Giving a Lei

Informant: So a lei, you know what a lei is, right? It’s the flowery garland, necklace-shaped… normally. People in Hawaii, we use it whenever there’s a special occasion. So if you went to someone’s concert, a friend’s concert, after the concert, you’d be like “oh, congratulations” or something and you put the lei on them.

Me: So is it kind of like bringing a bouquet of flowers?

Informant: Yeah, yeah. Except, it’s a lei.

Me: Is there a certain way you have to present it? A procedure?

Informant: You just… everyone knows it’s a gesture of congratulations. “Good job.”

Me: And you don’t have to say anything particular when you put it on them?

Informant: Yeah, you say whatever you want.

Me: Can you get multiple leis?

Informant: Yeah. You would just accept the other one too.

Me: You have to accept every one?

Informant: Yeah… I mean, even if someone gave you a bouquet of flowers that you hated, or if you hated that person, you wouldn’t say “get that away from me!” It’s the same concept.

Me: Do people wear them on other parts of their body, or is it always the neck?

Informant: Typically, it’s the neck. There are head leis too. I had one for graduation.

Me: Are those also presented to you, or were they more planned?

Informant: That was planned. All the girls had them. The boys had slightly different ones. They were made out of tea leaves and kind of draped around them. Like a scarf. It hangs down. It’s interesting.

Me: Do you know why it’s such an entrenched tradition?

Informant: It’s Hawaii. (laughing) It’s a Hawaiian gesture of congratulations, or good job. Or you’re welcome. That’s why, if you go to the Honolulu airport, people are always running around with leis. “Oh, hello, I haven’t seen you in a long time” or something like that.

Me: So, it doesn’t just have to be a big celebration, like graduation.

Informant: Yeah, leis can be more casual. It’s not always a formal thing. I think, historically, natives presented them to foreigners who came to the island. As a gesture of, you know, welcome to our place. It has long-time-ago roots. We’ve kept that up.

Me: So you give them to acquaintances and friends and family members? It doesn’t matter how close you are?

Informant: No, yeah. You give it to everyone.

Me: And you don’t remember learning it?

Informant: No, just everyone in Hawaii… that’s what we do. That’s just the way things are done. I mean, we give bouquets of flowers too. But leis are very common.

Me: Are they interchangeable? Is one considered nicer, or more formal…?

Informant: No, no, they’re completely interchangeable. Oh, and obviously when people do hulu, they wear leis.

Me: Do they have to put them on? Is it part of the ritual to be presented with the lei, or see them put it on?

Informant: No, no, they come out with them on. It’s part of their ensemble.


Part of what my informant kept emphasizing was that leis and the presentation of leis is a very entrenched Hawaiian custom. The reasoning given for it is simply “because it’s Hawaii.” For people who live outside of Hawaii, one of the iconic stereotypes of the state is the lei. It is one of the first or (for those with especially limited knowledge of the state) only images that come to mind about Hawaii. Based on how my informant, who grew up in Hawaii and lived there for most of her life, describes it, natives to the state have a similar view. While she references historical reasons for the popularity of the lei as a congratulations or greeting, part of its prevalence seems to be due to the “Hawaiianess” of it. It has become such an established part of how the state is viewed that even natives cannot seem to conceive of a Hawaii without leis, as though that would make Hawaii less Hawaiian. It is not simply a way of congratulating or welcoming someone; it bonds that gesture to general Hawaiian culture. In placing the lei around the recipient’s neck, the presenter is demonstrating his awareness of the Hawaiian custom. By receiving it, the recipient acknowledges having that same awareness. In that way, they reaffirm (particularly if it is being used to welcome a traveler home) their status as a Hawaiian.