Throwing away a lei is like throwing away love. Made and given in celebration or affection, the lei is a symbol of connection among Hawaiian people. To toss one away is callous, and to refuse one is an insult. They are given for birthdays, graduations, weddings, work promotions, and any other social occasion, but they can also be self-gifted and worn simply as an impromptu appreciation of “aloha spirit.”
Originally a tradition brought over the waves of the South Pacific by the Polynesian voyagers, the lei was a way of honoring gods. They’d intertwine vines into head wreaths and adorn their bodies with strings of flowers. After these visits ceased around the 14th century, Hawaiians went on perfecting the craft of lei making.
Though best known as garlands of fresh flowers, a lei can also be made of whale or walrus bone, specific shells, or feathers. For generations, women have passed on the craft to their daughters — in fact, on the island of Ni’ihau (population: 160) some residents’ livelihoods are based on it. Depending on their colors and stringing, certain lei pupu, made out of shells, are worth thousands of dollars. Kahelelani are particularly valuable shells, and leis made of these have even been used as collateral for purchases like a house or a car.
While Ni’ihau is known for its lei pupu, each island has its own distinguishing type and color of lei. In the Boat Days, a period in the early 1900s when tourism first began in Hawaii, the flower leis were used to welcome visitors and fill their senses with the fragrance of paradise. Departing travelers would throw their leis in Diamond Head Crater as their ship made for open water. Their own voyage was mirrored in that of the lei — if the garland made it to shore, the person too was assured a safe return.
Such was the irresistible charm of the lei as a cultural symbol that a poet-and-journalist duo decided in 1927 that a holiday was warranted, and May 1st of the following year was decreed Lei Day. An anthem was even written to herald the occasion. In 2008, on the 81st annual celebration, the people of Honolulu made a 5,336-foot garland and with their mile-long strand of flowers broke the world’s record for the World’s Longest Lei.