May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

The first day of May has long been celebrated by many cultures all over the world as a celebration of spring, with May Pole dances, floral baskets, and bouquets common in many countries. However, in the Aloha state, May Day is officially “Lei Day.”

A beautiful celebration of flowers, dance, music, and culture, Lei Day has been officially celebrated state-wide since 1929 with lei-making contests, concerts, parades, hula performances, and of course, many colorful lei worn by everyone.  Lei makers are busy for days leading up to the holiday, and lei are sold and gifted everywhere.  Lei artists often spend months planning their compositions for lei contest entries, and the stakes are high.  School kids spend weeks rehearsing their songs and dances for school pageants, and harried parents raid every blooming tree the night before Lei Day to string the requisite lei for their kids to wear to school the next day.

Winning lei on display. Note the elaborate compositions of flowers, leaves, and seeds.

Each island has its own “official” celebrations of Lei Day, often highlighting the island’s official colors and flowers.  On Oahu, Lei Day festivities usually center around the Kapi’olani Park bandstand in Waikiki.  Winning lei are on display along the fence, while artisans host workshops and demonstration events to teach the craft of lei-making.  The Royal Hawaiian Band traditionally opens the day’s events, followed by the formal investiture of the Lei Queen and her court, selected based on their lei-making skills, Hawaiian language fluency, and hula proficiency.  Concerts and performances continue throughout the day, with additional performances island-wide.

My beautiful friend Kehau Pe’a, a Pa’u Princess (and formerly a Lei Queen) representing the island of Maui with garlands of the pink lokelani rose.

Lei Day also unofficially marks the beginning of “lei season,” when lei are made, sold, and gifted for graduations, weddings, school end-of-year performances, and other celebrations, as well as preparations for the huge all-floral parade floats and statue-draping lei for King Kamehameha Day, on June 11.  Since both events involve a lot of flower lei, the event seems to begin on May 1st and extend all the way into June.  The pa’u riders who will grace the Kamehameha Day parade often begin their public appearances on May Day.

As a kid, I remember the long days of practicing songs and dances on the field near Laie elementary school for our upcoming Lei Day performance, and the fun costume-making projects in class.  As a parent, I have loved snapping photos of my kids at their own performances.  I used to look forward to going down to Kapi’olani Park with Grandma Rene to see all the lei on display and visit with Auntie Marie (McDonald), who would be visiting from the Big Island to help judge the contest as a lei master.  I also remember a fun date with Kory at the annual Bothers Cazimero May Day concert years ago.  We didn’t have tickets for the show, so we picnicked on the lawn behind the Waikiki Shell along with some friends (and several other people doing the same thing).  We couldn’t see the show from there but the music and company were great, until the lawn sprinklers came on!  Good times – we still laugh about that.

How do you celebrate May Day / Lei Day?