Almost worldwide, Hawaii is primarily known for its summer presentation - leis, hula girls, and long sunsets out on the ocean. However, this polytheistic culture presents beauty that isn’t just limited to one’s summer vacation. In fact, one of Hawaii’s most culturally exciting seasons is spring!
With flowers blooming and the rainy summer coming to a close, Hawaii begins to experience blooming flowers and smiling faces. Wherever you are in the world, these Hawaiian spring traditions may be your next new favorite springtime tradition, adding some aloha to your life.
Spring In Hawaii
While seasonal changes are subtle, the Hawaiians use a complicated, detailed lunar calendar that indicates the changing seasons with uncanny accuracy. Modern Hawaiian practitioners are attuned to this lunar calendar, much like their ancestors, for it indicates the time for planting, fishing, and harvesting.
There are Hawaiian names for every month of the year, similar to their English counterparts, that accommodate the beautiful Hawaiian language that is comprised of only five vowels and twelve consonants. April is “Apelila” in Hawaiian and May is “mei”. However, in the lunar calendar, different islands have different names for the months, as do fishermen and farmers. For fishermen on the big island, April is known as Welo and for farmers, Hinaiaelele. (We’re sure you're trying to pronounce those out loud as you read this.)
It’s often said that “it’s always springtime in Hawaii,” which is true for most, but for those who follow the lunar calendar, spring is as distinct as it is anywhere else in the world.
Tradition #1: Lei Day
If you’ve ever visited Hawaii, you most likely were leid, or given a string of intricate flowers draped over your head and around your shoulders. This beautiful floral “necklace” is crafted as a sign of welcome and of course, the aloha spirit. What if we told you Hawaii has its own celebration solely for spring and leis?
Lei Day or May Day celebrates the coming of spring. Schools all over the state celebrate Lei Day with games, songs, and hula while parents spread aloha to their neighbors and loved ones by gifting them leis. Held on May 1st each year, May Day is the statewide celebration of the aloha spirit and the giving of the flower lei.
It is unknown when the tradition exactly began, but it was believed that it began as a custom of the original Hawaiians, who presented lei of nuts, seeds, shells, leaves, and flowers as offerings to the gods. In 1927, the “poet laureate of Hawaii,” Don Blanding, realized that the act of giving a lei was being embraced all over the world and encouraged Hawaii’s local newspaper to urge their readers to give and wear a lei on May 1st to honor the Hawaiian culture and rejoice in being so fortunate to live a beautiful place. Don is also accredited with the custom of tossing your lei overboard when you sailed from Honolulu. If the lei came back to shore, it meant that you would return.
By 1929, the idea was so popular and well-received that the celebration was deemed May Day by Governor Wallace R. Farrington, and was celebrated in downtown Honolulu, Hawaii. However, it was solely deemed as a traditional celebration, not a state holiday. Beautiful parades, lei-making contests, and the appointing of a royal court are just a few of the activities that every island partakes in on this day.
It’s quite the opposite of the distress of “mayday” which you certainly wouldn’t be yelling on this day of peace, appreciation, and relaxation. Listen to the notorious “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii” by Leonard Hawk to experience the warmth of this celebration firsthand!
Want to celebrate lei day at home? Make your own and gift it to a loved one! Here is are a few lei etiquette tips if you do:
When offering a lei to a person, always remember to drape the lei around the neck of a person and rest it on their shoulders
It is customary to give a person a kiss on the cheek or hug when presenting the lei
If you are fortunate enough to receive a lei as well, make sure to continue to wear your lei while in the presence of the giver
Tradition #2: Merrie Monarch
The Merrie Monarch Festival is a week-long cultural event held in Hilo, Hawaiʻi each spring, featuring Hawaiian culture and an impressive, world-renowned, three-day hula competition. The Festival is a domestic non-profit organization registered with the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
The festival began in 1963, and the private Merrie Monarch Festival community organization took on the responsibilities of running the event five years later. Through the celebration of the Merrie Monarch Festival, thousands of people are connected both near and far to learn about the history and culture of Hawaiʻi. The purpose of the Festival was and is the perpetuation, preservation, and promotion of the art of hula and the Hawaiian culture; an art that was almost diminished in the 1830s.
In part, the Festival was created in memory of King Kalakaua and his actions to keep the spirit of hula alive. For many decades under Christian missionary teachings, Hawaiian culture was suppressed. Thanks to King Kalakaua, who advocated keeping hula a legal practice for its purpose of communication and tradition, Merrie Monarch is made possible, working to maintain tradition and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture.
According to the official Merrie Monarch page, the Festival’s goal is to:
Perpetuating the traditional culture of the Hawaiian people
Develop and augment a living knowledge of Hawaiian arts and crafts through workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions, and performances of the highest quality and authenticity
Reach individuals who might not otherwise have the opportunity to participate in the festival through live broadcasts and social media
Enrich the future lives of all of Hawaiʻi’s children.
How can you be a part of this beautiful festival? Luckily, this festival is televised! Grab some li hing mui treats and support the beauty of hula. You can also learn to dance hula for the day - but be wary that it is a culture that should be treated with care and respect. If you visit Hawaii and want to celebrate hula in lieu of the event, then be sure to support local hula schools.
Tradition #3: Boys Day
Ever wish you had a special day just for being you? Aside from your birthday of course. Well, you’re just in luck whether you are a boy or girl - but since we’re focusing on springtime traditions, this one’s for you boys.
Part of what makes Hawaii so fantastic is its combination of customs and traditions through the blending of different cultures. Boy's and Girl's days were imported to Hawaii by Japanese migrants but have already become part of its calendar.
Boy's day, or Tnago no Sekku, is held on May 5th. Tradition says each house with boys must hang a bamboo stick with the shape of koi or carp fish to bring luck and the promise of achieving their goals in life. There’s typically a carp for each boy in the family, but today some families will fly a carp per child in their household. Each family must hang one rod per boy and they're usually placed by the door, on the street, or on the roof. In Japan, the carp is thought to be a symbol of strength, courage, and success because of a Chinese legend that a carp swam upstream and became a dragon.
Taking a Shoubu-yu, a bath with floating Iris leaves is another traditional custom on this day. Shoubu is a kind of herb and also a folk remedy that attempts to ward off plague by its fragrance. It is also hung under the eaves of houses which is believed to be able to drive away evil spirits.
Celebrate boy's day by taking a Shoubu-yu or hanging your own bamboo pole! Some people even take on more modern celebrations of this day by simply treating themselves, or others treating you.