May Day Is Lei Day in Hawaii

A stand of flower leis

Matthew Wakem/Getty Images

The origins of Lei Day in Hawaii trace back to early 1928 when writer and poet Don Blanding wrote an article in a local paper suggesting that a holiday be created centered around the Hawaiian custom of making and wearing lei.

It was fellow writer Grace Tower Warren who came up with the idea of a holiday on May 1 in conjunction with May Day. She is also responsible for the phrase, "May Day is Lei Day."

If you are ever on Oahu on May 1, you'll get to experience this Hawaiian holiday first-hand for yourself.

The First Lei Day

The first Lei Day was held on May 1, 1928, and everyone in Honolulu was encouraged to wear lei. Festivities were held downtown with hula, music, lei making demonstrations and exhibits and lei making contests.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported, "lei blossomed on straw and felt hats, lei decorated automobiles, men and women and children wore them draped about their shoulders. To the city Kamehameha's statue extended a garland of maile and plumeria, which fluttered in the wind from its extended hand. Lei recaptured the old spirit of the islands (a love of color and flowers, fragrance, laughter and aloha)."

In 1929, Lei Day was made an official holiday in the territory, a tradition which was interrupted only during the years of World War II, and which continues today.

Lei Day Today

On O`ahu, Lei Day festivities are centered in Queen Kapi`olani Park in Waikiki. As is tradition, the dozens of entries in the annual contest are placed at the Royal Mausoleum in Nuuanu the next morning. The City & County of Honolulu, Department of Parks & Recreation has details of the 2016 Lei Day Events including the investiture ceremony for the 2016 Lei Queen & her court.

Lei Day celebrations are not just confined to O'ahu. There are festivals and celebrations found on all of the major Hawaiian Islands.

On Hawai'i Island, the Big Island, the annual Hilo Lei Day Festival will take place on May 1 from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. The celebration in Hilo's old Town Square, Kalakaua Park, begins with Hawaiian music, hula, lei-making demonstrations, and features the heritage, history, and culture of the lei. Time: 10:00 am to 3:00 pm at Kalakaua Park, Hilo. Free to the public. For more information, call 808-961-5711.

Many celebrations are also held at local schools. Elementary schools hold celebrations crowning Lei Day kings, queens and princesses.

Each Island Has Its Own Lei

As reported in This Week Publications' feature on Lei Day, "Many people have difficulty saying 'I love you.' In Hawaii, we get around the words by giving a lei," explains Marie McDonald. The renown lei specialist has won the grand prize at Oahu's annual Lei Day competition and authored the definitive pictorial history book on lei art, Ka Lei. "Giving a lei lets someone know you love, respect and honor them. Even though a floral lei lasts a short time, the thought behind it lingers."

Each of the major Hawaiian Islands has a lei, treasured as its own.

  • Hawaii: Lehua. Its blossoms come from the `ohi`a lehua tree which grows on the slopes of the volcanoes on the Big Island. Its flowers, most commonly red but also found in white, yellow and orange, are sacred to Pele, the goddess of volcanoes.
  • Kauai: Mokihana. Actually, a fruit, the purplish berries of this tree which is found only on Kauai are strung like beads and often woven with strands of maile. The berries have a scent of anise and are long-lasting.
  • Kaho'olawe: Hinahina. Found on the beaches of Kaho`olawe, the stems and flowers of this silver-gray plant are braided together to form this lei.
  • Lanai: Kaunaoa. The light orange thread-like strands of this parasitic vine are gathered in handfuls and twisted together to form the lei.
  • Maui: Lokelani. The pink ​lokelani or "rose of heaven" is sweet-scented and very delicate.
  • Molokai: Kukui. The leaves and white flowers and sometimes nuts of the silver-green kekui, or candlenut, tree are braided together to make this lei.
  • Ni'ihau: Pupu. White pupu shells found along the shoreline of this rocky island are pierced and strung on cords to form this lei.
  • O'ahu:`Ilima. This yellow/orange lei is velvety, paper-thin and very delicate. It is sometimes called the royal lei because they were once worn only by the high chiefs.

We hope that you enjoy your Lei Day whether you are in Hawaii or elsewhere!

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