“Who comes out to put lei on all the statues?” a Hawaii visitor asked. We were walking past the statue of Duke Kahanamoku on Waikiki beach, but we had passed others during her visit and most were adorned with lei (as with the Elvis statue mentioned recently). She imagined some park worker decorating the statues each morning.

I explained that visitors leave their lei in places with special meaning to them. Even if you know nothing about lei customs, it seems obviously wrong to throw a lei into the trash. Not only are the flowers too beautiful to discard carelessly, a lei is a sign of welcome and love. Many people come to Waikiki each day for a Hawaii vacation, and most are greeted with a lei when they arrive. Just as many leave each day, and the lei stay here.

It is also common to see locals wearing lei in Hawaii, not just visitors. For locals, it often means they have given a speech or presentation, received an award or honor, or were guest of some sort. At conferences on campus, speakers are often given lei as they are introduced. So lei carry a sense of joy and it seems only right to pass it on.

One tradition is to return lei to the earth. Lei are often hung in trees or floated on waters. In an old movie, people tossed their lei into the sea from the deck of a cruise ship, saying the direction the flowers floated indicated whether they would return to the islands. I’m pretty sure that last part is a Hollywood invention, but the practice of floating lei is real. One recent visitor tossed her lei from the Pali Overlook in honor of those who died there in the conquest of Oahu. Another put the lei on a religious statue with particular significance to her.

Perhaps more important than the location is the attitude toward disposing of a lei. A lei is a gift of love and should be treated with respect. Lei create a connection between the giver and recipient. I like to think of the many lei adorning Hawaii statues as a way for visitors to return the aloha they find here in the islands.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I actually have a lei in my freezer that was made almost 10 years ago…It holds great sentimental value. So far it's made it's way from Maui to Illinois to Oahu to Big Island back to Oahu and now to Vegas!  One of the most awesome examples of lei giving is during a high school graduation…the kids get so many lei they can barely see over them!  My favorite lei is the maile…I love it and it's not even a flower lei! LOL  😀

  2. Lei's are a wonderful part of Hawaiian Culture, as should be, with so many beautiful flowers in bloom all year long.  Flower lei's are given as a gesture of love for every occasion.  Tossing a lei in the ocean is a big 'no-no'.  Before tossing the lei flowers into the ocean, be sure to untie the string and push the flowers off.  The string can hurt our precious marine life.  Too many turtles have gotten strangled by the string.

  3. Thank you Kalei for letting us know about the string being a potential harm to marine life. I'm guilty of throwing my lei in the surf before I leave the islands, believing this will bring me back one more time. I will now push the flowers off the string as you suggest.

    • Yes! That’s a wonderful suggestion as I would hate to hurt any precious sea life or add any waste to the beautiful oceans! Before I saw this I was thinking it was a great idea to toss into the ocean, but now I definitely will take all flowers off 1st. Keeping the string. Thank you so much!!

  4. Very nice article … there is one place however where leis should not be left and that is at heiau. It's a nice thought, but leaving leis (and sometimes people even leave food!) attracts all kinds of little vermin. Heiau are spiritual places so if someone wants to express their respect they can do it with their voice – a simple thank you is enough, in fact there are many lovely very short chants that are easy to learn if someone is really interested in learning about the culture. Mahalo!

  5. Marqiuta thanks for the caution about leaving lei at heiau. I would never have thought of that! Also thanks to Kalei for the string warning. Even when people have the best of intentions, it is often hard to do the right thing. This helps so much!

  6. this is all very interesting.  I had learned at my halau  that lei must not be thrown away.  One friend dries them and drapes them over her curtain rods for an added touch to the draperies.  now I add mine to a room divider I have.

  7. If you throw a lei into the ocean, make sure the threading that made it is biodegradable, as none biodegradable material can potentially entangle wildlife! If its non-biodegradable material, cut it and spread the flowers on the water instead 🙂

  8. PLEASE DO NOT THROW LEI’S IN THE OCEAN!! OUR SEA TURTLE’S ARE GETTING STRANGLED BECAUSE OF THIS NONSENSE…..
    THIS IS NOT TRADITION IT’S IGNORANCE!!

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