In rhe Hawaiian culture a person's head and shoulders are considered sacred parts of the body. Honoring those who are loved and respected has always been a part of Hawaiian values, so it is only natural that placing the lei over the head and shoulders of a person to bestow honor and respect is a part of the Hawaiian culture.
The Ancient Hawaiians excelled in their creation of permanent lei. These lei were constructed of feathers, ivory, beads, bone, and even teeth (both dogs and human). Often these lei were worn by the alii (chiefs). Lei tell the story of the Hawaiian people, their mythology, legends, history, and culture.
Historically, the lei has been a symbol of "Aloha" for centuries. In painting and drawings of early Hawaii, lei of fruit, seeds, human hair, and foliage are seen, but flower lei are not noticed. There is little doubt that before the arrival of foriegners during the late 18th C., that floral lei cannot be verified, however, it can be assumed that flower lei were known to the Hawaiians. At the turn of the century lei made of vines with a few flowers woven into them, and left open-ended were common.
Ancient Hawaiians did possess the skill and knowledge for making many types of lei. Present day Hawaiians have developed this skill to its highest point. The introduction of flowers to the Islands (after 1850) has helped Hawaiian lei makers to redesign the structure of the original Hawaiian lei and develope it into the art it is today.
Lei were worn by the native Hawaiian on every occasion. Visitors to the Islands were fascinated with the stringing and wearing of these flower necklaces. They gladly paid the lei maker his price for the pleasure of wearing one. The reputation of some especially gifted lei makers soon became known and were asked to supply lei for various occasions.
The custom of throwing lei over the rail of a ship began between 1870 - 1950, when ocean liners began to call on Honolulu. The idea behind the custom was if the lei reached the shore, the person who threw it would someday return to the Islands. It is also said that visitors who threw the lei overboard were returning some of the "Aloha" they received while in the Islands.
Flower lei are enjoyed by the local people as well. Weddings, graduations, birthdays, parades, and other special occasions are marked by wearing a flower lei.
There are two rules of etiquette concerning the giving and receiving of a lei:
1) - Giving a lei is a token of love and respect. When a lei is made for a particular person, it should never be worn before it is given.
2) - The manner in which a lei is received is also an appreciation of love. A lei is always received with a kiss and an embrace.
Each Hawaiian flower and leaf has a symbolic meaning, with its own legend and history.
Ohia Lehua - The fire flower of Pele and her sister Hi'iaka. The legend of Hi'iaka and her red-tufted lehua is chanted in the greatest Hawaiian
Maile - Oldest and favorite material used by Ancient Hawaiians. Maile was for all the people. It was associated with worship of the hula gods,
especially Laka, goddess of the dance.
Hala - Is so abundant as a result of Pele's anger. When she first landed, her canoe got tangled in the roots. In a rage, she ripped up the trees and
threw them across the Island, and they sprouted where ever they touched the ground.
Feather - Were prized and worn by the alii. The most valuable were made of a single color - yellow being the most prized. Professional bird
catchers, called po'e kahai manu, gathered the birds and collected the feathers.
Pikake - (Jasmine) Usually worn by brides. Introduced from China. Bridal lei are often woven together with Maile, to symbolize life, strength,
Niho Palaoa - Ancient symbol of high rank. A lei form that appears only in Hawaii. The carved, whale-tooth, hook-shaped pendant of the lei niho palaoa was suspended from coils of human hair.
Each of the eight major Islands has its own "official emblem" (designated in 1923 by Hawaii's territorial legislation.) All are native to Hawaii or were brought by early Polynesians, except for the Maui Rose.
Hawaii - (The Big Island) - The Lehua, sacred to Pele.
Maui - The pink Damask Rose, nicknamed the Maui Rose. It is usually combined with ferns.
Molokai - Kukui, introduced by Polynesian settlers; one of the most common trees in Hawaii. Traditionally the lei was made by braiding the
leaves and stems and adding clusters of blossoms into the braid.
Lanai - Kauna'oa, stringy, slender stems are twisted together to make a head lei or to hang over the shoulders.
Kahoolawi - Hinahina ( a variet of heliotrope), silvery-gray herb with clusters of fragrant white flowers. The lei is made by braiding leaf clusters
and stems with flowers to a center cord.
Oahu - 'Ilima, only lasts a few hours. Possibly the only ones cultivated by Ancient Hawaiians for lei making.
Kauai - Mokihana Berry, found only in the rainforests of Kauai, it is often interlaced with the maile vine.
Niihau - pupu (shell), gathered, washed, sorted, pierced, and strung into lei.