Hawaiian Leis:  the Maile Lei

The fragrant and regal, maile lei, honors and congratulates on special occasions

By M. Keala Milles, Jr.

While the traditional lei greeting has become an iconic part of modern Hawaiian culture, the ritual was much more specific for native Hawaiians.  Hawaiian leis are given not just to welcome, but to recognize and congratulate on special occasions. The most regal of leis is the maile lei, a fragrant and leafy lei that in ancient times honored royalty and the goddess of Hula, Laka.

Lei of Elegance

The maile lei is an open garland made from winding the fragrant maile vines into a kind of rope. Basically, you cut the vine directly from the plant and begin twisting or winding it to form the lei.  The maile lei is one of the most elegant Hawaiian leis to give for just about any cause for celebration, it is most popular for men because it is simple, but regal.

A Declaration of Peace

Hawaiian leis woven out of maile were among the most significant of leis and its sacred use was to signify the agreement of peace between two chiefs.  This was not necessarily a lei intended for donning; the tradition involves the two opposing chiefs entering a heiau (temple) and symbolically sharing in the responsibility of intertwining the vines.  When the task was completed it was a declaration of peace. 

Maile Lei Unites Couples

Pictured to the right is my brother dancing with our mom at his wedding.  As you can see, he wears the rich green vine around his neck open (not closed like how most flower leis).

The maile lei is part of a popular Hawaiian wedding tradition in which the bride and groom are united by the closing of the open lei, going from two separate people to one united couple in marriage.

My brother and mother dancing at his wedding
Photo by M. Keala Milles, Jr.

Fresh maile and kukui nut lei
Photo by M. Keala Milles, Jr.

Leis to Celebrate and Congratulate

It has become custom for teenage boys to wear maile leis at high school proms and banquets and they are also given out at graduations.  Similarly, you could give a maile lei to someone celebrating a very special, but non-traditional event.

Last year I was cast in the world premiere of John Doe:  The Musical.  My folks brought Hawaiian leis to San Diego to celebrate this achievement.   Below is a picture of me at the opening night reception in November, standing with the writer/composer Emmy-award-winning local writer/ producer (and, as they say, “all-around good guy”) Robert Moutal. 

Robert Moutal and I at the John Doe premiere
Photo Courtesy of  M. Keala Milles, Jr.

You wouldn’t know it from his shaka mastery, but he’s not Hawaiian (actually he’s Mexican, and quite renowned on the Telemundo circuit). He’s a pretty laid back dude, so that might explain his shaka retention.

I’m looking forward to my next maile lei.  I don’t have any plans yet to accomplish anything quite so deserving, but that is all the more reason to recall its sweet fragrance.  Maybe it is all the motivation I need…

Have you ever given or received a maile lei?

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