I was making a real Hawaiian lei from a pile of plumeria flowers covering the table in front of me. They were piled high, more than enough for us to string several lei together without running out. But we had walked the dusty field surrounding the office building to pick out a handful of different colors. It was easy work, picking the flowers, but tiring under the hot Hawaiian sun. No one complained, though; we were on Molokai partaking in one of the loveliest of Hawaiian traditions at the Molokai Plumeria Farm.
As is the case with many things in Hawaii, there is a lot of history behind the lei and a lot of protocol when it comes to giving or receiving one. Most recently it has become a welcoming symbol for tourists arriving on the Islands. But it goes back further than recent years to other Polynesian cultures and countries. In the end, though, it all comes back – whether in love, friendship, recognition, or for a special occasion – to a matter of affection.
My time on what many call “the most Hawaiian of the Islands” during my Molokai Visitors Association trip had already taught me a lot about the history and traditions of the people, many things I had neither learned nor understood from previous trips to Hawaii. But one thing that was still missing was the matter of the lei. I never knew how they were made or why; I always considered it a hokey tourist tradition and only truly knew that the word cannot be pluralized with an S, since that letter was never in the original Hawaiian alphabet of twelve letters.
I had no idea how they were made or why. I didn’t know, nor could I have ever imagined, that there is a particular protocol behind the disposal of them. (The lei should be returned to where they came or disposed of by hanging them in a tree, burying them, or burning them.) Heck, I didn’t even know that they were made with plumeria flowers. I was naïve enough to believe that a simple flower of any kind could suffice.
I jabbed through the flowers exiting at the stem. One by one I stuck them with a giant needle. Only when there were four flowers on the needle did I grasp and slide them down onto an attached string. I had anticipated it to be a difficult and delicate process, but creating my lei was easy.
Some went slowly, plotting out the exact look they wanted, others – like myself – went quickly, just giddy over the opportunity. It was fun; we laughed and joked, ooh’d and ah’d, and complimented each other on the lei we were each creating. And in the end, no matter how it was pieced together, the result was a beautiful strand of flowers to smell and admire for the rest of our stay on Molokai.