May Day embraced as 'Lei Day' with island accents
April 26, 2013
HONOLULU (April 26, 2013) -- It is often the first gesture of aloha newcomers to the islands encounter: the lei greeting.
Every year the state celebrates this gesture of welcome and aloha on May 1st, a day celebrated across the world in celebration of spring, but known in Hawai'i as Lei Day.
The tradition of the lei exists throughout Polynesia.
Pacific Islanders have used different techniques to create lei from native plants and flowers for thousands of years. One can travel extensively throughout the Pacific and find indigenous people crafting garlands to wear.
The lei (both the singular and plural version of the word) is known as "hei" in Tahiti and "ei" in the Cook Islands.
The island cultures also share crafting techniques. Common lei making techniques are haku (braiding), wili (twisting or coiling), hilo (a twisting technique to make a rope lei) and kui (lei made with needles by piercing flowers or shells).
Lei are usually a sign of kindness and affection. Hawaiian cowboys, known as paniolo, were known to make beautiful, fragrant lei as they returned from their long work shifts on mountain ranches or farms. The paniolo were known to haku mele, to write Hawaiian songs about the objectives of their affective, often comparing the women to beautiful flowers or lei.
Today, the lei remains an internationally recognized symbol of Hawai'i and the Hawaiian culture.
The "Lei Day" tradition began in 1928 after local writer Don Blanding publicly suggested the formation of a formal state holiday that celebrated the island custom. Now, 85 years later, the holiday continues to be celebrated across the islands with festivals, lei making contests and May Day pageants held in schools across Hawai'i.
On the island of O'ahu, an annual Lei Day Celebration is held every May 1st, regardless of the day of the week. The celebration includes both a Lei Contest and a Lei Queen Contest. Per contest rules, "The lei queen must be knowledgeable in the art of lei making, hula and be able to convey the spirit of aloha with warmth and dignity."
The Lei Queen presides over the celebration, which includes the Lei Contest.
May 1st marks the opening of a busy season for lei makers. As lei are custom at important occasions, impromptu lei stands pop up as roadsides and outside schools as the community celebrates Mother's Day, graduations and other important spring and summer events.
Some of the finest displays of lei making expertise occur the first week of June, when the King Kamehameha celebration takes places. The celebration includes the creation of many 26-feet lei, which are draped over the famed Kamehameha Statute that stands across from 'Iolani Palace in front of the State Supreme Court building during a formal ceremony on Friday, June 8th.
The lei are considered ho'okupu, or traditional offerings, made in remembrance of the king.
The King Celebration Parade, which takes place this year on June 9th, is also an extraordinary display of lei making skills. The parade is known for its pa'u riders, traditional Hawaiian groups elaborately dressed in historic costumes and riding horseback, who adorn themselves and their horses in thick, beautiful lei.
While May Day may have begun as a celebration of spring, in Hawai'i, it is a celebration of all the things that make the islands such a unique and beautiful place to live.