Spring Break is over, and Hawaii students are headed into the home stretch before summer vacation. Even students attending schools on a year-round schedule get to enjoy a precious few weeks of summertime bliss in paradise. And with summer comes graduation season, when Hawaii’s young adults undertake the ritual rite of passage that marks the point in life when we have to start paying for our own food.
There are a couple of things that make graduation season in Hawaii particularly unique among U.S. states. First is the turnout. On the mainland, people attending a graduation ceremony are generally limited to proud parents and jealous younger siblings. But Hawaii is all about the extended family, and graduation attendees will likely include a graduate’s grandmas and grandpas, aunties and uncles, cousins, neighbors, pediatricians, and little league coaches.
Many large classes have to hold their graduation ceremonies at venues that can accommodate thousands of attendees, like the Blaisdell Arena, Waikiki Shell, or Aloha Stadium. This uncommonly high attendance may be due to the fact that everyone wants to get in on the sumptuous backyard feasts that invariably follow a graduation ceremony in Hawaii.
The most uniquely Hawaiian graduation tradition, however, it the giving of flower lei to the graduate. It borders on the absurd, actually. Grinning graduates are loaded with so many lei that the more slightly built teeter and wobble under the weight. The lei pile so high that graduates are forced to crane their necks to the sky to breathe as the floral wreaths are stacked past their chins. It gets to the point that a graduate can no longer even see who’s giving them the lei. “It’s Auntie Moana, Jennifer! Congratulations!”
In fact, the demand for lei during graduation season is so high that local flower and lei shops are inundated with orders like no other time of year and the supply dwindles drastically.
Panicked aunties scramble at the last minute, having forgotten about a coworker’s kid after buying lei for their own gaggle of nieces and nephews. I reserved a lei for a nephew New Mexico in March for pickup in mid-May. You can’t be too careful.
Haku lei are popular for boys and girls (especially girls), and are the most coveted by the lei-giver because they are worn on the head. You can only wear one at a time. It’s a badge of honor to have your haku lei wearing a beaming graduate under it.
Other popular types of lei include open-ended strands of musky maile leaf (especially for boys), pikake, and pua keni keni, although pretty much anything will do. But no one turns up to witness a young person graduate in Hawaii without bringing a flower lei for them. The heady smell of lei during a graduation ceremony is as ubiquitous as camera flashes and parents’ tears of joy and relief.