Lei Day is May 1st
“May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii Nei.”
In 1927, Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer and poet Don Blanding encouraged the local newspaper to urge their readers to give and wear a lei on May 1 to honor the Hawaiian culture and rejoice in being so fortunate to live in paradise. His co-worker, Grace Tower Warren, decided Lei Day should be observed on May Day, May 1st, and popularized the phrase, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii Nei.” Princess Helen Kawananākoa approved of this idea. This inspired Ruth and Leonard “Red” Hawk to write “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii,” which is still sung today.
It officially became known as Lei Day in 1929 and a celebration was held in downtown Honolulu on Oahu. It outgrew its location and moved to Queen Kapiolani Park in Waikiki. Today, thousands of people still gather at Queen Kapiolani Park or gather on the other islands for hula exhibition, lei exhibits, and sharing of the Hawaiian culture.
In 2001, Hawai`i Senator Daniel Kahikina Akaka, during a May 1 address said, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii. Lei Day is a nonpolitical and nonpartisan celebration. Indeed, its sole purpose is to engage in random acts of kindness and sharing, and to celebrate the Aloha spirit, that intangible, but palpable, essence which is best exemplified by the hospitality and inclusiveness exhibited by the Native Hawaiians — Hawaii’s indigenous peoples — to all people of goodwill.”
What Is a Lei and Its Meaning
The passing and receiving of the lei was originally practiced throughout Polynesia. Original Hawaiian settlers carried this custom to the islands. In ancient Hawaiian times, commoners and chiefs of all genders wore lei, but certain lei such as the lei niho palaoa, made from a whale tooth and entwined human hair, was reserved only for royal blood. In modern practice, people continue to wear and exchange lei on occasions like graduations, funerals, birthdays, and weddings.
Lei are traditionally made with flowers, shells, feathers, or ribbon. Traditionally, lei were oftentimes tied around the person’s neck as a sign of respect because the head and back were considered sacred, which is unlike today’s lei presentations where the presenter places the lei over the wearer’s head. Either way, when presented, the mana (spirit) of the lei maker is said to pass to its wearer.
Leis are thought to be island specific as each island has specific colors, flowers, or shells native to each island. Hawaii Island’s color is ulaula (red) and its flower is the ohia lehua; Maui’s color is akala (pink) and its flower is the lokelani; Oahu’s color is melemele (yellow) and its flower is the ilima; Molokai’s color is omaomao (green) and flower is the kukui; Lanai’s color is alani (orange) and flower is kaunaoa; Kahoolawe’s color is hinahina (silvery gray) and flower is the hinahina (Heliotropium anomalum); Kauai’s color is poni (purple) and its flower is mokihana; and Niihau’s color is keokeo (white) and its flower is the pupu (shell).
Across all islands, schools celebrate Lei Day with songs, hula dancing, and a procession of the Lei Day court. Students elect a king and queen to represent each of the eight main Hawaiian Islands and this concludes with a special hula performance by each. Royals also participate in the customs of Lei Day by wearing a flower and color distinct to each of the eight islands.
Each year, the Lei Queen and her court preside over the festivities. Lei Queen is selected based on their lei making skills, hula proficiency, and Hawaiian language fluency. Each May, aloha shirts and flowing mu’umu’u dresses of all colors can be seen through the streets. Locals are always most excited about the Lei Day exhibit as people get in line to see the prize-winning lei of the year. Awards are given to lei in various categories including lei papale (hat lei), lei lipine (yarn lei), mixed media, and youth, but the most prestigious is the Mayor’s Grand Prize. Bill Char was once the recipient of the award after entering a delicately crafted blue lei made of local ferns, berries, and flowers.
Oahu hosts the state’s largest May Day event. No matter which day of the week May 1 falls on, the Lei Day Celebration takes place at Queen Kapiolani Park in Waikiki. The annual event features live music, a stunning lei contest exhibit, hula performances, demonstrations, craft and food vendors, and more. This event is free and open to the public.
The Lei Day Heritage Festival is a free event at Hale Hōʻikeʻike at the Bailey House (formerly The Bailey House Museum). The festival has live music, entertainment, a lei contest, and food.
On the Big Island of Hawaii, the annual Lei Day Festival is held in Hilo at the Kalakaua Park. The free event includes lei-making demonstrations at this historic site nestled within downtown Hilo. For updates, visit Hilo May Day Festival on Facebook.
On Kauai, the historic Lei Day Festival returns to the Kauai Marriott. Enter your lei into the contest, learn to make a lei, or win a lei to take home. There will also be food vendors and live music.
Even if you don’t live in Hawaii, you can still celebrate Lei Day with all of your friends, family ,and community. Host a party and make lei and hula dance and have dancing and lei making competitions with music and food.
Spend the day learning new traditions that you can make into your own traditions.