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Lei Day

1 May

Hilo, Hawai`i

Kalākaua Park



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Na Lei o Hawai`i
The Lei of Hawaii

Lei are an instantly recognizable symbol of Hawai`i. The wreaths of flowers and foliage worn by both men and women add fragrance and beauty to island life. But lei are more than flowers sewn on a strand. There are lei of seeds, shells, feathers, and even words. A special song composed for a loved one can be a lei. But all of them are a tangible expression of aloha, and as such are given to show love, joy, or sympathy, and as greetings and farewells. In fact, poetically, a child is called a lei, because the child is the weaving together of the love of his or her parents and ancestors.

In modern times, a lei is often given with a kiss. The story goes: During World War II, a hula dancer at one of the USO clubs was dared by her girlfriends to kiss a handsome young officer. She met the challenge by going up to him and giving him her lei, saying, "It is our custom to give a kiss with a lei." Thus a new "ancient" custom was born.

In ancient times, however, a lei was never placed over a person's head and given with a kiss - pleasant as that modern tradition is. To "na po`e kahiko", the people of olden times, the head was sacred. People did not put their hands or arms above another's head. A lei was carefully wrapped in a special container, often made of fresh ti leaves, and handed to the recipient. If the lei was for a very high ranking ali`i, then the lei would be handed to a retainer to give the ali`i.

Robert Elwes, an artist who visited the Hawaiian islands in 1849, wrote that Hawaiian women "delight in flowers, and wear wreaths on their heads in the most beautiful way."

In 1927, the poet Don Blanding had an idea for a festival to celebrate the lei. The idea became so popular that in 1929, Lei Day became an official holiday in the Hawaiian Islands. Today, while "May Day is Lei Day in Hawai`i," in addition to the original May 1 celebration, festivities are held on the weekends surrounding the date, and throughout the months of April and May.

About Kuku`ena, Goddess of Lei Making

Hawaiian culture, through most of our history, was transmitted through oral tradition. Much of our heritage was preserved in storytelling. When we lose the stories, we lose a lot of who we are as a people. Who knows the story of Kuku`ena? She was a critical figure in Pele’s journey to Hawai`i. She prepared the `awa for the protocols, she helped guide the family’s journey by reading the clouds, she brought the seeds and cuttings for plants we use today in lei making and medicine – which are far more interrelated than most people realize. She is a healer, the goddess of lei making, and a guide to travelers lost in the wilderness – an ever-present danger to those who make their living going out and harvesting the wild plants for lei. This festival, among other things, seeks to share her story.

An elder sister of Pele, the volcano goddess, Kuku`ena is known by many names. She is a goddess of lei making, and oversees the preparation of `awa for the Pele family. As Hi`iakaikapua`ena`ena, Hi`iaka of the Burning Clouds, she also reveals herself in the rosy glow seen in clouds and on mountain slopes in the early morning. Other names of this aspect are Hi`iakaikapua`ena`ena, or Hi`iakaipua`ena`ena, Hi`iaka of the Burning Flower, and Hi`iakaipu`ena`ena, Hi`iaka of the burning hills. She also is known as Hi`iakaikapu`ena`ena, Hi`iaka of the burning restrictions, and Hi`iakaikapua`ane`ane, Hi`iaka in Extreme Old Age. As Kūkū`enaikeahiho`omauhonua, Beating Hot in the Perpetual Earth, she is appealed to as a guide of lost travelers. She assists travelers back to the path or familiar ground and disappears.

Copper mural of Kuku`ena, Goddess of Lei making

In this copper mural by Hawai`i Island artist Leilehua Yuen, Hi`iakaikapua`ena`ena is depicted in her journey from the southern homelands. Traditional kapa motifs are used to depict the clouds, sea, and rain. The wave forms are echoed in the "shark-tooth," "voyage," or "hala" small triangle designs. As the shark tooth, they represent Kamohoali`i, the shark-deity brother who guided and protected the family as it traveled to Hawai`i. The triangles also represent the journey, itself. And, as stylized representations of a lei hala (garlandof pandanus keys),they represent the passing away of the old, and embarking on a new life.

Hi`iakaikapua`ena`ena, herself, is seen in the cloud forms as she gazea into her `apu (bowl) of `awa. Hr hair becomes the lei hulu (feather tell-tail) affixed to the mast of their canoe, Honuaiakea, a gift to Pele of Kamohoali`i. The shape of the canoe's sail is an echo of Kamohoali`i's great fins.

Nui ka Hana o na Haku Lei
Vast is the Work of the Lei Maker

Lei are as diverse as their wearers and makers, and this diversity only adds to the beauty and excitement of this traditional adornment. Hawaiian lei makers are innovative, and constantly creating new styles as fashion and taste change with the times. But it is important to remember the old styles which provide the foundation of the art form, and the words that describe them. Today, it is common to use to term "haku," to describe everything from a lei po`o to a lei pāpale, to a lei wili. When the language loses the specific terms, we lose more than one word. We lose the ability to speak - and think - in the detail we once had. The Hawaiian culture and language are far more complex, diverse, and varied than would be indicated by most tourist publications, or even Western school texts. The following is an excellent starting point from which to explore the diversity of the language of the lei, that iconic emblem of Hawai`i, and the richness of the language used to describe it. To simplify and save space, only those definitions applicable to the art of the lei are used below.

haku - v. to compose, to invent; to arrange or put in order, as a braid or plait

haku - n. three-ply braid. A method of making a lei by using a base material, such as soft lā`ī, and braiding it while adding the decorative plant material into each wrap of the braid. Lei laukukui and lei laua`e are typically made with this method.

haku mele - poet, one who composes songs. Many songs are composed as lei for cherished individuals.

hili - braid or plait. A method of making a plaited lei in which the plaited material is also the decorative material. Lei palapalai and lei kauna`oa often are made using this style.

hilo - twist, double helix, intertwine. A method of making a lei by twisting two strands together to form a rope. The popular and simple lei lā`ī is made using this method. It also is another method of making the lei kauna`oa.

hīpu`u - a method of making a lei by knotting together the stems of the decorative plant material. Various knotting techniques are used, including overhand, and square knots. Sometimes several strands made in this fashion will be braided or twisted together using hili, hilo, or wili techniques. It requires a very long stem on the decorative material. Some lei laukukui and lei laupohuehue are made with this method. (Same as nīpu`u, kīpu`u)

humu, humuhumu, humupapa, kuipapa - sew to a backing, basting stitch. A method of making a lei by sewing the decorative material to a backing such as lauhala, paper, or felt. Lei bouganvilla and feather hat lei often are made with this method.

kamalei - the most precious lei in Hawaiian culture, a child. The child is crafted by interweaving the love of the parents.

kīpu`u - a method of making a lei by knotting the stems of the plant material. (See hīpu`u, nīpu`u)

kui - pierce, piercing stitch. A method of making a lei by sewing or piercing the decorative material with a needle and stringing it onto a thread. There are several styles of lei kui. Among them: 1) kui pololei - pierced down the throat of the blossom and out the petiole base. 2) kui poepoe - strung like a wheel so the face of the flowers are directly away from the thread. 3) kui lau - strung side to side forming a flat band. (See kuipapa)

lei hulu - feather lei. Still higly prized, these lei were once the sepcial adornment of royalty.

lei pāpale - any lei worn on a hat.

lei po`o - any lei worn on the head.

lei pūpū - shell lei lei

pūpū o Ni`ihau - lei made from the rare shells of the island of Ni`ihau, they are extremely valuable mele lei - poem, chant, song created as a gift for a loved one. nīpu`u - a method of making a lei by knotting the stems of the plant material. (See hīpu`u, kīpu`u)

pauku – “sections,” a style in which the decorative material used in making the lei is arranged in sections or bands, often alternating.

wili - wind, twist, crank, coil. A corkscrew-type twist - as found in Porky Pig's tail and the seed pod of the wili-wili tree. In the other, multiple strands of the lei material are twisted to form a loose rope-like strand.

wili poepoe - A technique in which the lei is made by winding fiber around successive short lengths of the decorative material, binding them together into a “rope.” Sometimes a base material such as lauhala, a thick raffia braid, etc. is used to make wrapping easier.

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