I miss May Day. Everybody celebrated it when I was growing up, Lei Day actually. It was a big event.
Everybody knew this song:
May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii
Garlands of flowers everywheeeeeeere
All of the colors of the rainbooooow
Maidens with blossoms in their haaaiiirrr
Flowers that mean we should be happy
Throwing aside a load of cares
Oh, May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii
Lei Day is happy day out here.
Everyone wore aloha shirts and mu'umu'us, everyone wore leis. (Yes, I know. Today the word for leis is lei. Dancers wear lei, not leis. To make a plural in the Hawaiian language, one adds the word "na" to the singular.)
Backyard flowers were plentiful, or if you were an enterprising kid, they could be pilfered from neighboring front yards. White, yellow, pink, red, they still grow in the Honolulu valley where I grew up.
Do you see plumeria planted at new homes today? Of course not. They've gone the way of the monkeypod, scorned for their unsightly annual leaf drop, their "rubbish."
Back then all the schools had pageants on Lei Day, and we practiced our hula and mele for weeks. It was a huge honor to be selected for the court, as king, queen, princess or kahili bearer.
There were holoku balls at the Moana and Royal Hawaiian hotels, long strands of pikake, then plentiful too, worn over gowns with trains. It was beautiful. Of course, you could easily drive to Waikiki then to hear Hawaiian music in the hotels. Unlike today, there were great shows, like Alfred Apaka's, playing nightly.
I was shocked when I returned to Hawaii in 1991 after years away to discover that May Day as a mass celebration barely existed anymore, especially when I moved to Maui a year later. Where were the mu'umu'us on the sales clerks and bank tellers? Where were the lei?
All I could find was a celebration at the Maui Intercontinental Hotel one night in one of those ghastly ballrooms, hardly an open-air affair.
On the program was a halau I'd never heard of performing some of the most enchanting and original Hawaiian music I had ever heard: Uluwehi Guerrerro and Keali'i Reichel were just getting started. Their halau was then named for the fierce wind that funnels down through narrow, amphitheater-headed Kaua'ula valley in Lahaina, periodically destroying whatever was in its path. Quite a sentiment for a dance troupe.
Lei Day was the invention of Don Blanding, whose romantic visions of Hawaiian moons cutting silver paths across the sea and other sterling images helped inspire Mainlanders to visit Hawaii in the '20s and '30s.
I remember going to the docks at the Aloha Tower to see the great white Matson ships depart. The lei sellers sat with their stands in the park out front. Passengers left bedecked with them, enough to throw a few over the side with the wish that they would one day return to these precious islands.
In the latter part of 1927, Blanding got to thinking about the Hawaiians' age-old custom of weaving and wearing flower garlands. Tourists were enthralled with the charming gesture of giving and receiving them, and he spread the word until the lei became known all around the world.
Hawaii observed all of the Mainland holidays as well as those of a number of immigrant nationalities, Blanding mused, but there was no day that was peculiarly and completely Hawaii's own. Then he had a "bright idea."
"Why not have a Lei Day?" he wrote in Hula Moons. "Let everyone wear a lei and give a lei. Let it be a day of general rejoicing over the fact that one lived in a Paradise. Let it be a day for remembering old friends, renewing neglected contacts, with the slogan 'Aloha,' allowing that flexible word to mean friendliness on that day."
He presented that idea to his editors at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and Lei Day became an official holiday in 1929.
I wonder why this custom is no longer in favor. Did it fall prey to political correctness, the demise of the hapa haole music phenomenon in the wake of the Hawaiian renaissance? Has development overtaken the flower farms? Men wear aloha shirts, but Hawaiian attire seems entirely out of fashion these days for women, unless specifically indicated. Where is Aloha Friday?
I miss those easygoing times. If Lei Day is being observed anywhere on Maui this year, please let me know.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.