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Article: The History of the Hawaiian Lei

Inside an airy room at the sprawling Travaasa Hana resort on Maui’s rugged eastern coast, adventure guide Mapuana Kalaniopio-Cook sits surrounded by flower blossoms, fern fronds and exotic leaves. She is teaching a group of resort guests how to make a traditional Hawaiian lei. With her foot propped up on a chair, she uses her toes to hold supple emerald green ti leaves in place while her hands twist them into a rope, which serves as a base for the lovely blossoms and other sprigs of greenery she then weaves into it.

As Kalaniopio-Cook gracefully knots and ties, it’s hypnotizing to watch the lei take shape, though it progresses slowly. “You can’t be in a hurry when you make a lei; it’s a spiritual experience that connects you to nature,” she says. “You need to be in the moment, listening to the wind and to the birds singing, and thinking about the person to whom you will present it.”

Right up there with the ukulele, surfboards and swaying palm trees, a lei is instantly recognizable as a symbol of Hawaii. Chances are, if you’ve visited any of the Hawaiian Islands, you’ve been presented with one of these lovely garlands upon arrival at your hotel.

Whether it’s made of fresh flower blossoms, leaves, feathers, kukui nuts or a combination, a lei represents more than just a polite hello. Presenting a lei is a gesture of affection, the equivalent of a welcoming hug and a declaration to all that, as a guest, you are someone special.

The tradition of lei-giving extends beyond a way of greeting island visitors. Hawaiians have been making and presenting lei to one another for centuries. The practice can be traced back thousands of years to the South Pacific, where ancient Polynesian cultures would string together whatever materials they had on hand—bone, shells, teeth, vines—to adorn themselves, honour their gods and gift each other in expressions of friendship, love and congratulations.

Lei Etiquette 101

• To wear a lei correctly, drape it on your shoulders, with half of it hanging to the front and half to the back.

• Pregnant women should not wear a typical closed lei; it is believed to be bad luck. They can, however, wear an open-ended lei draped around the neck.

• Don’t refuse a lei if someone presents one to you. It is considered rude.

• Lei can be incorporated into your destination wedding to symbolize the uniting of the couple and their families.

The lei made its way to Hawaii via Polynesian adventurers who paddled across the Pacific, and, over time, the pretty garland became ever more prominent among Hawaiians as a means of conveying feelings, denoting social status or celebrating important events, including births and graduations.

“Many visitors don’t [realize] the significance of the lei in our culture,” says Clifford Nae’ole, cultural advisor at the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua in Maui. “Hawaiians didn’t have access to precious metals or gem stones, so lei, made with the materials they had, were used to recognize one’s importance.”

The materials themselves can often play a key role in conveying meaning. In centuries past, for example, only the members of the royal family (who ruled Hawaii until being overthrown in 1893) were allowed to wear lei made of kukui nuts, while lei created from maile (a shiny, fragrant vine) were given as a peace offering on the battlefield. Today, maile lei are used to bind together the hands of bride and groom as a symbol of unity during a traditional wedding ceremony.

Lei also play a symbolic role in hula (Hawaii’s traditional dance form), connecting dancers to Laka, goddess of the forest, vegetation, music and hula itself. Kamaka Kukona is a kumu hula, or hula master, at the Halau o Ka Hanu Lehua school in Wailuku. He teaches the dancers at his school to make the lei they wear, including a type worn on the head (lei po’o), as well as bracelets and anklets (kupe’e). Before entering the forest to gather materials, they offer a prayer to Laka to ask her permission. “It’s a way of paying our respects to nature and all that she has given us,” Kukona explains.

No matter the type of lei or the materials used, the common thread that ties each one together is the spirit of aloha—a welcoming quality that makes Maui and her sister islands legendary vacation destinations. As Nae’ole says, “There’s a bit of magic in every lei.”

Photo: Kicka Witte

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