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Leis | © Daniel Ramirez/WikiCommons
Leis | © Daniel Ramirez/WikiCommons

A Brief History of Hawaii's Lei Day

Picture of Kalena McElroy
Updated: 2 March 2018

In the state of Hawaii, May Day is Lei Day. Each year, May 1st marks Hawaii’s nationally-recognized Lei Day — an annual tribute to a culturally iconic symbol. Celebrated by locals dressed in aloha attire, the custom honors the state’s natural production of tropical flowers in the crafting and wearing of the lei. 

The passing and receiving of the lei is practiced throughout Polynesia. Original Hawaiian settlers carried this custom to the islands, making it a practice for all genders. In ancient Hawaiian times, commoners and chiefs of all genders wore lei, but certain lei such as the lei niho palaoa, made from a whale tooth and entwined human hair, was reserved only for royal blood. In modern practice, men and women continue to wear and exchange lei on occasions like graduations, funerals, birthdays and weddings. Although commonly and commercially made from flowers, lei are often crafted with leaves, nuts, shells, feathers or ribbon.

Though the lei in itself holds powerful ancient meaning and tradition, Lei Day only began in 1927. Courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer and poet, Don Blanding, the first Lei Day celebration was held on O’ahu and became a state-wide festivity two years later. His co-worker, Grace Tower Warren, decided Lei Day should be observed on May Day, May 1st, and popularized the phrase, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii Nei.” This inspired Ruth and Leonard “Red” Hawk to write  “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii,” which is still sung today. Although the nationally-acclaimed celebration is not recognized as one that locals can take off work to celebrate, Lei Day’s status as a non-official state holiday does not impede on the significance of it for all Hawaiian locals.

Across all islands, schools celebrate Lei Day with songs, hula dancing and a procession of the Lei Day court. Students elect a king and queen to represent each of the eight main Hawaiian Islands and this concludes with a special hula performance by each. Royals also participate in the customs of Lei Day by wearing a flower and color distinct to each of the eight islands. 

Each May, aloha shirts and flowing mu’umu’u dresses of all colors can be seen strolling down the city streets. Locals are always most excited about the Lei Day exhibit. Long lines form to see the prize-winning lei of the year. Awards are given to lei in various categories including lei papale (hat lei), lei lipine (yarn lei), mixed media and youth, but the most prestigious is the Mayor’s Grand Prize. Bill Char was once the recipient of the award after entering a delicately crafted blue lei made of local ferns, berries and flowers.

On O’ahu, the Annual Lei Day Celebration takes place each year at Queen Kapiolani Park. The free event includes hula performances, live music, local food, shopping, lei-making demonstrations, appearances by the Lei Day Queen and the renowned lei contest exhibit.