All photos: Leilehua Yuen/Hilo Lei Day Festival
As a tangible, unspoken expression of aloha, leis are typically gifted to people on special occasions as a symbolic show of love, sympathy, greeting or farewell.
"When the language loses the specific terms, we lose more than one word. We lose the ability to speak — and think — in the detail we once had," writes Leilehua Yuen, organizer of the Hilo Lei Day celebration. "The Hawaiian culture and language are far more complex, diverse, and varied than would be indicated by most tourist publications, or even Western school texts."
This complexity of language means that a lei can be more than just a beautiful garland. For example, a poet who composes songs for a loved one is known as a "haku mele" — the dedicated song is the lei. A child — woven together by the love of his or her parents and ancestors — is considered a "kamalei."
To learn more about the different kinds of lei, Yuen provides an informative glossary on the language of lei on the Hilo Lei Day website.
There are Lei Day celebrations organized all across the different islands of Hawaii. On the Big Island, the annual Lei Day Festival in Hilo features live music, dancing and craft demonstrations. In the weeks leading up to the big day, haumana ("students") take lei making classes in preparation for the live demonstrations.
In these photos, haumana are crafting their lei using the beautiful flowers of the jade vine, a woody vine native to the tropical forests of the Philippines.
If you're located in the Hilo area and interested in trying your hand at lei making, check out the Hilo Lei Day Festival Facebook for updates.