Flowers play such an essential part of the Hawaiian culture and having them strung together into a lei symbolizes a form of Aloha. Aloha translates into phrases such as “hello”, “goodbye”, “I love you” and “thank you.” The gesture of the Aloha spirit also comes in the form of presenting beautifully fragrant leis during occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations.
The phrase “May Day is Lei Day”, dates back to 1928 when local newspaper writer Don Blanding wrote an article suggesting there be a day dedicated to the tradition of lei giving. If you’re ever on the islands on May Day (May 1st ), you’ll see many draped in colorful and beautifully fragrant leis made from an assortment of flowers such as cigar flowers, orchids and tea leaf.
The original lei stands started during Hawaii’s Boat Days era, when worldwide visitors arrived in big cruise ships into the Aloha Tower Harbor. These visitors would be welcomed with grass skirt wearing hula dancers, beautiful ukulele medleys and greeted with a lei to wear; making the lei Hawaiiʻs international symbol of Aloha.
“At May Day time all flowers, small and large, fragrant and absence of fragrance, beautiful and bizarre, have a chance at being very special,” says native Hawaiian and Grammy-nominated musician Robert Cazimero, “I love the simplicity of a yellow plumeria lei and who can deny the specialness of receiving an ʻilima lei or an ivory pikake?”
Some of the lei stands like Sophia’s Lei Stand at the Honolulu International Airport have been in the lei making business for over 85 years. Michelle Kalili, daughter of the late lei stand founder Gus Kalili, has been stringing leis most of her life. She says that May Day is more than just celebrating flowers but it is also a day where we celebrate the traditions that make our islands unique.
“May Day is not just a day where we celebrate Hawaii culture of leis, but it’s a time where we also honor our former kings and queens of the Hawaiian monarchy,” says Kalili.
Across Iolani Palace, you will find the golden King Kamehameha statue. Lei Day is just one of the times of the year that you will find the statue’s arms and neck adorn with delightful flowers that stretch as long as 20 feet.
The keiki (kids in Hawaiian) are often dressed in certain colors because they have been assigned to one of the eight Hawaiian Islands for their school’s Lei Day assembly. Parents are often found standing in the crowd snapping photos of their child performing songs such as the last queen of the Hawaiian monarchy, Queen Liliuokalani’s Hawaii Ponoʻi. Many primary schools teach the essence of Lei Day and the different flowers that represent each Hawaiian island.
The City and County of Honolulu also joins in on the fun by hosting an Annual Lei Day celebration at Kapiolani Regional Park to honor various aspects of the Hawaiian culture. From beautifully woven leis to the presentation of the Lei Queen and her court, Lei Day is a day that brings people both locally and visiting together. It is a day where many learn, remember and share the gift of the Aloha spirit.
By Jermel-Lynn Quillopo
International multimedia journalist, Jermel-Lynn Quillopo was born and raised on the islands of Hawaii. Raised in a state that is known for its melting pot of cultures, she knew at a very young age that she wanted to travel, learn people’s stories and share them with the world. Her wanderlust has lead her to capture stories while volunteering during a medical mission in the Philippines, mushing the icy glaciers of Alaska with Iditarod dogs, and jumping 45 feet off of a bridge in the Guatemala jungles.