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Lei are one of Hawaii's most potent traditions. Learn how to string your own at free classes

Lei are one of Hawaii's most potent traditions. Learn how to string your own at free classes
In Hawaii, lei are given for occasions including birthdays, graduations and, for visitors, welcomes to the islands. (Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority)

What does it mean when Hawaiians bestow a flower lei around your neck? "When you give a lei, you're giving your intentions to that person, so lei are given for all sorts of occasions," said Emily Steele of Hawaii Flower Lei.

Tourists who want to learn how to make a lei, a tradition steeped in centuries of Polynesian culture, can take free lessons at two Waikiki shopping centers in Honolulu.

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Visitors to Waikiki's International Market Place select flowers and other plants to use in the making of lei during a free class.
Visitors to Waikiki's International Market Place select flowers and other plants to use in the making of lei during a free class. (International Market Place)

While tourists are most familiar with floral lei – there is no "s" in the plural of the word – they are also made from other types of plants.

"Hawaiians came from Tahiti once upon a time," Steele said. "And they definitely brought the idea of lei with them. Seeds and nuts, not just flowers."

Colorful, fragrant flowers are the most popular components of lei in Hawaii.
Colorful, fragrant flowers are the most popular components of lei in Hawaii. (Dana Edmunds/Hawaii Tourism Authority)

Visitors can learn how to string their own lei at classes held each Monday, Friday and Saturday from 1 to 2 p.m. at the Royal Hawaiian Center. Participation is limited to the first 25 people (age 7 or older) who show up. Info: (808) 922-2299.

A lengthier introduction to the island symbol of hospitality is held the first Sunday of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the International Market Place. (May's class was held Tuesday, which was Lei Day.)

No reservations are required for the monthly lessons, and guests leave with their custom-made lei.

Lei are worn not only around the neck, but also on the head and the wrist. Ferns are woven together for the headgear of these hula dancers in Hilo.
Lei are worn not only around the neck, but also on the head and the wrist. Ferns are woven together for the headgear of these hula dancers in Hilo. (Tor Johnson / Hawaii Tourism Authority)

While lei are given year-round, they were particularly popular on May Day. The City and County of Honolulu's website explains that the unofficial holiday began in 1927 "to celebrate and recognize the custom of giving and receiving lei."

Steele said each spring she adds temporary staff to handle not only the May Day demand but the rush associated with school graduations as well.

A greeter on the island of Oahu presents a floral lei to a visitor. Lei are given as gifts year-round, but are particularly popular on May 1, which is Lei Day.
A greeter on the island of Oahu presents a floral lei to a visitor. Lei are given as gifts year-round, but are particularly popular on May 1, which is Lei Day. (Hawaii Flower Lei)

A growing portion of Steele's business is the lei welcome for visitors arriving at Hawaii's airports. In Honolulu, guests coming from the U.S. mainland are met at their gates by greeters who escort them to baggage claim or their connecting flight.

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