In Hawaii, we always do things a little bit differently from everywhere else—and a perfect example is May Day, or Lei Day in Hawaii.
May Day dates back thousands of years, to celebrations of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and other springtime festivals. Popular activities included Maypole dances, bonfires, and the crowning of a Queen of the May. In the U.S. and abroad, May Day also became a day to recognize the struggles of labor workers.
Here in Hawaii, flowers bloom all year and the Hawaiian tradition of lei making and giving is deeply ingrained. popular early-20th-century poet Don Blanding suggested a formal celebration to honor the lei’s role as an expression of aloha. His Honolulu Star-Bulletin colleague, columnist Grace Tower Warren, loved the idea, and proposed that the flower-friendly May Day also be Lei Day.
And so, Lei Day launched on May 1, 1928. According to the Star-Bulletin, “lei blossomed on straw and felt hats, lei decorated automobiles, men and women and children wore them draped about their shoulders.” A new song also came out: “May Day Is Lei Day in Hawaii.”
In 1929, Hawaii’s governor urged residents to “observe the day and honor the traditions of Hawaii nei by wearing and displaying lei.” The event grew annually, with lei exhibits, Hawaiian music and a royal pageant in recognition of Hawaii’s royal past.
The pageants became a Lei Day classic—so much so that schools began hosting their own Lei Day pageants. Students take their roles seriously as the Hawaiian king and queen. They are flanked by kahili bearers and eight princes and princesses. Each prince and princess represents a main island and is dressed in its signature colors and garlands. All students perform for the court—usually traditional songs and dances from Hawaii, Tonga, Samoa, New Zealand, Tahiti and other Pacific Islands, and often in costume.
Even these colorful pageants do not outshine the exhibits of lei, however, which are masterpieces of artistry and symbolism. Traditionally, a lei maker must put great thought, care and effort into the selection and gathering of the flowers, seeds, shells or nuts to be strung, as well as into the design and creation of the lei. While the maker strings the lei, his or her mana, or life force, is said to be woven into it. Thus, a lei can be much more than a strand of pretty flowers. It can be a gift infused with the maker’s spirit and affection.
For more than a century, the giving of lei has welcomed visitors to the Islands and bid loved ones farewell. No birthday, graduation, anniversary, retirement celebration or other special event is considered complete without the giving of lei. High school graduates sometimes have lei piled so high around their necks, they can barely see over the top!
Whichever Hawaiian island you’re on when May Day rolls around this year, be sure to find your way to the Lei Day celebration. There’s nothing quite like it!
In Honolulu, Lei Day Celebration 2017 will be held on May 1 at Kapiolani Park in Waikiki, beginning at 9 a.m. The free event features local entertainers, a display of the beautiful lei contest entries, Hawaiian craft exhibits and demonstration, storytelling and activities for keiki (children), as well as craft and food booths.