The Bailey House Museum hosted an exquisite Lei Day Heritage Festival this past May Day, which was celebrated on Friday, May 1. It wasn’t a May Day focused on entertaining tourists, though there were certainly tourists there, but a May Day that also explored the deeper meaning of Hawaii. Maybe it’s because OHA, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, sponsored it. I felt honored to attend, even for such a short time.
1. The biggest surprise: May Day is a modern, invented holiday, according to the Maui Historical Society. In 1927, a writer named Don Blanding, who fell in love with the Islands, founded May Day as a day to celebrate Hawaiian culture with lots of flowers and leis. May Day wasn’t founded by one of the native kings or queens of Hawaii in the 1800s, but by an American soldier who moved to Hawaii after WWI.
|Some books by Don Blanding, a prolific writer in Hawaii.|
2. The kind of lei I was taught growing up as haku lei is technically not haku lei. According to Kiana of Maui Native Nursery, true haku lei involves braiding the plant materials. What we often think of as haku lei is actually wili or wiliwili style, which means wrapping. Wrapping the plant materials together and bind it to a long leaf or a cord. Ironically, I had learned this back in 2012 at the Native Hawaiian Plant Society booth at the Haiku Flower Festival, but had forgotten it! By the way, there’s also a tree called the wiliwili tree, whose name also involves the idea of wrapping.
|The upper photo shows the braiding of the haku lei. The raffia fiber is almost in the middle of the plant sprigs, meaning there is a lot of overhang of the plant material that will later be trimmed.The upper lei is hala pepe (the yellow leaves) and a'ali'i native plants.|
This is the finished, braided style haku lei by Kiana of the Maui Native Nursery,
which specializes in native Hawaiian plants.
After my lesson in lei making, she gave me the lei. I felt honored. The lei was also fragrant, not like a strong floral perfume, but with a very gentle and sweet fragrance.
3. Lei making is more than hands-on! The kind of lei making we were doing was not exactly a dainty activity with ladies in garden party dresses gently stringing flowers together on slender lei needles. This kind of haku lei making involves the whole body. Yoga flexibility helps! Fingers, toes, arms, elbows, feet… You can be hunched over these leis, using your feet to hold one end as you braid flowers together. Bits of plant material want to keep falling out of the braid. One's body is covered in lei materials. One's fingers and toes get a real work out.
|Flowers and leaves everywhere!|
4. Hala pepe is a plant associated with the god or goddess of hula. Kiana said if you look at a hala pepe swaying in the wind, one can imagine how it inspired the graceful movements of the hula. According to Kiana, the halapepe can grow to a hundred feet tall.
|I'm pretty sure this is hala pepe. |
Photo taken at Native Intelligence in Wailuku.
5. Citizens in Hawaii protested the annexation of Hawaii (after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy) by the US Government by signing a petition, called the Ku’e Petition in 1897 and 1898. I had never heard of this petition even though I attended public school in Hawaii. The Bailey House Museum had a display of Ku'e Petition information, signatures, and research materials. This historical document may be a way to trace one’s lineage and family history.
|It surprised me to think that people have been signing petitions for centuries, for causes they believed to be important. Despite collecting hundreds or thousands of signatures, Hawaii was still annexed by the US government. I'm reminded of how 20,000 Maui signatures were collected for a ballot initiative on GMOs last year. I guess petitions are nothing new in Hawaii.|
6. Taro or kalo plants have a complicated anatomy. I’ve never studied botany but there are many different parts of the plant and they all have names! Taro is a food staple in Hawaii. Most people first encounter taro as poi, but it is cooked in so many other ways.
|Taro anatomy poster.|
Other photos of the event:
Mamaki plants sold by Maui Native Nursery. Mamaki tea is considered a healing tea. Mamaki likes cooler, damp places to live and will supposedly thrive in Haiku.
|The treasured maile plant. My first time seeing a living maile plant. Maile is used in maile leaf leis, often in weddings or as part of blessing ceremonies for a new home, building, or grand opening of a store or event. Maile used to grow wild freely, but is rarer and harder to find these days. It has fragrant leaves.|
|Kauna'oa - a stringy yellow vine found along some beaches and used in lei making.|
|A haku lei using kauna'oa. The other plant material is unknown.|
|The upper lei is the haku lei I finished making at the May Day Lei Heritage Festival at the Bailey House Museum. It's definitely a beginner lei. The plant bunches are sticking out everywhere and it's not tightly braided. The raffia gets tangled in the plant stems so it has to be constantly smoothed out and untangled while holding two or three plant bunches from falling out! The lower lei is the one made by Kiana, who makes the braiding look deceptively easy. Her lei is very tightly woven and neat! I tried unsuccessfully to give away my haku lei in the spirit of May Day, but perhaps it was just as well.. |
my beginner haku lei was gently falling apart.
All in all, this was the most educational May Day I have ever attended. There was entertainment, Hawaiian crafts demonstrations, museum tours, things to buy, and history displays. From the event guide, I realized there were several activities and displays that I had missed around the other side of the museum: including cordage making (making rope), poi pounding, Hawaiian quilt making. I learned a lot of information in the short time I was there, and hope the Bailey House Museum will continue to hold the Lei Day Heritage Festival next May Day.
Whatever Happened to May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii?
Making Haku Leis With the Native Hawaiian Plant Society
Making Haku Leis With the Native Hawaiian Plant Society
Visit the Archives for other interesting blog posts.
Biography of Don Blanding and list of books
Information for research assistance for Ku'e Petition Descendants
Lei Heritage Festival, May Day event guide book: