“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 wrong to throw a lei into the trash. Not only are the flowers too beautiful to discard carelessly, but 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 stays 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 guests 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 water. 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 creates a connection between the giver and the recipient. I like to think of the many lei adorning Hawaii statues as a way for visitors to return the aloha they find here on the islands.