Despite Lei Day cancellations, the spirit of aloha lives on

Lachlan Blain

30 April 2020

A lei making competition at a Lei Day festival. Photo Credit: Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority

Like other events, Lei Day celebrations have been cancelled in Hawaii, but Lachlan Blain finds that the spirit of aloha will find a temporary home on mailboxes.

In uncertain times, symbols like the lei can remind us of what we all share on this earth and what we have to look forward to when a safer world returns. Despite the sad news that the physical celebrations of Lei Day this year have been cancelled, the lei and all that it symbolises offers a beacon of hope to locals and foreigners alike across the world.

The Lei Day celebration, observed across the islands of Hawaii, has been a state-wide fixture since 1929 and is celebrated on May 1st (in place of May Day). The event began as a tribute to the time-honoured practice of making and wearing leis but has grown to become a celebration of Hawaiian culture itself, and features every year a wide range of ceremonies, events and performances. While every island observes Lei Day differently, the cultural icon of the lei and all that it symbolises unites observers from every corner of Hawaii.

The lei is a traditional Polynesian wreath, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands, it is said, by Tahitian voyagers with nothing but the stars for navigation. Leis can be made of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even bones and teeth of animals. Each island has developed its own special designs that often incorporate the unique fruits or flowers of their land. They are worn during special occasions, from farewells and funerals to births and weddings and everything in between. Most visitors to Hawaii will receive a lei on arrival to any particular island. The reason for the lei’s versatile use is its symbolic representation of the “spirit of aloha”. More specifically, to adorn a visitor with a lei is said to constitute a non-verbal expression of aloha.

Most casual observers think of the word aloha serving as an expression of greeting or farewell, and it is true the word is most commonly used in those contexts. But aloha has a much deeper meaning, too: it is shorthand for a long-established guideline of how to live one’s life. A life of aloha is one driven by the heart, which has the power to become “overflowing with the ability to influence others around you with your spirit”. In short, it expresses love, peace and compassion. The lei, symbolising this spiritual connection, is offered to people of all backgrounds and can be worn at any time, for any occasion. The main unspoken rule is to never refuse a lei when it is offered.

As a token of goodwill, the lei has the power to forge friendships and reaffirm our common humanity. The cancellation of Lei Day celebrations doesn’t mean these values can’t still be promoted proudly as we self-isolate.

The 2020 Lei Day Festival to be held in Kalākaua Park in Hilo, Hawaii was cancelled in mid-March. But the Department of Parks & Recreation has invited residents to drape a lei on their mailbox to recognise and show appreciation for the first responders, essential workers, and everyone making sacrifices during this pandemic. At Garland, we’re looking forward to seeing the diverse range of leis that will be displayed across social media on Lei Day and beyond, and encourage anyone that resonates with the “spirit of aloha” to search for and enjoy these creations themselves. A symbol of love, peace and compassion is just what the earth needs amid these troubled times. Happy Lei Day to all and stay safe.

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