, the legs
draped down on both sides like a lei or it can be a
song composed for a loved one. Regardless of the
material, the lei is a corporeal representation of the
Aloha Spirit. It symbolizes love, respect, honor,
congratulations, and just about any positive emotion
you want to convey.
The tradition of lei giving developed in early
Polynesian cultures and came to Hawaiÿi with its
earliest settlers. Lei were used for beautification, as a
representation of class in the ancient hierarchy, and
had numerous sacred and religious functions. Since
there are relatively few flowers native to the Islands,
it was much more common for ancient Hawaiians
to weave their lei out of other types of foliage. A
favorite then, and still today, is the maile lei. It’s
made from a green, spicy-smelling, leafy vine, which
is worn open-ended and draped over the neck. This
particular lei was used by Hawaiian chiefs to finalize
peace accords, with the former rivals intertwining the
vine together to symbolize their newfound harmony.
Today, the maile lei is the preferred wedding lei
for grooms, a custom stemming from the traditional
practice of wahine (women) leaving a maile lei on
the doorstep of the käne (man) whom she desired
to marry. The maile lei is also a favorite for modern
proms, replacing the boutonnière conventionally
given to high school boys on the mainland.