Flower lei are synonymous with Hawaiʻi. You’ll see them welcoming guests at the airport, adorning hula dancers or draped over your neighbor’s neck during a special occasion. Well, there’s no better time to show off this precious island tradition than on May 1, aka “Lei Day.”
The origins of this unofficial holiday date back to the late 1920s, when poet and journalist Don Blanding wrote a newspaper article urging a celebration of lei making and lei wearing on May 1st. Even today, it’s not uncommon for friends and family to present each other with lei, and there are also special cultural presentations and concerts to commemorate this festive day.
(The photo below shows my sister and I at my college graduation in Chicago. My family hand-carried all these lei thousands of miles across the country, and one auntie even crafted this haku lei—traditional head lei—made from whatever flowers she could find in the Windy City.)
In addition, just about every kid who grew up in Hawaii remembers colorful May Day celebrations in elementary school, complete with the royal court representing each island, songs like “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaiʻi” (naturally), and lots and lots of hula. Some might even remember the “May pole dance” where students would dance around a pole, wrapping it with layers of ribbon along the way.
To commemorate Lei Day, here’s a step-by-step guide to making your own plumeria lei (in the main photo, the yellow and pink lei are made from plumeria). These instructions were given to me by my Auntie Mikahala, as part of a Christmas present in which she also included a lei needle—like a sewing needle, but extra long.
Materials needed: plumeria or other type of flower, tub or bowl to soak flowers, newspaper, paper towels, thread or dental floss for stringing, scissors, extra long needle
STEP-BY-STEP INSTRUCTIONS TO MAKE A LEI
- Pick 60 hardy pua melia (plumerias).
- Soak in tub of water for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Drain and let sit.
- Spread nūpepa (newspaper), then pepa (paper) towel on it. Place your flowers on it.
- Measure embroidery thread (can use dental floss as a substitute) to desired length of lei and add another 6″ for tying. For best results, use double string.
- String the needle and tie a triple knot on open end side of string, 3″ from end.
- Sew lei, inserting from face-side of blossom, gently moving blossoms closer to each other.
- When you’ve reached the desired length, remove needle and tie both ends together.
- Trim ends of string closer to blossom.
- Share with aloha.
For any mainland readers out there, you don’t have to fly to Hawaiʻi to snap up some of these gorgeous plumeria — Molokai Plumerias can send them straight to your door.
So there you go, now you’re ready to make your very own lei. If you do, send me a picture — I’d love to see it!