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On May Day, Give a Lei with Meaning


This Saturday is May 1, officially, a day to celebrate garlands of flowers in Hawai'i. Lei day was established in 1929, and each major island has its own significant lei. O'ahu, for example, has the regal 'ilima, for Kaho'olawe, it's the grey green hinahina. Lei, in Hawai'i, are much more than adornment.

Lehua is Hawai'i Island's lei, Kaua'i upholds the distinctive mokihana, Moloka'i twines kukui blossoms, while Maui has a specific form of damask rose called the Roselani, Lokelani and sometimes Loke ??hihi.  Lana'i's is the kauna?oa lei, which ranges in color from yellow-green to deep orange. Every island has its own lei traditions as well. When he was a teenager on Maui, Kumu Hula Cody Pueo Pata was immersed in the full culture around lei making.

"This halau was Aunty Nona Mahilani Kaluhiokalani's," Pata said. "She had an advisory board of kupuna, five ladies, the leader of which was Aunty Diane Napua Amadeo. She was a master lei maker."

Pata said lei can be functional, for example, a lei po'o, or head lei acts as a visor. A banana leaf split, could lie over ones shoulders for protection.

"We have lehua, which is a flower but there's a name that we hear which is leihua which means lei of hua, which are fruits, basically," he said.

Pata said mountain apple, for example, can be strung, and hung in an airy place.

"Once they're dried, that taste gets really concentrated and he lei huanokena, that's a lei or garland of fruit formed into a lei," Pata said.

Not to wear, but to extend the pleasure of the fruiting season. Kumu Pata said spirituality accompanies the functioning of a lei. He says lei makers must know biology and distribution specific to each lei material, then, each halau or person may have their own protocols for gathering.

"And so we have to know not just where this plant is located but how we approach the plant and then even how we pick the plant," Pata said. "And in our halau, the hand that we pick with is different than the hand that we hold with. We have to know how to pick from this entity to encourage growth, as opposed to stunt its growth."

"We also have to know the allies in nature of this particular plant, so that we're sure to take care of those plants that are surrounding it as well to allow for the maximum growth of this plant," Pata said.

Pata calculates specifically how much of each material is required, and picks accordingly.

"If we have chanted or prayed and interacted with this plant in a ceremonial sense, we then treat this plant as if it is the entity that we have addressed," Pata said. "So we don't put these in the trunk of our car. We don't put them on the floorboard of the car. We put them on the back seat or the front seat. If we have to put them in the refrigerator, we clear the food around it so people aren't knocking it around. Then when we make the lei, we have a focused intention. Is this lei for my grandma? Is this lei for a politician?" 

Pata said the lei maker's intention is concentrated and suffuses the lei.

"When I then complete the lei, I"m pretty sure everybody's felt this. There's a moisture that emanates off of the lei, humidity that emanates off of the lei," Pata said. "What we visualize is, that is the slow release of the intention that will then surround that person or the place where we are placing this lei. So to us, a lei isn't just something pretty, it's also vessel through which we can transport and offer our intentions."

Pata said, for commemorations, only plant materials are set adrift in the water; all strings, ties and ribbons are removed.

For decades, the fragrance of pikake, plumeria, tuberose, would fill the Waikiki Shell as the Brothers Cazimero pulled out the stops for their May Day galas. Building on the tradition, this Saturday, youthful powerhouse Keauhou spearheads Hawaiian Airlines' May Day Maka’ika’i. This streaming event embraces a revitalization plan for Hawai'i that was developed by community members over the COVID-19 shutdown. You can view the ’Aina Aloha Economic Futures initiative action plan online by clicking here.

Meanwhile, in another year without the formerly annual Lei Contest at Kapi'olani Park, the City of Honolulu is sponsoring an unofficial effort to make the world's longest lei -- digitally. Click here to find out more.

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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