How Leis are Part of the the Hawaiian Traditions of Gratitude & Celebration


Rarely do I pass up an opportunity visit home. As much as I love our life in Pennsylvania, there's always something magical about the change of pace and the slew of rainbows that comes with a trip to Hawaii. This year, it was my sister-in-law Sue's big 50th birthday party that brought us all back to the Aloha State for some sun and celebration, my sister Nikki having had a vision of Sue receiving tons and tons of leis for her birthday. Here's how we made sure Sue got the chance to participate in one of our very favorite Hawaiian customs.

Many might not realize, but leis are part of a rich Hawaiian tradition of appreciation, honor, and recognition. In fact, they're specifically intended to be given to others (PSA: you never buy a lei for, or put one on yourself). There's even a right way to do it! The lei goes up and over the recipients shoulders, and is typically followed by a kiss on the cheek from the giver. Once a lei has been placed on you, it would be considered rude to take it off. Hawaii is certainly a place of many customs, and the giving of the lei is one of our most affectionate; it's an expression of Aloha.

Since my dad happens to work at a big flower shop called Maui Floral, we had access to some of the most lovely floral selections around. He brought all kinds of fragrant plumerias and tuberose, vibrant orchids, and well as leaves, lei needles, and everything else we'd need to handcraft our own expressions of appreciation for Sue on her special day. We all grew a little closer together as my dad showed each of us how to craft a traditional Hawaiian lei — not only did the mainlanders learn something new, but we all got the chance to inject our Aloha into something for Sue.  


When all of our leis were finished, it was time to present them to the Birthday Girl! Even our friends and family members who couldn't be there in person found a way to show their appreciation, vicariously gifting their leis and intentions from across the sea. We wanted to really show Sue how much we valued her presence in our lives, and we did so with our own little recreation of the lei frenzy that happens at a Hawaiian graduation.

You've probably seen leis given out during graduation ceremonies, but in Hawaii, we take this to da max. Hawaiian graduations are two-way, lei-giving extravaganzas. Not only are leis given to graduates to mark and celebrate the achievement, leis are also given out by graduates to those who have helped them on their journey (parents, favorite teachers, coaches, good friends) as an acknowledgement of their valuable support. If you do this right, the end result is everyone positively covered — sometimes up to the eyes! — in leis.

Another bonus? It's just plain fun! Lei-giving makes it as fun to express appreciation as it is to receive it — when you can see the joy radiating from a face that's practically covered up in colorful Hawaiian verdure, you know you've tapped into something truly special. The lei ceremony we gave Sue for her 50th birthday was one I'll absolutely never forget (and neither will she!), and it served as a potent reminder that the most powerful celebrations are always the ones that find us celebrating each other.

Post Script

Sue's birthday was bookended with the receiving and giving of leis. She may have been born and raised in Massachusetts, but Sue is 100% Hawaiian in her heart. At the end of the long day and her birthday dinner at Merriman's, I watched Sue as she made her way back to her room at The Ritz-Carlton Kapalua, and saw her take pleasure in bestowing the leis from around her neck to people she encountered along the way. One couple was exiting an elevator on their way back to the airport, and Sue gave them both one of her leis. There were small groups of friends and store clerks who she took the time to tell it was her birthday and ask permission to give them one of her leis. Spoiler Alert: they all said yes! My favorite interaction, though, was the last one — as we got closer to our room, Sue saw one of the rooms being cleaned. Sue went into the room, told the maid it was her birthday and asked if she could give her one of her leis. I watched the maid's face light up as she received the fragrant tuberose lei and hug from Sue. Then she said, "Wait, I have something for you too!" She came out to the hallway to her cart, and gave Sue a handful of those delicious chocolates The Ritz-Carlton puts on your pillows. I know Sue was beaming from being a conduit for aloha, and my heart was bursting too — my sister-in-law Sue embodies what it means to Live Aloha.