Yesterday was May 1, Lei Day in Hawaii. I love the way that different states have their own holidays – Flag Day in Pennsylvania, Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois and San Jacinto Day in Texas. Though Lei Day isn’t an official holiday, it’s celebrated with lei-making demonstrations and information about the history of this uniquely Hawaiian artifact. They crop up all over the islands, and throughout my books, starting with “the cheap shell leis they give you when you tour the aloha shirt factory” (Mahu). Here are two descriptions of the lei shops in Honolulu’s Chinatown:
“There were still a bunch of lei stores on South Beretania & Maunakea Streets, but they were tiny rooms with folding shutters or rolling grills, and the leis were all behind glass refrigerator cases. You could walk past and only smell car exhaust and fried oil, not a single flower” (Mahu).
inventory at a lei store
“Tinny Chinese music played somewhere as we walked over to Hotel Street, past a stand with row upon row of leis made of orchids, velvety orange ‘ilima flowers, and fragrant maile leaves intertwined with tiny white pikake blossoms. Behind the counter, an elderly grandmother sat stringing even more. Chattering teenagers and haole tourists crowded around the booth, debating the merits of different leis and bargaining for better prices” (Mahu Vice)
People often wear leis in everyday situations:
“[Melody] was dressed for work by then, a light yellow linen dress and sandals, a lei of shiny brown kukui nuts and a sports watch her only jewelry” (Mahu Surfer).
Schoolgirls wearing kukui nut leis
“I spotted my mother, wearing a bright red holoku, a sort of formal mu’umu’u, walking with my two of my nephews, both wearing aloha shirts and shorts, with kukui nut leis. We waved at each other” (Mahu Blood).
Plumeria and moss lei
At a fancy party in Mahu Fire, Kimo mentions the way that many service people in the islands wear leis as part of their uniforms. “The waiters and waitresses all wore plumeria leis and aloha shirts, and they were offering a choice of mai tais or champagne cocktails.” When Kimo goes car shopping in Mahu Vice, he notes, “The dealership was playing KINE, Hawaiian 105, in the background, and the two receptionists at the front desk wore fragrant leis of red carnations.”
Living people aren’t the only ones wearing leis. In Mahu Surfer, Kimo visits a surf shop on the North Shore, noticing:
“Mana’o Company was playing low in the background, encouraging us to ‘Spread a Little Aloha’ around the world, and in one corner of the room a bust of King Kamehameha surveyed us, an electric blue plastic lei around his neck.”
Leis are part of celebrations as well:
“The downtown streets were crowded with tourists in convertibles, delivery trucks, and a wedding couple in a white horse-drawn carriage. Both bride and groom were decked out in colorful leis and plumeria headbands” (Mahu Vice).
Leis are a powerful symbol of Hawaiian heritage, and after a protest rally in Honolulu, Kimo says, “Walking back into the federal building, Ray and I saw the debris from the demonstration everywhere—crumpled flyers, crushed leis, and a lot of empty plastic water bottles” (Mahu Vice). And “We passed a pickup truck festooned with plastic leis in every color, so many that you couldn’t see the rails, with a battered statue of King Kamehameha propped up in the back” (Mahu Blood).
A domestic scene later in Mahu Blood shows the ubiquity of leis. “Edith’s mattress had been taken off the bed and sliced open; the same for her pillows. Her clothes were strewn on the floor, along with cheap paper fans, plastic leis and stuffed animals she must have used to amuse the baby.” And another, prettier one, from Zero Break: “Fake flower leis hung from the ceilings, and the walls were hung with reproductions of hapa-haole music covers, the ones from the twenties and thirties with a beautiful island girl strumming a ukulele.”
Leis are also a frequent pattern on aloha shirts. “One of the guys, Japanese by the looks of him, was wearing a bright aloha shirt with a pattern of ilima flowers, the kind used in fragrant leis, and carrying a white canvas bag with a wooden handle” (Mahu Blood).
The cover of Mahu Blood includes an image of a statue of Queen Liliu'okalani holding leis in her outstretched arm.
Finally, here’s a bit from a short story called “Refuge,” about a camping trip that Kimo and his friend Gunter make to Ho’okena Beach on the Big Island of Hawai’i.
There were two plumeria leis on our open sleeping bags. I didn’t even wonder where they’d come from. I knew.
“Do you think...” Gunter asked.
“You know what they call the plumeria, don’t you?” Gunter didn’t know. “The dead man flower, because you see so many of them in cemeteries. Some of the hula halaus, when they need to make leis for a performance, they go to the cemetery and take the plumerias.” Gunter looked at me. “Well, it’s cheaper than buying them.”
“This is creepy.”
I picked up one lei and put it over Gunter’s head, draping it around his neck. Then I kissed him once on each cheek. “Go on,” I said. “Your turn.”
He picked up the remaining lei, put it around my neck, and kissed me. We both wore the leis all the way back to Honolulu.
So even though Lei Day has passed, I hope these excerpts give you a sense of how important these floral necklaces are to Hawaiian culture. For more about my Mahu Investigations, click here.