Nearly 2,000 years back, when Polynesian settlers traveled to the Hawaiian Islands and over the centuries, they developed the history and tradition of the Hawaiian lei that is iconic today. The flower necklace is older than many people realize and has cultural significance that most people don’t understand, despite its many depictions and uses. But there is a deeper history and tradition of the Hawaiian lei that has developed over centuries.
Because of how long ago the Polynesians came over and the event’s lack of physical documentation, what we know of the origins of the lei has been passed down through oral tradition. But what we do know is that the Polynesians constructed early leis in much the same way as we do today; they strung together flowers, seeds, leaves, feathers, and sometimes bone. These adornments were initially just for show—a sign of beauty and status—but they eventually took on ideas beyond their appearance.
Over time, these adorned necklaces went from being a type of fine jewelry to having significant meaning, with different leis signifying different things. For instance, the black kukui nut lei is emblematic of knowledge and is a traditional gift to high school or college graduates. This symbolism derives from the kukui nut as an early source of lamp oil on the Hawaiian Islands. The light that oil produced came to be associated with enlightenment and higher learning.
The Maile lei, on the other hand, is a symbol of peace, understanding, and cooperation. The exact reasons why early Hawaiians chose this flower are unknown, but this is the lei ancient tribal chiefs gave to one another as a sign that they wanted to end hostilities.
What They Symbolize Today
In the modern era, the lei can have many meanings, and it can be difficult to know which lei is the most appropriate for a given situation. Many different lei variants are a sign of celebration and are appropriate for celebrating a wedding, a promotion, or honoring a family during a funeral. Most commonly, the lei is a sign of welcome; locals give the flower necklaces to newcomers, happily greeting them with open arms.
Know the Significance
The Hawaiian lei is more than a necklace on a hula dancer—it is deeply ingrained into Hawaiian culture. It has spiritual and philosophical importance, and it can be a sign of great respect or welcome into a community.