May Day is Lei Day in Hawai‘i

May 1st is celebrated around the world as a workers’ holiday. In England and parts of Europe, the first of May is a festival of spring. In Hawai’i, May Day originated from writer/poet Don Blanding who suggested that a holiday be created around the Hawaiian custom of making and wearing lei. Blanding is also credited with the custom of tossing your lei overboard when you sailed from Honolulu. Nowadays, that is extremely frowned upon to throw any lei in the ocean since its string is made of plastic.

On May 1, 1927, the first event was held in the lobby of the Bank of Hawai‘i. Official lei judges that day were Princess David Kawananakoa (Abigail Wahi‘ika‘ahu‘ula Campbell), Mrs. Elizabeth Lahilahi Webb (Queen Lili‘uokalani’s last lady-in-waiting) and Mrs. Edgar Henriques (Ali‘i Lucy Kalaniki‘eki‘e Davis). They judged each lei based on the appropriateness, as determined by Hawai‘i’s Territorial Legislature’s Joint Resolution 1 in 1923 which assigned a flower and color to each island.

  • Hawai‘i island – red lehua
  • Maui – pink roselani
  • O‘ahu – yellow ‘ilima
  • Moloka‘i — green kukui
  • Lāna‘i – orange kauna‘oa
  • Kaho‘olawe –  gray hinahina
  • Kaua‘i – purple mokihana
  • Ni‘ihau – white pūpū

Today, the lei day celebration is synonymous with the free Brothers Cazimero concert at Kapi‘olani Park, lei making competitions, and school performances with courts of kings and queens to represent each island. In 2001, May Day was affectionately called Lei Day by Hawai‘i Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka in a speech to encourage random acts of kindness and sharing of the Aloha spirit which is best exemplified by the hospitality and inclusiveness exhibited by the Native Hawaiians.

The first mele to record all the islands’ symbols was Nā Lei o Hawai‘i by Reverend Samuel Kapū of Maui. This mele was dedicated to Hi‘iakaikapoliopele who travelled across Nā Kai ‘Ewalu (the eight channels). Other mele and ‘oli associated with this fragrant day include: May Day is Lei Day in Hawai‘i and Ke Lei Maila, a traditional lei chant to share while giving someone a lei.

Ke lei maila o Ka`ula o ke kai
Ka mālamalama o Ni`ihau ua mālie
A mālie pā ka Inuwai
Ke inu maila nā hala o Haue i kekai
No Naue kahala, no Punaka wahine
No ka lua nō I Kīlauea
Ua `ikea

A lei of sea foam is there at Ka`ula
Ni`ihau shines in the calm
Parched by the Inuwai wind
There drink the pandanus of Naue from the sea
From Naue the pandanus, from Puna the woman
From the pit indeed of the Volcano
Let it be known

Lei – and the plural of it without an “s” – are also symbolic for various occasions. The most famous lei is probably the maile lei, given out on big occasions like a wedding or graduation. A lei made of hala represents a new beginning and is often given to honor the passing of a loved one, a momentous achievement or to welcome a new venture. Haku lei are often given to pregnant women since it’s bad luck to wear a closed lei or necklace.

Other notable tidbits….

It’s never okay to take a lei off after being gifted one (unless you’re extremely allergic, I suppose) and never good to throw a lei away in the rubbish (rather, leave it outside to back to the earth or take it to the grave of a loved one).

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