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
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
Fresh maile and kukui nut lei
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
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?