The History of the Lei
In Polynesian cultures, a lei is something that is created by someone and given to another with the intent to decorate that person for an emotional reason—usually as a sign of affection. Common reasons include greeting, farewell, affection or love, friendship, appreciation, congratulation, recognition, or to otherwise draw attention to the recipient.
In Samoa, similar garlands fashioned of entire flowers, buds, seeds, nuts, plant fibers, leaves, ferns, seashells, or flower petals are called “asoa” or “ula”, while single flowers or clusters worn in the hair or on the ear are called sei.
In Tahiti such garlands are referred to as ‘hei’ and in the Cook Islands they are called an ‘ei.’
Tongans are known for creating unique ‘kahoa’ leis made of chains of flat, crescent or triangular arrangements made of flower petals and leaves sewn onto a leaf or cloth backing.Many modern Polynesian celebrations include the giving and receiving of leis in various forms, including recent adaptations of the flower/plant lei in which candy, folded currency bills, rolls of coinage,
There are many customs and protocols associated with the giving, receiving, wearing, storing, and disposing of lei.
In modern times, a lei is usually given with a kiss - a custom which began in World War II. Traditionalists, however, give a lei by bowing slightly and raising it above the heart, allowing the recipient to take it, as raising the hands above another’s head, or touching the face or head, is considered disrespectful.
By tradition, only open lei are given to a pregnant or nursing woman.
Lei should never be thrown away casually, or tossed into the trash. Traditionally they should be returned to the place they were gathered, or if that is not possible, they should be returned to the earth by hanging in a tree, burying, or burning. A lei represents love, and to throw one away represents throwing away the love of the giver. Many types of lei can be left in a window to dry, allowing the natural fragrance to fill the room. This technique is often used in cars as well.