Discovering the Significance: What Does the Lei Symbolize

As soon as you step off the plane in Hawaii, you’ll likely be greeted by a smiling local who will place a colorful lei around your neck. But have you ever stopped to wonder what this beautiful and fragrant garland actually symbolizes? The truth is, the lei carries a deep cultural significance in Hawaiian culture and represents everything from love to respect to celebration.

For Hawaiians, the lei is much more than just a tourist souvenir or decoration. It is a symbol of the islands’ deep heritage and connection to the land and sea. Made from a variety of natural materials, including flowers, leaves, and even shells, the lei represents the abundance and beauty of Hawaii’s rich ecosystems. Each type of lei carries its own unique meaning, whether it’s the vivid red of a hibiscus lei, which symbolizes love and passion, or the delicate purple of a orchid lei, which represents royalty.

Whether you’re visiting Hawaii for the first time or you’ve lived on the islands your whole life, the lei serves as a powerful reminder of the beauty, generosity, and spirit of aloha that defines Hawaiian culture. So the next time you’re lucky enough to receive a lei, take a moment to appreciate not just its beauty, but also the deep cultural significance it carries.

History of the Lei

The lei is a symbolic floral garland that is commonly used in Hawaiian culture for a variety of occasions, including weddings, graduations, and other special events. This ornamental decoration dates back to ancient times, where Hawaiians would wear different garlands made from fruits, flowers, shells, and feathers to represent their status in society or their connection to the land and sea.

  • The word lei comes from the Hawaiian word “lei” which means “to encircle” or “to crown”
  • Leis were originally made from various materials including leaves, ferns, and vines
  • Leis were also used to denote peace or truce between warring parties, as symbols of love and respect

The use of the lei became more widespread during the reign of King Kamehameha II in the early 1800s. King Kamehameha II removed the religious taboos surrounding men and women eating together and encouraged everyone to partake in the feast known as ‘aha‘aina (which means “gathering for a meal”). As part of the feast, everyone was encouraged to wear lei as a sign of goodwill and hospitality. This created a wave of popularity for the lei that has continued to this day.

With the arrival of European and American influences on Hawaiian culture in the late 1800s, new materials and styles were incorporated into lei-making, including ribbons, beads, and paper. Today, leis can be fashioned from a wide range of materials, including flowers, shells, nuts, and even candy. They are still commonly worn and given as gifts to express sentiments of love, congratulation, and respect.

Materials Used in Lei Making Significance
Plumeria Represents the beauty of Hawaii
Tuberose Symbolizes purity and sweetness
Maile Vine Used in important events such as weddings and graduations
Seashells Represents the beauty of the ocean and the island’s connection to it

The lei is an integral part of Hawaiian culture and continues to be a cherished tradition to this day. Whether worn as a sign of celebration, love, or respect, the lei remains a symbol of the Aloha spirit of Hawaii and the warm hospitality of its people.

Cultural significance of the lei in Hawaiian traditions

Leis are an integral part of Hawaiian culture and are used to celebrate special occasions or to show respect and affection. The lei is a symbol of love, friendship, and hospitality in Hawaii. Lei-giving is not just about the act of giving, but the spirit and intention behind it. Here are some of the cultural significances of the lei in Hawaiian traditions:

  • Hospitality: Lei-giving is a way for Hawaiians to show hospitality to visitors. Leis are often presented to guests upon arrival as a sign of welcome and to make them feel at home.
  • Celebration: Leis are also used to celebrate special occasions such as weddings, graduations, and birthdays. It is customary to offer a lei to the guest of honor as a symbol of congratulations and best wishes.
  • Respect: In Hawaiian culture, it is important to show respect to others. Leis are often given to show respect and gratitude, such as to a teacher or mentor, or to a loved one who has passed away.

Aside from its cultural significance, the lei also has a unique symbolism. Each type of flower or material used in the lei has its own meaning:

The following are some of the most common materials used in a lei and their meanings:

Material Meaning
Maile Represents love, respect, and admiration
Plumeria Symbolizes beauty, charm, and grace
Tuberose Signifies purity, sincerity, and love
Orchid Represents refinement, luxury, and beauty

It is important to note that the meaning of a lei can vary depending on the occasion and the relationship between the giver and the recipient. Nevertheless, the lei remains a beloved symbol of Hawaiian culture and tradition.

Different types of lei (e.g. flower, shell, feather)

Lei is a popular symbol of Hawaiian culture. It is a garland or wreath made by stringing various natural materials like flowers, seashells, and feathers. The lei represents love, friendship, celebration, honor, and commemorates important occasions.

  • Flower Lei: The flower lei, commonly known as the “Haku lei,” is the most popular and widely used type of lei. It is made from different types of fresh flowers and worn around the neck or head during special events, such as weddings, graduations, and welcoming ceremonies. The flower lei symbolizes beauty, love, and affection for friends and family.
  • Shell Lei: The shell lei is made by stringing small seashells together. It is commonly worn by men, and it symbolizes strength, courage, and protection. The shell lei also indicates the wearer’s connection to the ocean, which plays a vital role in Hawaiian culture. It is usually given to guests as a symbol of welcoming and appreciation.
  • Feather Lei: The feather lei is made from various bird feathers, such as goose, duck, and peacock. The feather lei is rare and expensive because of the intricate process required to make it. This type of lei is commonly worn by Hawaiian royalty, representing the wearer’s high status and power. The feather lei symbolizes wealth, wisdom, and prestige.

Each type of lei has a unique meaning and significance. They represent the values and beliefs of Hawaiian culture, and wearing them is a way to honor and pay tribute to the traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Materials used in making leis

In Hawaiian culture, leis symbolize love, respect, and aloha. A lei is a garland of flowers, leaves, shells, or other materials that are worn around the neck or given as a gift. The art of lei-making is an essential part of Hawaiian culture, passed down from generation to generation.

Flowers and Leaves

Flowers and leaves are the most common materials used in making leis. They are chosen for their color, fragrance, and durability. In Hawaii, you can find a variety of flowers and leaves that are used in lei making, including:

  • Plumeria
  • Orchids
  • Tuberose
  • Maile
  • Ti leaves

Shells and Seeds

Shells and seeds are also used in making leis. They are typically used to add texture and contrast to the lei. Some of the most common shells and seeds used in lei-making include:

  • Cowrie shells
  • Kukui nuts
  • Lehua seeds
  • Pikake seeds


Feathers are another material that can be used in making leis. In Hawaiian culture, feathers represent royalty and were often used to create special lei for chiefs and other nobility. The most common feathers used for lei-making include:

  • Goose feathers
  • Duck feathers
  • Peacock feathers

Lei-Making Material Chart

Materials Symbolism
Flowers and leaves Love, respect, and aloha
Shells and seeds Texture and contrast
Feathers Royalty and nobility

The next time you receive or create a lei, take a moment to appreciate the meaningful materials that were carefully chosen and crafted into this beautiful symbol of love and aloha.

How to Make a Lei

The lei is a symbol of love, friendship, and celebration that is commonly associated with Hawaiian culture. It is typically made from flowers, leaves, and other materials that have special significance. Below are the steps to make a basic, customizable lei that can be used for a variety of occasions.

  • Step 1: Choose your materials. This could include flowers, leaves, or other objects like candy or money folded into decorative shapes.
  • Step 2: Prepare the materials. Remove any stems, thorns, or other unwanted parts and cut the remaining material into small pieces.
  • Step 3: Thread the materials onto a string or ribbon. You can use a needle if necessary, but for larger materials, like candy, you may be able to simply tie knots in the string to keep them in place.
  • Step 4: Continue adding materials until the lei is the desired length. A traditional lei is about 20-24 inches long, but you can adjust the length to fit your needs.
  • Step 5: Tie the ends of the string together to complete the lei.

While the above steps provide a basic outline for making a lei, there are many variations and customization options available. Here is a table that outlines some materials and their symbolism:

Material Symbolism
Plumeria Love
Tuberose Health and prosperity
Maile Honor and respect
Ti leaf Good luck and protection

By incorporating different materials, colors, and patterns, you can create a lei that is personalized to the occasion and the recipient. Whether you are celebrating a wedding, graduation, or other milestone, a lei is a beautiful way to express your love and appreciation.

Proper etiquette for giving and receiving a lei

The act of giving and receiving a lei is a significant and meaningful gesture in Hawaiian culture. It represents love, respect, and aloha spirit. To ensure that you’re following proper etiquette when giving and receiving a lei, consider the following:

  • Always give and receive a lei with your right hand.
  • Avoid removing the lei in front of the person who gave it to you. It’s considered disrespectful.
  • Show appreciation by wearing the lei for as long as possible. It’s customary to wear a lei until it wilts and dies, at which point it can be returned to the earth.

Aside from those general guidelines, there are specific customs that apply depending on the occasion. For example, when giving a lei at a wedding, the lei should be presented with a kiss on the cheek as a sign of congratulations and best wishes.

When giving a lei to a someone who is departing or moving away, it’s customary to give a lei with an odd number of flowers, typically 3, 5, or 7. An odd number of flowers represents that the love and aloha spirit will always be continued, even if the physical distance becomes greater.

When giving a lei to a person of high status, such as a dignitary or someone of royalty, a lei made of maile or other rare and precious materials is appropriate as a sign of respect.

Occasion Number of flowers
Wedding Even or odd number of flowers
Farewell/Departure Odd number of flowers
High status Rare and precious materials

Overall, giving and receiving a lei is a beautiful tradition that embodies the aloha spirit of Hawaii. By following these etiquette guidelines, you can ensure that you’re participating in this cultural practice respectfully and correctly.

Lei Giving Ceremonies (e.g. graduations, weddings, funerals)

In Hawaiian culture, giving leis is a significant tradition that symbolizes love, affection, and respect. Leis are made from a variety of materials, including flowers, shells, feathers, and even nuts and seeds, and their significance can vary depending on the occasion.

  • Graduations – Graduations are a celebratory time in one’s life, and leis play a significant role in these ceremonies. The number of flowers in a lei can represent the number of years the graduate has spent in school. The most common flowers used are plumeria and tuberose, which are said to represent new beginnings and accomplishment.
  • Weddings – Weddings are a joyous occasion that brings families and friends together. The bride and groom usually have their own set of leis, which they exchange to symbolize their love, commitment, and unity. The leis are often made with white flowers, such as orchids or pikake, to represent purity and innocence.
  • Funerals – Funerals are a time to mourn the loss of a loved one and to show respect for the departed. Leis are given to the family of the deceased as a gesture of sympathy and support. The most common flowers used for funeral leis are plumeria and maile, which are said to represent strength and resilience.

One interesting fact about leis is that the number of flowers in a lei can also hold significance. For example, a lei made with seven flowers is said to bring good luck and blessings to the wearer. Seven is considered a lucky number in many cultures, including Hawaiian culture, where it represents perfection and completeness.

Number of Flowers Symbolic Meaning
1 Unity
2 Love
3 Friendship
4 Health
5 Success
6 Peace
7 Good luck

Overall, giving and receiving leis is a cherished tradition in Hawaiian culture that holds deep meaning and symbolism. Whether it’s for a graduation, wedding, or funeral, the act of presenting a lei to someone is a gesture of love, respect, and appreciation.

What Does the Lei Symbolize?

The lei is a traditional Hawaiian garland made of flowers, leaves, shells, or other materials. It is often given as a gift, worn as a decoration, or used as a symbol of affection. Here are some of the things that the lei symbolizes:

  • Aloha: The lei is a sign of love, respect, and hospitality. When you give someone a lei, you are welcoming them into your home or community.
  • Connection: The lei represents the interconnectedness of all living things. Just as the flowers and leaves are joined together in the garland, we are all connected as part of the same larger family.
  • Celebration: The lei is often worn during special occasions like weddings, birthdays, and graduations. It is a way to honor the occasion and show your joy and excitement.
  • Culture: The lei is an important part of Hawaiian culture, and wearing or giving one is a way to show respect for that culture.

Lei Day (May 1st) and Its Celebration in Hawaii

Lei Day is an annual celebration in Hawaii that takes place on May 1st. It was first celebrated in 1928 as a way to honor the tradition of lei-making and to recognize the cultural significance of the lei. Here are some of the ways that Lei Day is celebrated in Hawaii:

  • Parades: There are usually parades in many of the major cities and towns on the islands. These parades often feature floats, marching bands, traditional Hawaiian music, and of course, lots of leis!
  • Contests: There are also contests for the best lei-makers, with awards given for the most beautiful, creative, and meaningful leis.
  • Events: In addition to the parades and contests, there are often events and festivals throughout the islands to celebrate Lei Day. These events might include hula performances, Hawaiian food, and arts and crafts vendors.

The Meaning of the Number 8 in Lei-Making

The number 8 is an important symbol in Hawaiian culture, and it has special significance in lei-making. In fact, many traditional leis are made with 8 strands of flowers or leaves. Here are some of the things that the number 8 represents:

Symbol Meaning
Hawaiian kaona (hidden meaning) Abundance
Survival The shape of the number 8 is similar to the infinity symbol, representing longevity and immortality.
Eight Hawaiian Islands The number 8 is a nod to the eight main Hawaiian Islands: Hawaii (the Big Island), Maui, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe.

In lei-making, the number 8 is often used to create leis that are full and lush, representing abundance and plenty. The 8 strands are typically woven together tightly, creating a durable and long-lasting lei that can be worn or given as a gift.

Lei customs in other Pacific Island cultures

While Hawaiians are well-known for their lei making customs, other Pacific Island cultures also have their own unique traditions surrounding lei. In fact, many Pacific Island cultures share similar beliefs about the symbolism and significance of the lei.

  • New Zealand: In Māori culture, lei are known as “hei” and are typically made from the leaves and flowers of indigenous plants. They are given as symbols of love, respect, and appreciation, and are often worn during cultural ceremonies.
  • Tahiti: In Tahitian culture, lei are known as “hei” as well. They are made from a variety of materials, including seashells, flowers, and feathers, and are given as symbols of affection, appreciation, and congratulations.
  • Samoa: Lei are known as “ula” in Samoan culture and are typically made from fragrant flowers and leaves. They are given as symbols of love, respect, and gratitude, and are often worn during cultural ceremonies and celebrations.

As you can see, while the materials and terminology may differ, the symbolism and traditions surrounding lei are shared amongst many Pacific Island cultures. However, it’s worth noting that each culture also has unique customs and traditions around lei making and giving.

For example, in some Pacific Island cultures, it is considered rude to remove a lei in front of the person who gave it to you, while in others it is acceptable to remove and discard the lei once the event or ceremony has ended. Additionally, some cultures place more significance on certain types of lei materials or colors.

Country Significance
Tonga Black lei are traditionally given to mourners.
Fiji Marigold lei are given to welcome visitors, while frangipani lei are given for special occasions.
Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Orchid lei are given to visitors as a sign of welcome and respect.

Overall, while the lei may be most commonly associated with Hawai’i, it is a symbol of love, respect, and appreciation shared amongst many Pacific Island cultures.

Contemporary uses of the lei in tourism and commercial industries.

The lei has become a symbol of Hawaii and is widely used in the tourism and commercial industries. Here are some of the contemporary uses of the lei in these industries:

  • Welcoming tourists – Visitors to Hawaii are often greeted with leis as a sign of hospitality. Many hotels, resorts, and tour companies offer leis as a welcome gift to their guests.
  • Weddings – Leis are a popular choice for Hawaiian weddings, with the bride, groom, and wedding party all wearing leis during the ceremony.
  • Corporate events – Leis can be used as a gift or souvenir for attendees of corporate events or conferences held in Hawaii.

Beyond these traditional uses, leis have also been incorporated into commercial products and marketing campaigns. For example:

The Hawaiian Airlines logo features a stylized hibiscus flower, often paired with a lei in the company’s advertising. The company has also created a special lei-making program for children traveling on its flights.

The popular snack mix, “Maui-style potato chips,” features a lei on its packaging. Similarly, a variety of other Hawaii-themed products use leis as a symbol of the islands, including t-shirts, keychains, and other souvenirs.

Industry Use of Leis
Tourism Welcoming tourists, Hawaiian weddings, souvenirs
Corporate events Gifting to attendees
Commercial products Snack packaging, souvenirs

Overall, the lei remains an important symbol of Hawaii, with both traditional and modern uses in tourism and commerce.

What Does the Lei Symbolize? FAQs

1. What is a lei?

A lei is a traditional Hawaiian garland or wreath made of flowers, leaves, shells, or other natural materials.

2. What occasions are leis worn for?

Leis are commonly worn for special occasions such as weddings, graduations, birthdays, or when greeting visitors as a sign of aloha or welcome.

3. What does a lei symbolize in Hawaiian culture?

The lei is a symbol of love, respect, and aloha (meaning love, compassion, and kindness).

4. What types of flowers are used in making leis?

Hawaiian leis can be made from various types of flowers such as plumeria, orchids, hibiscus, and carnations.

5. Who can wear a lei?

Anyone can wear a lei, but it is traditionally offered as a gift or given as a sign of respect or honor.

6. What are the different ways to wear a lei?

Leis can be worn around the neck, draped over the shoulders, or even worn as a headband or wristband.

7. How long do leis last?

The lifespan of a lei depends on the type of flowers or materials used, but typically they last for one to two days.

Closing Thoughts on What Does the Lei Symbolize

In Hawaiian culture, leis are not just a beautiful decoration, but they hold significant meaning. They represent love, respect, and the spirit of aloha. Whether you receive a lei as a gift or wear one for a special occasion, it is a symbol of honor and kindness. So, next time you see a lei, remember its true meaning and the love and respect behind it. Thank you for reading and come back for more articles about Hawaiian culture and traditions. Aloha!