The Hawaiian Lei Custom is No Corny Tourist Shtick

Several years ago, Jerry Louis was in Hawaii shortly before his annual Labor Day telethon. While he was here, he availed himself of the opportunity to promote the telecast by contacting the Honolulu Press Club. He was invited to the 2nd-floor club for lunch and spent a pleasant hour and a half hobnobbing with members of the media. Upon his arrival he was greeted with literally dozens of lei that were draped over his shoulders and piled up clear to the tops of his ears. When he left the club to board his waiting limo downstairs, the club members were watching through the windows. As he reached the curb, he unceremoniously lifted off all the lei and dropped them into the gutter. Oops. That’s not the way we treat lei in Hawaii. The telethon didn’t get a lot of media coverage in the islands that year.

The lei is a symbol of welcome and respect. It’s origin came with the very first Polynesians to reach Hawaii. Lei were made with flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even bones and teeth of animals. Hawaiians wore them as adornments and to distinguish themselves.

In the early 1900s, lei makers and vendors would line the Aloha Tower pier to greet ships and welcome visitors to the islands as well as returning locals. When visitors departed on the ships, custom had them tossing their lei into the sea as their ships passed Diamond Head as a symbolic promise to return some day.

Today’s airport lei greeting emerged with the surge in tourism following WW II.
The lei quickly became an iconic worldwide symbol. (You can order a flower lei greeting for yourself and your traveling partners. Greeters will welcome you with fragrant fresh lei and a hug as you deplane.)

Lei greetings are not reserved for visitors. They are an integral part of our lives in Hawaii. May Day is “Lei Day” here, and lei makers scramble to meet the demand. If one of us leaves the islands and returns, he or she is greeted with a lei upon being met at the airport by even family members. Lei are presented for virtually every occasion – birthdays, anniversaries, graduation, retirement, weddings and, yes, funerals. Anybody can buy or make a lei for him- or herself and wear it at any time (at the risk of being asked, “What’s the occasion?”). Hats are commonly adorned with flower, feather or nut lei bands.

Wear your lei draped over your shoulders, and let it hang down both in front and in back. Don’t ever refuse an offered lei. Even if you have a serious allergy problem, hold your breath as it’s being placed, then explain your plight, remove it respectfully and place it somewhere for safekeeping.

And don’t ever, under any circumstances, pull a Jerry Louis.

Posted by: Jamie Winpenny