Graduation ceremonies in Hawaii are no different than those in all the other states. The same scenario occurs: seniors await their moment to take their last walk with fellow classmates, receive their diplomas, and take their first steps into the real world. Parents, relatives, and friends watch with proud hearts as their youngsters become bonafide graduates. But when the ceremonies are over, graduations in the islands are significantly unique. This is all due to a string of beautiful flowers, the lei.
Only in Hawaii will people see graduates decorated with different, multicolored lei (the plural form of lei is “lei” with no s at the end). Adorning graduates with lei is a time-honored tradition. Family and friends present it as a gift to show how proud and happy they are. Graduates give it to their fellow graduating classmates as signs of long-lasting friendship and best wishes. It is not uncommon to see them covered to the top of their heads with lei.
Hundreds of years ago, ancient Hawaiians beautified themselves and each other with hand-made lei strung with leaves, flowers, bones, and shells. They also offered it to opposing chiefs and to the gods as signs of peace and friendship. As tradition passed on, the lei was used to greet tourists to the islands and also given to them as a symbol of the hope of returning when they departed. Today, the lei is the symbol of the Aloha spirit of Hawaii.
The most common type of lei that people know of is the flower lei, mainly made of plumeria. The plumeria is one of the most accessible flowers on the islands. However, many islanders do prefer different flower lei, such as tuberose, carnation, orchid, and ginger. The maile leaf lei is another popular type, and often it is intertwined with the tuberose, carnation, and orchid flowers.
But lei creation doesn’t stop at flowers. At graduations especially, the money lei is highly popular. This hand-made lei is put together with dollar bills folded in a certain shape, sometimes in the form of fans, flowers, or even good-luck frogs. A money lei is a symbol of good fortune and is not to be taken apart. A few more modern takes on the lei are the feather lei and the silk ribbon lei that are often done in the graduating school’s colors. Let’s not forget the candy lei which is made with different candies, gum, chocolates, and little bags of macadamia nuts.
One significant type of lei, or “head” lei is the haku. This beautiful creation is usually made up of different small flowers braided into ti leaves or banana leaves along with fern. Most of the time it is worn on the head and usually given only on special occasions such as weddings and graduations.
In Hawaii, a graduation wouldn’t be a graduation without the lei. The lei signifies success for graduates. It marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next for them. No matter what kind of lei it is, adorning them with lei shows them how much they are loved and will be remembered. So at the next graduation, if there is a headless person walking around with a mound of lei, then that person definitely has roots in Hawaii.