A Brief History and Origin of the Hawaiian Lei

The lei is practically synonymous with Hawaiian culture, but where did they come from?

Maybe you were greeted with a Hawaiian lei the first time you landed in the state, or maybe you have just gotten used to seeing them on TV.

Either way, you have seen and are familiar with the lei, but what does it mean and where did it come from? Many people take the lei for granted, but there’s a rich and fascinating history behind it.

We’ve compiled a brief history of the Hawaiian lei just for you.

The History of the Hawaiian Lei

The history of the lei traces back to the origins of Hawaii as we know it today. The beautiful, lush islands of Hawaii weren’t populated until relatively recently. It makes sense when you think about the geographic location and distance from the mainland, but it’s not something you would typically think of.

The first inhabitants of the islands were Polynesian sailors who arrived there around 400-500 A.D. Even more surprising is the fact that these sailors made the voyage in finely crafted canoes! These were not our typical idea of canoes, rather a sturdier and larger watercraft that could hold larger numbers of people.

Still, a boat needs to be extremely fit to cross the ocean. The islands were already populated with birds and fish, but the mariners needed to supplement their diets, so they carried with them a variety of plant an animal species. The supplies that those people brought with them on large canoes grew and developed the habitable, beautiful human environment that we know and love.

Polynesians Brought the Lei With Them

The tradition of the lei was already established Polynesian culture before anyone inhabited Hawaii. Leis used to be adorned with different objects that aren’t used in practice as often these days.

Leis were originally embellished with flowers, leaves of plants, seashells, various seeds and nuts, bird feathers, bones, and other objects that held significance. Crafting leis became a sort of art, one which led to the fine pieces that we know today.

Because they were so integral to Hawaiian culture from its beginnings, it’s no surprise that the Hawaiians used the lei in several ways to signify large cultural ideas.

How Were Leis Used?

The ancients used leis to signify their status in society. This was and is a common theme across cultures. People tend to dress in a way that signifies a fact or idea about themselves, most commonly found in high-class groups which seek to make known their role in society.

Leis were a way to embellish one’s self in a beautiful way, expressing their identity as Hawaiians. The lei was political as well, coming into play when two opposing groups sought to unite. Hawaiian chiefs would come together to form peace agreements, tying the vines from two leis together to symbolize the unity of the two tribes.

Intertwining a vine from each tribe was officially the “signature” of the peace treaty, if you will, and was very significant to the agreement.

Leis were also used in the household and nearly everywhere else. Because the object had such a connection to the spiritual, Hawaiians crafted leis that were worn for nearly every task you can think of. Different colors and pedals held relationships with different gods and goddesses.

The red Lehua flower, for example, represented the volcano goddesses. People used to give offerings of these flowers, dropping them into the volcanos as a way to honor the gods. Many people still hold to tradition and give offerings to this day.

How We Know Leis Today

Visitors started coming to Hawaii in the late 1800s, and it was almost immediately a custom to greet those visitors with leis. This is part of the reason that leis are so synonymous with Hawaii– mainlanders have received them ever since they started coming!

The leis given at that time were true to the original, traditional version that held beautiful flowers and objects. Those still exist, but the tourism and popularity of the Hawaiian lei has lead to the majority of them being mass produced and plastic. While the lei still holds a positive association for most people, the fact that they are not handmade limits the significance.

The entire process of making and wearing leis was and is a spiritual practice. The objects are carefully selected, the art of crafting the lei is fine-tuned and difficult, and the differences between leis are significant to the task that is being done while wearing them. Unfortunately, the mass production strips the lei of some of its significance.

Ways to Honor the Tradition

If you’re planning to visit Hawaii, you can engage with the lei the old fashioned way if you wish to. The best way to do this is by ordering a flower lei greeting when you arrive at the airport. It may seem unusual to order a greeting for yourself, but you’ll be granted with a warm welcome and a beautiful lei, just like those who visited the islands hundreds of years ago.

Beyond that, there aren’t many rules to wearing a lei. It’s important to recognize, however, that it is a significant object to the people of Hawaii, and it shouldn’t be treated with disrespect. The lei exists as a greeting, a reminder, and a spiritual tool.

People give out leis at nearly every special occasion, so there is a strong association between celebration and achievement when someone wears a lei. Because of this, giving a lei is a common and ordinary thing in Hawaii. This leads to the only real rule that there is when it comes to receiving one– always accept it.

Unless you have an allergy or some other difficulty with the lei, it’s best to receive it warmly when given to you.

Come to Hawaii!

The islands are filled with adventure and excitement. The Hawaiian lei is far from the only cultural gem that the islands have to offer, and we want you to experience it fully. Start your trip by getting the best tips and tricks.

If you’re interested in learning more about a trip to Hawaii, we have all the information you need. You can also buy Hawaiian flowers from our beautiful collection.

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