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May Day is Lei Day in Hawai’i

May Day is Lei Day in Hawai’i, in our modern day custom for May Day, the children of Hawai’i perform with their classes, family members come out to cheer on the children as they do simple choreography in matching outfits with their classmates. However, May Day tradition stems from the early 1900’s-mainly centralized around the mele, “Nā Lei o Hawaiʻi” written by Reverend Samuel Kapū of Maui.

Nā Lei o Hawaiʻi was written as a dedication to the goddess Hiʻiakaikapoliopele, whose epic journey took her across Nā Kai ʻEwalu (the eight seas/channels of Hawaiʻi). The mele mentions the flower symbol of each island. With music by Peleuli Amalu and sung in 1901 in Hoʻokena, South Kona, on Hawaiʻi Island at a concert for Pukaʻana Church.

By 1912, the dedicated island colors had become customary and the popularized performance of Reverend Kapū’s “Nā Lei O Hawaiʻi” mele by the Kaʻahumanu Society inspired Charles E. King’s version of “Nā Lei O Hawaiʻi” in 1914.

Charles E. King’s Version:

Hawaiian and English Translation Lyrics

Nani Hawaiʻi ka moku o Keawe
Lei haʻaheo i ka lehua
A me ka maile aʻo Panaewa

Kilakila ʻo Maui lā iā Haleakalā
Ua kapu roselani
A noʻu hoʻokahi wale nō

ʻOhuʻohu Oʻahu i ka ʻilima
He kohu manu ʻōʻō
Hulu melemele o ke kuahiwi

Lei Kauaʻi i ka mokihana
Lauaʻe o Makana
O kaʻu aloha nō ia

Kaulana Molokaʻi i ka ulu kukui
O Lanikāula
A me ka wailele aʻo Moaʻula

ʻO Niʻihau, Kahoʻolawe, Lānaʻi
Hoʻoheno me ka pūpū
Ka hinahina me ke kaunaʻoa

Haʻina ʻia mai ana ka puana
Na lei o Hawaiʻi
Na lei o Hawaiʻi e ō mai

Beautiful Hawaiʻi, island of Keawe
Proud of its lei of lehua
And the maile of Panaewa

Grand is Maui with Haleakalā
The sacred rose
Is for you alone

Oʻahu wears the ʻilima lei with pride and grace
As beautiful as the manu ʻōʻō
The yellow birds of the mountains

Kauaʻi’s lei is the mokihana
Lauaʻ
e of Makana
The admiration of my heart

Famous is Molokaʻi preserved by the kukui
Of Lanikāula
And the waterfall of Moaʻula

Niʻihau, Kahoʻolawe and Lānaʻi
Cherish their leis of pūpū shells
The hinahina and kaunaʻoa

Tell the refrain of
The leis of Hawaiʻi
The leis that honor Hawaiʻi

What is significant about May 1st, and why is that considered to be Lei Day?

In 1923, the Hawaiʻi Territorial Legislature passed Joint Resolution No. 1 acknowledging floral emblems. The Outdoor Circle initiated this resolution, which sought to name the hibiscus (aloalo) as the flower emblem of the territory. Their successful reasoning relied on the widely-accepted knowledge of the connection between designated colors, lei, and respective islands.

May Day celebrations as we know them with the royal courts dressed in their island colors, wearing their island lei, find their origin in the first lei contest held on May 1, 1928 – referred to as Lei Day.

In 1927, Don Blanding and fellow “Honolulu Star-Bulletin” newspaper writer, Grace Tower Warren came up with the idea of honoring the tradition of the lei, which they thought to be in decline. 

The first Lei Day was held on May 1, 1928 as a Lei Competition using the designated colors and flowers for each island.

Held in the Lobby of Bank of Hawaiʻi, the official judges were: Princess Abigail Wahiikaahuula Campbell, Elizabeth Lahilahi Webb (lady-in-waiting for Queen Liliʻuokalani) and Aliʻi Lucy Kalanikiʻekiʻe Davis. 

The beauty of tradition lives within the people of the Hawaiian islands, the lei is a symbol of the mele, the dance, and the relationship that the people have with the flora and fauna of the islands.  Celebrate May Day with a beautiful lei and represent your island home!

Below are the corresponding colors and flowers for each island:

Hawaii – Red – Lehua flower

Maui – Pink – Lokelani rose

Kahoolawe – Gray – Hinahina plant

Lanai – Orange – Kaunaoa plant

Molokai – Green – Kukui Nut flower

Oahu – Yellow – Ilima flower

Kauai – Purple – Mokihana berry

Niihau – White – White Pupu shell

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