Lei is Hawaiian for "garland" or "wreath." A lei can be any series of objects strung together on a line and tied to form a ring, for wearing around the neck or on the head (as is done with haku lei). Tourism between the Hawaiian Islands and the continental United States popularized the concept of flower leis during the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, leis are recognized worldwide as symbolic of Hawaii and its residents' concept of aloha, as shown in its use in greetings, farewells, celebrations and signs of affection.
Leis (na lei (plural) in Hawaiian) most commonly consist of fresh flowers, vines or ferns; popular flowers include the plumeria, ilima, ginger and orchid varieties, while the maile vine is often used in times of celebration and recognition. Leis, however, can be created from series or patterns of just about anything. Ancient Hawaiians and Polynesians constructed leis from flowers, leaves, shells, nuts, seeds, feathers and even animal bones. Modern lei variations can include shells, feathers, plastic flowers, ribbons, yarn, fabric, origami, monetary bills, candy or even small toys wrapped in colorful cellophane.
There are three generally accepted methods of making flower leis:
1. Using long needles to string flowers together through their centers;
2. stringing flowers, tying each flower individually by its stem; and,
3. creating three separate strings of flowers then braiding them together -- often viewed as a display of deep affection or love.
Although there need not be a reason to wear a lei in Hawaii, the most common occasions include Aloha Fridays, May Day (Lei Day), welcoming out-of-town guests, birthdays and graduations. High school and college graduates are often showered with leis up to their ears, gifted to them by family and friends.
Because of the meaning and emotion associated with the giving of leis, it is considered rude and even in bad taste to refuse a lei, or not wear it. Leis are properly worn draped over one's shoulders, with its ribbon or other adornment on one's front, right side.
Leis can be worn at practically any function or event, with any attire from formal dresses to business suits, to casual beachwear made from tropical island prints.