Receiving a Lei of fragrant flowers as you step off the plane into the soft, tropical breeze of Hawai’i is a moment to be remembered and treasured always. The sweetly scented flowers around your neck – full of Aloha – is your welcome into paradise.

Hawai’i is not the only place where flowers are sewn together in a garland and worn around your neck.  Yet the brightly colored flowers strung together as a lei are a well-recognized symbol of Hawai’i. It is a gift of Aloha born out of this land of soft beaches and snow-capped volcanoes.

Aloha is the elemental foundation, the undercurrent, of the culture and lifestyle of Hawai’i. It is not something that is spoken or described. It’s impossible to take a picture of it.  It is something that must be experienced in the same way the scent of a beautiful lei must be experienced.  Therefore, the tradition of giving and receiving lei has flourished down through the ages. It is a special moment of experiencing the living spirit of Aloha. 

In days of old – – – wearing a lei represented wealth, royalty, and rank.  

Na lei* was deeply associated with hula, religion, and specific geographical locations.

Each of the eight major islands claims a particular flower used for its signature lei.

Here are the particular flowers used for each island’s signature lei.

  • Hawaii – Lehua   
  • Oahu – Ilima
  • Maui – Lokelani   
  • Kauai – Mokihana
  • Molokai – Kukui   
  • Lanai – Kaunaoa
  • Niihau – Pupu       
  • Kaho’olawe – Hinahina

The modern tradition of giving and receiving Lei was well established long before airplanes. Planes did not arrive with visitors to the islands until the early 1900s.  Before that, travelers and visitors came by ships.  

When a ship arrived, it was a celebration. 
There were hula dancers, parades, music, and of course, the giving of Lei.

Travelers departing by boat were also given a Lei.  Many boat voyagers tossed their Lei into the ocean. This would secure a safe return to Hawai’i once their Lei drifted to the shore.

Fondly called the boat days, the stories and warm memories of those days, have been told through the generations and are still talked about today.

Lei are so important in Hawai’i we even have a whole day dedicated to them! We talked about Lei Day in Hawai’i and the custom of giving a lei in our 5 Hawaiian Customs blog.

There is a protocol around giving and receiving a Lei. It is essential to know that a Lei should never be refused as it celebrates one person’s affection to another.

Not all Hawaiian Lei are made of flowers.

Here are three styles of Lei that do not include flowers:

Maile –  Has leaves with a delicate fragrance which are woven into an aromatic Lei. 

Beautiful to look at and heavenly to smell, maile hides deep in the forests of Hawai’i. An indigenous plant, with characteristics of a twining vine and that of a bush, the small, shiny, fragrant leaves can easily be missed.

Used as a peace offering during battles, warring chiefs would come together to weave a lei of maile.  Once the lei was complete, peace was re-established.

Today, besides hula dancers, a maile lei can be found on graduates and bridegrooms.

Lei Pupu o Ni’ihau – gifts from the most Hawaiian and isolated island

The lei made from these tiny, gem-like shells of Ni’ihau, are very precious. The shells can be as small as the head of a pin.  They are only found on the beaches of Hawaii’s privately owned island, Ni’ihau.

The tradition of collecting and stringing these rare and beautiful shells has been handed down for generations. You will see royalty – kings, queens, and princesses in old photos and paintings – all wearing Ni’ihau shell lei. 

The home of these exquisite shells, Ni’ihau, is the most Hawaiian island of the island chain. An Old Style Hawaiian language is still spoken there.  It is unlike the Hawaiian you will hear on other islands. There is no electricity, and travel is by foot or bicycle.

Lei Hulu – a feather lei made of plumage from native birds

Hulu also means precious or choice. Once you see an authentic Lei Hulu, you will instantly understand. 

First of all, birds were not killed for their feathers to make these lei.  They were trapped using sticky plants. Then, a few feathers were plucked from each bird, which was then released.  

These feathers were valuable, so keeping a healthy population of birds around was wise and meant the Lei Hulu were created from a sustainable resource. 

The feathers were prized in much the same as we would value precious metals and gems worn in other cultures.  

As gold was fashioned into beautiful works of art in other cultures, featherwork also evolved into an esteemed art form. And it is no surprise, the feather work was mostly worn by royalty.  

It still has this place in Hawaiian Society today. 

Culturally, the lei hulu feathers symbolized the elders. This heightened the value placed on featherwork in old Hawai‘i, as the kupuna* were, and still are, revered members of the island communities. 

Kupuna are our islands main treasures!

What about a lei for your boat? Or your home? Many places are deserving of a Lei!

A blessing of love and prosperity in the form of a lei can also be given to inanimate things.

  • A Lei was given to a new canoe before launching. It is like a boat being christened with a bottle of champagne smashed across its bow.
  • A maile lei may be hung above the door of a new business or home.
  • Lei will often be placed on a statue, a grave, or a place where an event of significance has happened.
For the most part, this is only an introduction of Lei in Hawai’i. 

The stories and traditions abound.  We could talk at length about the beauty, love, and creativity inspired by this age-old tradition of Lei giving and receiving.

There are many more styles and traditional Lei we have not even mentioned.  Lei making has evolved through the years into an art form, which is sometimes unrecognizable from the ancient traditions. 

One thing has never changed:
If you receive a lei – – – you know you have a connection with Hawai’i.  

Lei in Hawai’i is the ultimate expression of Aloha. The Hawaiians have an innate Aloha spirit, which is warm and welcoming.  Welcome, come in, share food with me, stay with me,  share stories, and friendship with me: this is the embodiment of a Lei.

This is Aloha.

Writing and Graphic Design by Sugandha Ferro Black

GLOSSARY* of Hawaiian Words

Kupuna – elders

Nā lei – plural for Lei


 *Please keep in mind that all Hawaiian Words have many meanings. The meanings we share here are the specific translations for the words as they pertain to this particular blog’s subject matter.

Photos courtesy of Wiki and other free sources unless otherwise noted.