The Symbolism of Hawaiian Leis

Leis are one of the most recognizable symbols of Hawaii. This beautiful hand-woven wreath is usually made of tropical flowers, though it may also be made of shells or other materials. Flower leis are most often made of orchids or plumeria. Both varieties are known for their large, fragrant blooms.

The lei-giving custom was first observed by Captain Cook in 1779, though this tradition is believed to date back to at least several centuries before this sighting. Originally, the design and wearing of a lei was meant to symbolize the wearer’s social rank, which was reflected in both the type of flower used and how the lei was woven. Today, leis are frequently worn by Hawaii’s most important public figures, such as the governor, particularly for important public appearances and on holidays.

Leis have also been worn, both historically and in modern times, on important occasions, including births, deaths, victories, and graduations. Depending on the occasion’s symbolism, different flower varieties or colors can be incorporated into the lei. Leis are also used in various religious ceremonies, where lei rituals are completed to ask the gods for safety when traveling or fishing or for fertile crops.

Leis are a popular Hawaiian gift not only for special occasions but also as a symbol of respect, love, welcoming, or appreciation. Though lei ceremonies have typically been reserved for important occasions, today leis can represent many different meanings, and are seen at nearly every public gathering, for nearly any reason, throughout the islands. Many visitors even receive a lei when they arrive to Hawaii on vacation. They are said to represent the “spirit of aloha,” which can mean several different feelings, including a greeting, farewell, hope, joy, or love. A lei created from beautiful flowers is meant to represent a non-verbal expression of aloha.

One occasion in Hawaii where leis are nearly always seen is a wedding. The wedding couple can incorporate leis into their celebration in several different ways. The wedding officiant may bless or hold the flowers, which the couple then exchanges a symbol of their commitment to each other. They may also give the leis to their family, a symbol of the families joining together. They may choose to have the wedding party don leis instead of corsages, or give them to wedding guests as favors to symbolize their appreciation for the support of their guests.

Today, leis are popular gifts for dozens of different occasions, and the gift of a lei has come to symbolize many different feelings. Though there are almost no restrictions on the occasion or meaning of a lei gift, if you are the recipient of a lei, there are a few guidelines to follow. A lei is a very special, hand-woven gift, and it is considered rude to refuse on. It should be treasured, especially if you are honored with a lei made from a particularly rare flower. The lei should be worn around the neck, head, or a hat brim. Do not wear leis around your neck if you are pregnant; according to superstition, this represents the tangling of the umbilical cord. To dispose of a lei, never throw it in the trash. Instead, return it to nature, either to the area where the flowers were collected,  or by hanging it in a tree or floating it away in a body of water.

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