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May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii Nei

This Monday, May 1, 2023, marks the 95th annual May Day celebration in Hawaii. Every year on the first of May, Hawaii locals and visitors alike don colorful leis and share in the spirit of aloha with hula performances, lei-making demonstrations, lei contests, entertainment and more.

Additionally, most elementary schools across Hawaii celebrate May Day with traditional and modern hula performances and a May Day court, with each grade level representing a different Hawaiian Island by wearing that island's colors.

History of May Day in Hawaii

Photo courtesy of History Education Hawaii News.

In 1927, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin published an article written by Don Blanding, a poet from Oklahoma, which suggested creating a new holiday centered around the Hawaiian custom of wearing and making leis. In his book Hula Moons, Blanding says:

The custom of weaving and wearing flower leis originated with the Hawaiians so long ago that they have no record of its beginning...When tourists discovered Hawaii, they loved the charming gesture and they spread the word of it until the lei became known around the world...Hawaii observed all of the mainland holidays as well as those of a number of the immigrant nationalities in the Islands. But there was no day that was peculiarly and completely Hawaii's own; that is none that included all of the polyglot population there. So, the bright idea that I presented was, 'Why not have a Lei Day?' Let everyone wear a lei and give a lei. Let it be a day of general rejoicing over the fact that one lived in a paradise. Let it be a day for remembering old friends, renewing neglected contacts, with the slogan 'Aloha,' allowing that flexible word to mean friendliness on that day.

Blanding discussed the idea with “Kama'aina Kolumn” columnist Grace Warren. Enthusiastically embracing the idea, Warren suggested the name "May Day" and coined the phrase "May Day is Lei Day." Leonard “Red” and Ruth Hawk, inspired by the new holiday, composed "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii" in 1928 for the first Lei Day festival. This song resonates throughout every Lei Day celebration in the State of Hawaii, with its memorable lyrics:

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


mayday1953May Day, 1953. Photo courtesy of Kohala Public Library Archives.

Which Flowers Represent the Hawaiian Islands?

A special flower represents each of the Hawaiian Islands.

  • Maui - Lokelani, a pink Damask rose brought to Hawaii in the early 1800s.
  • Oahu - Pua 'ilima, a type of yellow hibiscus.
  • Molokai - Kukui, which is green.
  • Lanai - Kaunao, which is orange.
  • Kahoolawe - Hinahina, a silvery beach plant endemic to Hawaii.
  • Kauai - Mokihana, a green berry.
  • Niihau - Pupu, not a flower but "tiny seashells."

Which Leis Represent the Hawaiian Islands?

  • Maui - Lokelani lei, a sweetly scented and fragile pink flower arrangement.
  • Oahu - A yellow, fragile lei made from the ilima flower, often called the “royal lei,” because in ancient Hawaiian times it was worn by high chieftains.
  • Molokai - Kukui lei, made mostly with silvery green leaves.
  • Lanai - Kaunaoa lei, made of thin, light orange strands of vine, gathered in groups, twisted together and then shaped.
  • Kahoolawe - Hinahina lei, made of hinahina stems and flowers, twisted together and then shaped.
  • Kauai -A fragrant lei made of purple berries found only on Kauai.
  • Niihau - White pupu shell lei, made by piercing the shells with small holes and stinging together with vine.

Happy May Day from Locations!