It’s perhaps one of the most iconic images of Hawai’i tourism – stepping off the plane at the airport and being greeted by a sea of lei worn by greeters before being immediately adorned with one yourself. Virtually every celebrity that visited Hawai’i in the post-war era has at least one photograph of themselves on the stairs from the airplane with a fresh lei around their necks.
In these more culturally mindful days, there has been a growth in interest on visiting Hawai’i and interacting with the islands’ legendary culture in ways that are meaningful and respectful. It’s also important to explain that tradition varies from community to community, even within Hawai’i Nei, so I’ve done my best to explain my understanding in a way that is respectful to differences that will inevitably arise.
There are several traditions with respect to the wearing of lei and single pua (flowers) that are not rooted in pre-contact Hawaiian practice. One of these is the giving of lei with a kiss. That practice is generally understood to have started in the mid-20th century, as is the notion that a pua worn over the left or right ear is an indicator of the wearer’s relationship status (also a practice contrived outside Hawai’i, based on the finger on which a engagement ring is worn upon in the West). That said, eschewing such traditions because of their recent introduction is similarly anachronistic, particularly considering that many of the most popular lei flora (like plumeria and orchid) are themselves not indigenous to Hawai’i and would not have been used as lei materials pre-contact.
- Do not refuse a lei when offered. The offer of a lei is an offer of welcome and hospitality. Anecdotally, a friend of mine who was born and raised in Hawai’i has a skin sensitivity to flowers, yet she still accepts them and asks somebody to remove them for her after an appropriate interval. Lei should typically be worn while still in the presence of the giver.
- Do not wear a lei intended for someone else. Objects worn on the body acquire the mana (energy or life force) of the wearer. Because mana centers around the head and neck, items worn in this area acquire great mana. Without going into great detail, that’s not something you want to give away to another person. When waiting to give lei, hold it loosely in your hand or around your arm. Similarly, don’t give a lei that you have been wearing to someone else.
- Closed lei should not be given to hapai (pregnant) women. I’ve heard a number of different reasons for this; the most common being that wearing a closed circle around the body or neck for a pregnant women is an omen of an umbilical cord around the neck or body of a baby during childbirth. Pregnant women can wear haku (headdress-style lei) or open lei.
- Lei should be disposed of with reverence. Because they contain mana, lei should not be disposed of as garbage. It’s best to return lei to nature, by burial, hanging up in a tree or bush to decompose and scatter, or to the ocean. Early tourists used to cast their lei into the ocean off Lē’ahi (Diamond Head) as their steamship used to sail away from Honolulu Harbor; the legend was that if the lei floated to shore, they were bound to return to Hawai’i Nei. In these more modern times we understand that the string and ribbons from lei can be harmful to sea life, so it’s a good idea to remove the string and any ribbons before scattering the flowers to the sea. I personally tend to hide my lei in places that are meaningful to me – remembering that leaving your mana to the land or sea links you with it.
- Don’t be embarrassed! The wearing of lei does not mark you out as a tourist or someone who fetishizes Hawai’i. They commonly appear at weddings, reunions, baby luau, important events, and every day life in Hawai’i, so don’t be scared to jump in and enjoy the tradition of receiving, wearing, and giving lei while visiting Hawai’i. I know for a fact that I elicit snickers from some people who see a big haole guy walking around with a double pua melia (plumeria) around my neck, particularly in a tourist area like Waikīkī, but I don’t care – I love lei.
- Lei are just as fun to give as to receive. It’s no surprise that surprising somebody with a lei brightens their day. If you find yourself wanting to share Aloha with friends or family during your visit to Hawai’i Nei, or even upon your return (lei are sold in virtually all airports in Hawai’i for visitors to take home – they’ve already cleared the agricultural inspection and are packed for a long journey) just do it!