Land of the flowers,
of flow’ry bowers,
In her gay dress she appears;
A sweet happy maid,
may her dress never fade
As she carries this day
through the years.
— “May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii”
The rarely sung first verse of Ruth and Leonard “Red” Hawk’s enduring May Day anthem perfectly expresses my feelings about this day.
Throughout my grade school years, May Day was the most auspicious occasion of the school year, always celebrated on May 1st, regardless of the day of the week. Unless, of course, it fell on a weekend, in which case we’d hold our festivities on the school day closest to the date.
And what festivities they were! The morning pageant began with the procession of the May Day court and a solo hula performance by the 8th-grade Queen. Each class performed a song or dance representing the various ingredients in Hawaii’s multicultural stir-fry. Over the years, my classmates and I learned to do the Filipino tinikling (bamboo dance), a Maori chest-slapping chant, Japanese bon dance, Chinese ribbon dance, the Virginia Reel and, of course, various hula. After lunch, we changed out of our festive aloha attire or ethnic costumes, carefully laid aside our fresh flower and candy lei, and changed into T-shirts and shorts for the afternoon relay races.
By the time of my son’s first May Day pageant, in the early 1980s, most schools favored convenience over custom, and scheduled their programs on a Friday, any Friday, in May. Perhaps prompted by grumbling by old-fashioned parents like me — “May Day should be held on MAY DAY!” — some schools retitled their celebrations as Ho’olaule’a.
So I am delighted that the Maui Historical Society is celebrating May Day today, with the Lei Day Heritage Festival at Hale Ho’ike’ike at the Bailey House. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. you can admire the lei contest entries, enjoy musical performances by Uncle George Kahumoku Jr,. Kuikawa and Ahumanu, and participate in a variety of workshops including kaula (Hawaiian rope weaving), poi pounding, and lei-making. Arts and crafts and, of course, onolicious food will be available for purchase. The program will also include a special presentation on Don Blanding, the Father of May Day, delivered by Tom Fairbanks of The Old Wailuku Inn at Ulupono.
Blanding was an artist, poet and journalist who proposed the idea of a Lei Day in his Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper column on Feb. 13, 1928. In his book “Hula Moons,” Blanding explained, “Hawaii observed all of the Mainland holidays as well as those of a number of the immigrant nationalities in the Islands. But there was no day that was particularly and completely Hawaii’s own; that is, none that included all of the polyglot population. . . . Why not have a Lei Day? Let everyone wear a lei and give a lei. Let it be a day of general rejoicing over the fact that one lived in Paradise.”
His co-worker and fellow columnist Grace Tower Warren suggested that May Day be Lei Day in Hawaii; the Hawks memorialized it in song, and the first Lei Day was observed on May 1, 1928, with a lei contest in the lobby of the Bank of Hawaii in downtown Honolulu.
In a 2001 May Day speech, U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka said, “Lei Day is a nonpolitical and nonpartisan celebration. Indeed, its sole purpose is to engage in random acts of kindness and sharing, and to celebrate the Aloha Spirit, that intangible, but palpable, essence which is best exemplified by the hospitality and inclusiveness exhibited by the Native Hawaiians — Hawaii’s indigenous peoples — to all people of goodwill.”
I’m pretty sure our beloved late Sen. Akaka knew all the words to “May Day is Lei Day,” including the obscure second stanza:
Land of green mountains,
gardens and fountains,
Beaches of white shining sand;
Where each one I see has a smile just for me
And has ready a welcoming hand.
Today we throw aside our load of care and celebrate all of the colors in the rainbow, for May Day is Lei Day, and Lei Day is Happy Day out here!
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.