By Dennis Fujimoto The Garden Island | Sunday, April 14, 2019, 12:05 a.m.
When May 1 unfolds, the Puna Court at the Kauai Marriott Resort &Beach Club will blossom with the color, fragrance and fabric of hundreds of lei for everyone to enjoy and experience May Day is Lei Day.
“This is tradition,” said Noelani Pomroy, who along with husband Paul serve as chair people for the 39th annual Walter & Irmalee Pomroy May Day lei contest presented by the Kauai Museum and the Hawaii Tourism Authority. “It’s always been on May 1 — not May 2, or 3, or a weekend that’s closest to May 1 — it’s May 1.”
Although the culture of lei dates back to the days of the original Hawaiians carrying the practice to the islands from Polynesia, the tradition of May 1 being “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii” is fairly recent, started on Oahu courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin writer and poet Don Blanding and Grace Tower Warren, who decided that Lei Day should be observed on May Day, or May 1.
A mele, “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii,” was penned by Ruth and Leonard “Red” Hawk and is still sung today by scores of keiki garbed in lei and aloha wear who celebrate lei and the aloha connected to it. This is done through the month-long May Day celebrations presented on the campuses of schools around the island.
Everyone is invited to inspect, and in many cases acquire via a bidding system, the floral masterpieces at the free gathering that will open at 11 a.m. and continue until 3 p.m. at the Kauai Marriott, and which will have local-style bento and other lunchtime appetite-pleasers available.
This year’s lei contest is honoring Dana Valeriano “Kaua‘i‘iki” Olores, a long-time contributor of lei to the annual event.
“This is appropriate,” said Uli‘i Castor of the Kauai Museum, who also contributes lei for the collection of garlands created with flora. “He did a lot of lei using things from the forest because he lived there.”
Entry forms and contest rules are available at the Kauai Museum, or www.kauaimuseum.org for those wishing to contribute to the annual celebration of lei.
What is a lei?
Noelani: A lei, simply put, is a garland or wreath made to adorn one’s body, or an object in celebration.
It is made and given in expression of one’s emotion, intention or hope, on any given occasion, whether it be happy or sad.
Or, it could just be made for the pure enjoyment of the creator, like while you’re hiking and absent-mindedly gather fern or some maile; suddenly you find you have enough and just start to haku or braid the fern into a lei.
The lei is an integral part of the fabric of our Hawaiian culture and its meaning can be as varied as our people.
How, or when, did you get started on your first lei?
Noelani: The lei was present in my life from my earliest childhood memory.
My grandparents had a lei shop at the Lihue Airport called “Leilani’s Lei Shop,” which also doubled as a car rental booth.
As an expression of aloha, their customers were greeted with lei that we made. They were soon hired by all the other car rental companies to make lei for their customers.
My sister and I would help pick the plumeria and crown flower that grew in our garden.
If we didn’t have enough flowers, we would gather more from the neighborhood, and even climb the hillside for bougainvillea that grew near where we lived.
To my sister and I, we had fun!
I can’t recall when I actually made my first fresh flower lei because you learn to gather the flowers first and then, when the time is right, you’re taught to make a lei.
My earliest recollection of actually making a lei was in kindergarten where we learned to cutout paper flowers and strips of straw and strung them with yarn to make a lei for our May Day program.
Paul: Lei were always present in my life, but it wasn’t until I got into middle and high school when I learned to make wili lei that I realized the significance it had for my family — you know the connection between the lei and my family.
We made lei for all occasions and still do this.
When I was little, we would make simple kui lei, you know, needle and string through flower.
I think it was in my freshman year in high school that I made my first wili lei for a contest at school.
I think I won, not sure.
I know it looked pretty good to me, but it was probably just OK.
I recall struggling to keep the lei from twisting. It was still a good experience, but it was still — just a lei.
What kind of material do you enjoy working with to make lei?
Noelani: I love working with flowers that have a fragrance.
For me, the smell of certain flowers brings back fond memories.
As a child, I enjoyed family trips to Koke‘e and hiking the mountain trails to gather maile and mokihana for lei.
That aroma reminds me of those good times.
My favorite lei is, lei pikake.
Paul gave me my first pikake lei while we were still in high school.
The clean aroma of ginger reminds me of the ginger patch that Paul grew for me to make lei from.
It was also my mother’s favorite flower, and she taught me how to make ginger lei.
It gives me great enjoyment and accomplishment to gather flowers and foliage from our garden and farm.
Paul: I love to use forest-grown material.
The young shoots from plants, the sturdy flowers, the various ferns were all the material I would like to use.
Hiking all over the islands to gather lei material was also a lot of fun.
Exploring and discovering different material is always exciting.
As an aside, these expeditions also led to us making Christmas wreathes.
The evergreens needed were discovered on our many excursions into the native forest, and lots of lei material work just as well in the wreathes.
Are there materials that are more difficult to work with in making lei?
Noelani: I can’t say whether the hala lei is difficult or not, but for me, I do find it challenging.
I have to use very sharp knives with varying styles of blades to carve the keys of the hala fruit to create a flower shape.
This in itself can be challenging and requires lots of skill and patience.
After shaping the key, I then have to arrange all the different keys just right, nestling one into the other before stringing them into the lei.
This is where the creativity comes into play.
Paul: For me, the lei poepoe is the most difficult because in the end you’re creating a round lei by placing material on a central backing and attaching it by winding cordage around that backing.
Ultimately, the lei looks uniform from every side.
Because of this, you always need lots of material and need to check your design constantly to ensure uniformity in its appearance.
How did the Pomroy ohana become involved in lei-making?
Paul: Around the mid-’60s my parents, aunties and uncles became more involved in competitive lei-making.
My mom’s sister, Marie McDonald, worked for the City &County of Honolulu in the Parks and Recreation Department, and her duties included work in the Honolulu May Day Lei Contest.
This was a competition, so it was ON!
During most of this time I wasn’t around, having gone off to college and then spending time in the Army.
When I got home, I recall how much more my family had become involved in lei making.
There were lots more preparation and growing excitement, and the hard, but memorable work, gathering the lei material we didn’t grow ourselves.
Setting up the work areas and before that preparing planting beds for growing the flowers we intended to use in lei.
I remember the planning that went into preparing for the lei contest.
A lot of it was very strategic, i.e., what did we do last year? How can we do it differently and better this year? Along the way, we became more involved in the different styles of lei-making and the cultural importance of the lei.
Because lei-making had become so competitive, my family was always looking for an edge.
My dad, Walter, would create “lei-making aids,” like, he developed this board that would hold the lei in place as you made it. You didn’t need to do a lei at a table anymore, you could sit on the floor and still make a lei — if you had the board.
He was always doing stuff like that to enhance the lei-creation process.
My family were purists in the art of lei-making. The lei needed to be made with material from nature, natural, organic-type stuff.
Along the way, my dad figured out, learned to make hau fiber for lei-making. It took time to learn how, by trial and error. It took time to make and turn the raw hau fiber into the beautiful, soft white material we use for lei.
Eventually, my mom, Irmalee, started the Kauai Museum Lei Day contest, which continues to this day.
Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or email@example.com.