It’s commonly believed that when a plane lands on Maui, or any island in Hawaii, the first experience tourists have is being given a lei to wear around their neck. The colorful bouquet of flowers is an emblem of Hawaii in popular culture.
But is it true?
Many visitors to the island are disappointed to find out that there’s no one at the airport gate waiting to wrap their neck in the colorful flowers of a lei. It turns out that the history of the lei, and its future, are a bit more complicated than popular culture has led us to believe.
Where did the custom of lei giving come from?
Early Polynesian voyagers took an incredible journey from Tahiti, navigating by the stars in sailing canoes, to reach the shores of Hawaii. The Polynesian settlers brought with them the tradition of the lei.
A lei is, in general, any wreath or garland of objects strung together and worn. There are many different kinds. Early leis were made of of flowers, leaves, seeds, shells, nuts, feathers, and in some cases, the teeth and bones of animals.
Native Hawaiians wore leis to beautify themselves, while some wore leis as a status symbol.
Why has the tradition of giving a lei to visitors ended?
In the early 1900s, during what was called “boat days,” when all the visitors to the islands arrived by boats, there were vendors lining the pier to give away leis. However, tourism was in the hundreds, and Hawaiians easily managed the volume of leis that needed to be created.
It was roughly between the 1960s and 1970s when the numbers of tourists was rose to the thousands, and then into the millions. There were 10,424,995 visitors to the islands in 2019.
The lei makers couldn’t keep up, and therefore the tradition ended.
Is there a way to still get a lei when you travel to Hawaii?
There are companies on Maui (and the other islands) that offer leis.
You need to make arrangements to get a lei ahead of time. Or, sometimes leis are offered as a part of vacation packages to the islands.
How do you wear a lei?
The tradition of wearing a lei is part of a ceremony. The person giving you the lei places it over your head, draping the garland around both the front and back of your neck.
A lei is given for any number of reasons: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, or simply because you want to be wearing one.
But keep in mind that it is considered rude to remove the lei in front of the person who gave it to you. Keep keep the lei snugly around your neck!
Also, you should never refuse a lei, as that doing so is considered unkind.
Where to find a lei?
There are plenty of businesses on Maui where you can find beautiful, fresh flower leis.
When I visited Maui, I found a beautiful little shop called Haku Maui, where the shop owner handmakes each lei, and even teaches workshops on how to make your own. Her shop is nestled in Makawao.
Once we purchased our leis she took us out back, taught us the ceremonial way of placing them on each other, and even took pictures for us.
Another great company is The Hawaiian Lei Company, and they can even ship leis to your home.
Knowing ahead of time that you need to arrange for a lei greeting ahead your trip is extremely helpful in making sure your Maui vacation starts off in just the right way.