Want to teach your kids about Lei Day in Hawaii? Learn all about Hawaiian leis and how people celebrate Hawaiian May Day in the Islands on May 1st.
This post about Hawaiian May Day was written by Hawaii travel expert Marcie Cheung and contains affiliate links which means if you purchase something from one of my affiliate links, I may earn a small commission that goes back into maintaining this blog.
How did you celebrate May Day when you were a kid?
I remember gathering flowers and putting them in a little basket to drop off at neighbors’ homes. We’d ring the doorbell and run away, hiding in the bushes to see their reactions to our little May Day greeting.
That was basically the extent of it, and after a few years, we didn’t really do anything anymore.
It wasn’t until we started going to Hawaii that I realized May 1st was also a huge Hawaiian holiday! It’s called Lei Day, and it’s a holiday celebrated by kids and adults throughout the Islands.
Leis are an important part of Hawaiian culture. They mark all kinds of occasions, from the births of new babies to the deaths of loved ones. They also celebrate birthdays, weddings, graduations, anniversaries, and so many other momentous events.
But the biggest event of them all is Lei Day. And if you are heading to Hawaii in May, you’ll definitely want to know about this Hawaiian celebration day.
Scroll down to find out more about Hawaiian May Day and download your free booklet about Lei Day.
Hawaiian May Day (May 1)
May Day in Hawaii is a statewide celebration of the Aloha Spirit. It’s actually a 2-day event, with festivities starting the morning of May 1 and continuing through May 2.
It’s been a Hawaiian holiday since 1928, and it’s evolved throughout the years to include a Lei Day court of Kings and Queens throughout Hawaiian elementary and middle schools.
And there is even a lei contest, Hawaii kid’s activities, and huge public events with hula dancing and Hawaiian music.
While Lei Day is a non-official state holiday, it’s still a significant Hawaii holiday and a nationally-acclaimed celebration.
How May Day Became Lei Day in Hawaii
It actually has a poetic history. Literally. Poet Don Blanding (an Oklahoma native) came up with the idea of Lei Day after seeing all the lei sellers that lined the sidewalks of Honolulu.
He was working at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin as a poet laureate and spoke with columnist Grace Tower Warren to see what she thought about setting aside a day to celebrate flower leis.
She loved the idea and suggested it be on May Day as several varieties of Hawaiian flowers would be blooming, and it was already an established holiday.
She’s also the person who coined the popular phrase “May Day is Lei Day.”
Another fun fact is that Don Blanding is also credited with creating the custom of tossing your lei overboard when you sailed away and said farewell from Honolulu.
It’s said if your lei came back to shore, it meant you would return.
First Lei Day Celebration
The first official Lei Day celebration was in 1928 and was held in Downtown Honolulu. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin encouraged people to give and wear a lei on May 1 to honor Hawaiian culture.
That year, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the local newspaper at the time, reported:
Leis and more leis will be seen in Honolulu today, for May day has been designated Lei day in Hawaii. One of the interesting features of the celebration is that many women in the city are making their own leis, and yesterday afternoon special blossoms were ordered. In some instances, the flowers will be picked from private gardens.”
The first Lei Day Queen, Miss Nina Bowman, was crowned by Honolulu Mayor Charles Arnold in 1928.
The Lei Day celebration quickly outgrew its original location and moved to Queen Kapi’olani Park in Waikiki, where it’s still held today.
The celebration has expanded outside of Waikiki with special events on each Hawaiian island, with hula exhibitions, lei competitions, and sharing of Hawaiian culture.
It has become special occasions for schools all over the islands as well. The entire school will have a ceremony. The entire student body class performed songs, and is a very happy day, filled with hope, joy, and love.
These Hawaiian celebrations and festivals have even reached the Mainland!
May Day is Lei Day Song
After being inspired by the first Lei Day festival in 1928, musicians Ruth and Leonard Hawk wrote the famous song “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii.”
In 1943, Leonard Hawk revised the lyrics to emphasize the use of war stamps for leis during World War II with the song “My War Lei.”
May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii Lyrics by Leonard Hawk
May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii
Garlands of flowers everywhere
All of the colors in the rainbow
Maidens with blossoms in their hair
Flowers that mean we should be happy
Throwing aside a load of care
Oh, May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii
May Day is happy days out there
Listen to the “May Day is Lei Day” Song
Each Hawaiian Island Has Their Own Lei Color and Flower
There are specific colors of Hawaiian islands as well as a special flower for Lei Day so they can celebrate in their own way. Here are each of the Hawaiian island’s flowers and colors:
- Big Island: Their color is red (ulaula) and the Big Island flower is the ohia lehua
- Maui: Their color is pink (akala) and the Lei Day Maui flower is the lokelani
- Oahu: Their color is yellow (melemele) and the Oahu flower is the ilima
- Molokai: Their color is green (omaomao) and the Molokai flower is the kukui
- Lanai: Their color is orange (alani) and the Lanai flower is the kaunaoa
- Kahoolawe: Their color is silver/grey (hinahina) and the Kahoolawe flower is the hinahina
- Kauai: Their color is purple (poni) and theKauai flower is the mokihana
- Niihau: Their color is white (keokeo) and the Niihau flower is the pupu (which is actually a shell)
World’s Longest Lei
Did you know that the World’s Longest Lei was more than a mile long?
In 2008, people gathered to create the World’s Longest Lei at the 81st Annual Mayor’s Lei Day Celebration at Kapiolani Park in Honolulu.
And Mayor Mufi Hannemann was ecstatic! She announced,
We exceeded our goal. We were hoping to reach one mile. I want to thank the people of Honolulu, and especially the dedicated and hard working members of our Department of Parks and Recreation in addition to our corporate sponsors and volunteers, for making Lei Day 2008 the biggest and best in recent memory.“
Hawaiian May Day Traditions
While people celebrate May Day in different ways across the globe, Hawaii has very distinct ways of celebrating.
Lei Day traditions include selecting a royal court, lei-making competitions, parades, canoe rides, games, musical concerts, hula performances, and exchanging leis with friends and family.
In fact, it’s so highly anticipated that some visitors plan their entire Hawaii vacation around these Hawaii traditions and Lei Day festivities.
One of the coolest (and most unique) May Day traditions in Hawaii schools is the appointment of a Lei Day king, Lei Day queen, and royal court.
Kids in all grade levels learn the proper protocol for welcoming the royal court, and they learn simple hula dances and songs. Many students also wear traditional Hawaiian mu’u mu’u dresses.
Each of the main 8 Hawaiian Islands is represented on the royal court. Students on the royal court participate in the Lei Day custom of wearing the island color, flower, and specific lei to distinguish the island they represent.
It’s a huge honor to be selected to join the royal court. It usually means they are a good student in school and a good example for their peers to look up to, with strong ethnic values.
But, there’s also an opportunity for adults to participate in the royal court to preside over the larger Lei Day festivities.
Lei Queens and Kings are selected based on their lei-making skills, hula proficiency, and Hawaiian language fluency.
Special guests can also come to join the festivities.
Wearing Aloha Shirts & Mu’umu’u Dresses
While you can see locals and visitors wearing Hawaiian clothing on any given day in Hawaii, you’ll see practically the whole island looking festive in their Aloha shirts and flowing mu’umu’u dresses for this Hawaii celebration.
It’s a great excuse to show off vintage Aloha wear or debut a brand-new look.
Lei Making Competitions
In Honolulu, the Lei Day competitions are planned years in advance because participants are encouraged to grow their own flowers in their gardens.
For 2021, the theme is Lei Wao Nahele, and participants will use the ‘A‘ali‘i. For 2022, the theme is Lei Kuaiwi, and participants will use the ‘Ōhi‘a Lehua.
There are three lei contests: Hawaiian lei, youth lei, and lei lipine (ribbon, fabric, yarn lei).
Because the lei contest is such a big part of Lei Day festivities, many local organizations offer free lei-making workshops in the months prior. This gives everyone the opportunity to enter the lei contests.
Give a Hawaiian Lei
One of the easiest ways to participate in Lei Day in Hawaii is to honor someone with a lei. You can make one yourself or purchase one.
There are so many different types of leis. Of course, we all know about the fresh flower leis.
But, some leis are made of feathers, fruit, ribbon, leaves, yarn, shells, berries, seeds, nuts, candy, money, mini bottles of alcohol, and just about anything you can come up with. There is a beautiful forest lei too!
There are a few things to keep in mind to show respect when giving someone a lei:
- Always drape the lei around the neck of the person and rest it on their shoulders. Don’t throw it or hang it on their neck.
- Usually, it’s customary to give the recipient a hug or kiss on the cheek when you present a lei.
- If you receive a lei, continue wearing the lei while the giver can see you. It’s rude to take it off in their presence.
Watch a Lei Day Parade
There are parades on each of the islands to enjoy on Lei Day as well! Many will take place at the town hall, in the parks, and in other well-known places on each island.
Sing the Lei Day Song
Another one of the festivities is to sing the lei day song. It is sung in the classrooms, at the parade, and within families to spread joy.
Books About How to Make a Lei
Whether you are celebrating Lei Day with friends or are planning Hawaiian Day for your school or work, these books are super helpful for learning how to make a lei.
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it on Amazon
Buy it on Amazon
Lei Day Books for Children
Are you looking to learn more about Hawaiian history and holidays with kids? We have a huge list of awesome Hawaiian children’s books, but the one below focuses on Lei Day.
See how to celebrate Hawaii May Day by creating and sharing leis with friends and family.
Buy it on Amazon
Lei Day Activities for Kids
How to Make a Paper Lei
The simplest leis for kids to make are paper leis. I love this paper lei tutorial because it’s such an easy Hawaiian craft for kids.
This tropical flower lei template is a bit trickier (it’s good for teens and adults), but the finished results are spectacular!
Make a Foam Flower Lei
This is the perfect preschool or elementary school activity to celebrate Lei Day. You can cut the flowers out of foam yourself or buy this foam flower lei-making kit with everything you need. Find the best prices here.
I think this is one of the easiest Hawaiian activities for kids to do on their own.
Make a Candy Lei
My Little Book About Lei Day
Another awesome lei day activity for kids is this cute little printable book. Kids can cut it out, color it, and then read it to friends and family to teach them all about May Day in Hawaii.
Hawaii Lei Day FAQs
May 1st. The next day is also celebrated though!
No. That’s a popular misconception from people who haven’t visited Hawaii for decades. There are places to purchase leis at the airports, and you can always arrange for a pre-paid lei greeting at the airport.
Yes, as long as it gets through the agricultural inspection. To ensure your lei will make it through, purchase it at the airport on your way home.
Hawaiians wanted a holiday to celebrate as their own to represent their culture, so they decided to come up with Hawaiian Lei Day. It is one of the Hawaiian celebrations and holidays to bring happiness and celebrate giving a beautiful lei to those around you. There is such beauty in giving leis; it is a wonderful holiday.
May Day Lei Day celebrations are so much fun! Typically you will see a lei contest exhibit, tons of flower leis, parades, and of course, the annual lei day ceremony. There will be plenty of Hawaiian entertainment on May 1 and May 2 to enjoy. Now the entire world celebrates it too!
Grace Tower Warren thought Lei Day should be on May Day since that was when flowers were in bloom. Governor Wallace R. Farrington claimed May 1 as May Day Hawaii after it was first introduced.