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Lei Day: Celebrating Hawaiian Culture and Tradition

Lei Day:

A Hawaiian Holiday


Hawaiʻi is known for its stunning natural beauty, vibrant culture, and warm aloha spirit. One of the most beloved holidays in Hawaiʻi is Lei Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the Hawaiian tradition of giving and receiving lei. In this article, we'll explore the history of Lei Day, the types of activities and events that are done during this holiday, some interesting facts, and the special significance it has for Native Hawaiian people and culture today.



History of Lei Day:

Lei Day was officially first celebrated on May 1, 1928, by poet and writer Don Blanding. Blanding had a deep appreciation for Hawaiian culture and was struck by the beauty and significance of the lei, which he saw as a symbol of the aloha spirit. He believed that the lei represented a tangible expression of love, respect, and affection for one another.


The first recorded lei making contest took place in Honolulu in 1928 and was organized by the Outdoor Circle, a local civic organization.


In the 1930s, Hawaiian Civic Clubs began to host their own lei making contests as a way to celebrate Lei Day, which had been established as a statewide holiday in 1929. These contests quickly became popular, with participants from all over Hawaii competing to create the most beautiful and creative lei. The contests were often judged based on a variety of factors, including the quality of the materials used, the complexity of the design, and the overall visual appeal of the lei.


One of the most notable civic clubs to host a lei making contest was the Hui Makaala, which was founded in 1937 and is still active today. The Hui Makaala's annual lei contest has become one of the most prestigious and well-known in Hawaii, with participants from all over the state and even from other parts of the world.


Over the years, the lei making contests held by Hawaiian Civic Clubs have evolved and expanded to include different categories and styles of lei, including lei made from flowers, leaves, and other natural materials, as well as lei made from more modern materials like ribbon and paper. The contests have also become a way to showcase the creativity and skill of lei makers, as well as to honor the history and cultural significance of lei making in Hawaii.


To honor and celebrate this cherished tradition, Blanding created Lei Day, a day dedicated to the art of lei-making and the exchange of lei. The first Lei Day was a huge success, with schools across the islands holding contests to see who could make the most intricate and beautiful lei.


In 1929, Lei Day was officially recognized as a state holiday in Hawaii. Today, Lei Day is celebrated not only in Hawaii but also in many other parts of the world.


Here are a few examples of how Lei Day is celebrated outside of Hawaii:

  1. Japan: In Japan, Lei Day is celebrated on May 4th and is known as "Hawaii Day". The holiday was established in the 1970s to promote tourism to Hawaii, and it has since become a popular day to celebrate Hawaiian culture and tradition. Many people in Japan wear Hawaiian shirts, dance hula, and participate in other cultural activities.

  2. California, USA: California has a large Hawaiian community, particularly in the cities of San Diego and Long Beach, where Lei Day is celebrated annually. The events usually include a lei-making competition, hula dancing, live music, and food booths selling Hawaiian dishes. The day is an opportunity for people to come together and celebrate their shared love of Hawaiian culture.

  3. New Zealand: In New Zealand, Lei Day is known as "Aloha Festival" and is celebrated in Auckland. The festival features a range of cultural activities, including hula dancing, traditional Hawaiian music, and food. The day is an opportunity for the local Hawaiian community to showcase their culture and share it with others.

  4. Guam: In Guam, Lei Day is celebrated on May 1st, the same day as in Hawaii. The holiday is known as "May Day" and is a public holiday on the island. The day is marked with a variety of activities, including a parade, traditional dances, and lei-making contests. Many people in Guam have a strong connection to Hawaiian culture and see Lei Day as an opportunity to celebrate their shared heritage.

In all of these places, Lei Day is a celebration of Hawaiian culture and tradition, and a way for people to come together and honor their shared love of the aloha spirit. Whether it's through dancing hula, making lei, or sharing traditional Hawaiian food, Lei Day is a day to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of Hawaii and the impact it has had on people around the world.


Activities and Events:

Lei Day is celebrated with a wide variety of activities and events. Many people start the day by attending a lei-making workshop, where they can learn about the different types of lei and how to make their own. This is a great opportunity to connect with the community and learn about Hawaiian culture and tradition.


Throughout the day, there are many cultural performances and demonstrations, including hula dancing, music, and storytelling. Many communities also hold parades and pageants, with participants dressed in colorful and elaborate costumes.


One of the highlights of Lei Day is the lei-making competition, where participants can showcase their skills and creativity in making beautiful and intricate lei. The competition is open to people of all ages and is a fun way to celebrate the art of lei-making.

Interesting Facts:

  • The song "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii" was written in 1928 by Leonard "Red" Hawk and is now considered the official Lei Day song.

  • The lei is not just a Hawaiian tradition - many other cultures throughout the world also have a history of giving and receiving floral garlands.

  • The official flower of Lei Day is the pua melia, or plumeria, a fragrant flower that is commonly used in lei-making.


Significance for Native Hawaiian People:

For Native Hawaiians, Lei Day is more than just a holiday - it's a celebration of their culture, heritage, and way of life. The lei is a symbol of aloha, or love and respect for one another, and is deeply rooted in Native Hawaiian traditions. It has had special impact on Hawaiian children, as it is one of the few holidays celebrating Hawaiian culture that occurs during the school year. Lei-making competitions, hula performances, and a pageant emulating and honoring traditional Hawaiian chiefly court are just some of the many events schools across the Hawaiian islands put on in celebration.


Lei Day is a reminder of the importance of preserving and sharing their traditions with future generations. It is also an opportunity to honor their ancestors and connect with their cultural heritage. Many Native Hawaiians see Lei Day as a way to reaffirm their identity and pride in their culture.


Lei Day is a unique and beloved holiday in Hawaii, celebrating the beauty and significance of the lei and its place in Hawaiian culture. Whether you're a longtime resident or a first-time visitor, we encourage you to take part in the festivities and experience the aloha spirit for yourself. Lei Day is a testament to the resilience and vitality of Hawaiian culture and tradition, and we hope it continues to be celebrated for generations to come.


All historical images courtesy of The Hawaiʻi State Archives.

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