Making lei garlands for Lei Day

All photos: Leilehua Yuen/Hilo Lei Day Festival

Lei Day is upon us! Officially established in 1929, Lei Day is a state-wide celebration of traditional Hawaiian culture, art, language and history.

The May 1 holiday is named for one of Hawaii's most recognizable symbols, the lei, which is a wreath most commonly made from flowers and foliage.

 
Pink and green haku lei

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.

Yellow grass lei
Over the years, the term "haku" has become more prevalent as catch-all term for all kinds of lei. For many people trying to preserve the rich native Hawaiian culture of the island, this simplification of the language does a grave injustice to describing the many diverse styles, methods, conceptions and wearers of leis.

"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."

 
Floral lei

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.

 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day

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.

 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day

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.

 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day
 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day
 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day
 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day
 
Making lei garlands for Lei Day
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Catie Leary is a photo editor at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.
 

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