The traditional Hawaiian lei is a symbol of aloha, which means love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. The lei is given to someone as a sign of welcome, congratulations, or as a sign of thanks. It’s also one of Hawaii’s most iconic accessories. An accessory that has been a part of Hawaiian culture for centuries and is still an important part of Hawaiian life today. 

There are many different types of leis – made from different materials such as flowers, shells, feathers, and even candy. Floral leis are the most common and the first that many of us think of when we hear “lei.” They are made from a variety of flowers, such as roses, orchids, carnations, and plumeria. 

Kukui nut leis are another popular type of lei and are said to bring good luck. And finally, Maile leaf leis are considered to be the most traditional Hawaiian leis and often used in Hawaiian ceremonies and dances.

The traditional Hawaiian lei is often given as a gesture of welcome to visitors, worn at festive luaus, and used to adorn everything from hula dancers to surfboards. But the lei is so much more than just a pretty necklace. Hawaiian leis are a beautiful and meaningful way to show your love and appreciation for someone special. They are also a key part of Hawaii’s rich culture with a long and fascinating history.

Ancient Origins

The first leis were made not of flowers but of feathers, shells, bones, and even teeth. These “lei hulu” or “feather leis” were reserved for only the most high-ranking Hawaiian chiefs and royalty. The most prized lei were those made with the yellow feathers of the now-extinct Hawaiian bird, the mamo.

Other early leis were made with the bright red feathers of the ‘I‘iwi bird and the green feathers of the ‘Akiapola‘au. These birds were so revered that they were considered ‘aumakua or family gods and were protected by Hawaiian law.

The first floral leis are thought to have originated in the Tuamotu Islands, east of Tahiti. These early leis were made with the tiare flower, which is still used in leis today. As an added bit of history, the word “lei” (pronounced lay) comes from the Tahitian word for “flower garland.”

The art of lei-making was brought to Hawaii by Polynesian settlers around the 4th century A.D. These early leis were made with local materials like shells, feathers, seeds, and bark.

As the settlers began to intermarry with the Native Hawaiians, the lei became a symbol of love and affection. It was not uncommon for young Hawaiian men and women to exchange leis on special occasions like birthdays and weddings.

Hawaiian Lei Types

Today, there are many different types of leis made with a wide variety of materials. The most common leis are made with fresh flowers, but you’ll also find leis made with everything from leaves and nuts to shells and feathers. Here are a few types of traditional Hawaiian leis you might see around the islands:

  • Flower leis are by far the most popular type of lei in Hawaii. The most common flowers used in leis are plumeria, gardenia, and roses. But almost any type of flower can be used, including orchids, daisies, and carnations.
  • Kukui nut leis are another popular type of lei in Hawaii. The kukui nut, also known as the “candlenut,” is the state nut of Hawaii. These leis are often worn by graduates and are said to bring good luck.
  • Maile leaf leis are traditional Hawaiian leis that are made with the leaves of the maile vineThese leis are often worn by Hawaiian royalty and are often used in religious ceremonies. However, Hawaiian weddings leis have proved to be a mix of all kinds. 

Hawaiian Luaus & Events for Leis

It’s nearly impossible to imagine a Hawaiian Luau without leis. The Hawaiian luau is a feast that is traditionally held to celebrate special occasions like birthdays, weddings, and graduations. What better way to celebrate than with a traditional Hawaiian lei to mark the occasion?

The word “luau” (pronounced loo-ow) comes from the Hawaiian word for “taro leaf,” which was a traditional ingredient in the luau dish. The first luau was held in 1819 hosted by King Kamehameha II. It quickly became a popular social event and was often used to honor special guests. 

Traditionally, the luau feast is cooked in an underground oven called an “imu.” The imu was lined with hot rocks and then covered with dirt and wet banana leaves. The food is placed on the banana leaves and then covered with more leaves and dirt. 

The imu is then left to cook for several hours. When the food is ready, it is unearthed and served on large platters. The most popular dishes served at the luau are pig, chicken, sweet potatoes, and taro. And at any traditional luau, leis are abundant. 

In addition to the feast, the luau also includes traditional entertainment, such as hula dancing and live music. The Hawaiian hula is a dance that tells a story through hand gestures and body movement. You’ve no doubt seen many hula dancers sporting leis when they take the stage, this has become an integral part of Hawaiian culture.

The Hawaiian Lei & Luaus Today

Luaus today are not so different from the traditional luaus of the past. The modern luau is often held outdoors with a buffet-style meal that includes a variety of Hawaiian and mainland dishes. Entertainment at the luau often includes hula dancing and live music, but you’ll also find a variety of other activities Hawaiian bowling and coconut husking.

The modern luau is a fun and festive event that is enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. If you’re ever in Hawaii, be sure to attend a luau and don’t forget to wear a lei!

Join us at Old Lāhainā Lūʻau

We invite you to try on your very first authentic Hawaiian lei at the Old Lāhainā Lūʻau. Here you’ll experience a true Hawaiian luau offering the ultimate Maui-style entertainment and onolicious cuisine. We also pride ourselves on keeping a strong focus on Hawaiian history and culture. 

At Old Lāhainā Lūʻau, our luaus are held daily during sunset hours. This makes for a stunning show, breathtaking photo opportunities, and food cooked to perfection in traditional imu pits. We welcome you to the next one! If you’d like more information, check out our information page.

One Comment on “An In-Depth Look at the Hawaiian Lei

  1. The information on your site is amazing! As I was reading about luau’s and delved through your menu learning about your history, culture and how to make the most of my visit I was overwhelmed with at your information!! Thank you so much! I will definitely study the language and use some when I visit your island! Gif bless you and your community and all that you have been through! I hope to visit you when the time is right! I am overwhelmed with all the you offer and shared on this site! I again thank you and sending love to all!! Aloha!

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