Thursday, May 14, 2015

Six Surprising Things I Learned on May Day at the Bailey House Museum

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. 

Six Surprising Things I Learned On May Day

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. 

Display of books by Don Blanding, credited with founding May Day in Hawaii, display at the Bailey House Museum
Don Blanding, an author I've never heard of before. Apparently, he was well-known in his day and made enough money from his books to travel a lot in the 1930s. Remember, this was before airlines were competitive and did special sales to the mainland and Hawaii. 

Hawaiian vintage books, written by Don Blanding, May Day display at the Bailey House Museum
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. 

Haku Lei Making on May Day at the Bailey House Museum, using a braiding technique
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.

Braided style haku lei using a'ali'i and hala pepe native plant materials for May Day
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.

Starting a woven or braided style haku lei, using raffia cord. Very general how-to: raffia fibers are bundled into three even sections, then knotted. The foot holds the knot in place so one can start braiding a short section. Then one gathers a small bunch of flowers or leaves, so that they are closely bunched - not using the lanky stem parts - and places about midway in the raffia braid, so about 2 or 2/12 inches stick out on one side, and the rest of the plant parts hang over the other side. Then overlap the raffia fibers over the plant parts, grab another bunch of plants, and braid. It's just like a regular braid, except each turn of the raffia secures one bunch of plants. 
haku lei making at the Bailey House Museum for May Day
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. 
Images of the Ku'e petition, signed by citizens against the annexation of Hawaii
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 or kalo anatomy poster, parts of the plants with Hawaiian names
Taro anatomy poster.
Other photos of the event:
Hawaiian mamaki tea plants by Maui Native Nursery
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. 
maile plant by Maui Native Nursery for May Day at the Bailey House Museum
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.

Haku lei using kauna'oa
A haku lei using kauna'oa. The other plant material is unknown.

Comparison of two haku leis, one made by a beginner, one by an expert
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.  

Related Posts:

Visit the Archives for other interesting blog posts.

More reference materials: 

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:


  1. Thanks for writing about your experience, Courtney. I learned a lot reading your post. I learned about Lei Day back in the 1980s and always wanted to be in Hawaii to experience one. Your post is good for now. :-)

  2. I loved seeing how that lei was put together. It does seem to require some agility and some talent. Those you've pictured are so pretty.

  3. Nice pictures ... and thanks for the history regarding May Day :-)

  4. Thank you for stopping by! I looked to see if you have a website, but couldn't find one.

  5. Nimble fingers help! It's harder than crochet because all the little flower pieces want to keep falling out.

  6. Hi Susieee, Lei Day is most often celebrated by the schools in Hawaii, usually elementary schools, though lately May Day is not always on May 1st to accommodate schoolwide testing dates.


Comments are important to me, so mahalo for adding a comment! I will try to follow up when I receive one.