Why do people in the US get leis at graduation?

I’ve been to lots of graduations, never seen a lei. Either it’s not much of a thing, or it’s a thing that hasn’t made its way to my little corner of Mississibama yet. (Either is totally plausible.)

I last taught high school in 2004 in Southern California. Leis made of strung-together candy bars were just starting to make an appearance. I think the idea is that unlike balloons or a bouquet, a lei doesn’t occupy a hand necessary for receiving a diploma or shaking hands with the faculty.

To add another data point, I’ve seen leis at graduations in California for the past 20 years or so. I have no idea how the tradition started.

I attended or participated in several graduations at various levels in SoCal in the 1970s & 1980s. No leis. A completely unheard of idea at the time.

And in fact I opened this thread because the title gave me one of those “Huh What?? What is that guy smokin???” reactions.

Nowadays? I have no clue. Clearly some posters have seen it someplace. Not I.

Are you sure it’s not that people in the US get laid at graduation?

Additional anecdotes- they are ubiquitous enough in my experience that I think nothing of them. Don’t even associate them with a particular group. I would assume Asian or Polynesian with a handful of others wearing them for flowers, fun, or with friends.

University of Chicago graduations in the 90s had a handful of leis. But I can also confirm Seattle 2020 COVID graduations this year (easy to scan through the posted graduations on YouTube) probably had been 10-50 leis per high school.

I can also verify this joke has been made at least once by the adults attending every US graduation I’ve attended.

I’ve been to over 50 high school graduations around Southern California over the years. We started seeing leis as a fashion statement maybe 15 years ago. Now they are commonplace.

My experience is the same. When I graduated in the 80s, not a lei to be seen. Now they’re ubiquitous.

As we are being specific, I’ve seen the flowered leis and the candy leis in the Sacramento area, Bay Area, Humboldt, Then down in LA, Southern California, San Diego, Stanford… and in Hawaii :).

Maybe 10% to 25% of the graduates?

Another west coast person checking in. They’re not ubiquitous, but they are common enough that no one thinks anything of it. That’s been the case for decades.

I’m surprised that it’s not done at all in the midwest & east coast. I just assumed it was a thing kids do at graduation.

Yes, a scattering at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine graduation, May 2017.

No, University of Nebraska College of Law, May of 2012.

interesting that we are seeing the beginnings of a new tradition. Won’t be long before it is standard fare at graduations.
I’m thinking 7 years…
So graduation 2027 should have greater than 30% school graduations where at least 10% of the graduates are wearing leis.

Bah…it’s not local Hawaiian style if you can still see the chin! https://www.google.com/search?q=hawaii+graduation+leis&rlz=1C1CHBF_enUS769US769&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjogdeQlLjsAhUfHzQIHc4ZDlcQ_AUoAXoECBUQAw&biw=1600&bih=1083#imgrc=_9SwhBPAAN5dTM LOL

The probable reason it started to spread is because transplanted locals to the mainland tend to come together for events. Everyone from Hawaii is cousin, uncle, aunty, tutu (grandma) or tutu kane (grandpa) whether they’re related or not. On one of the seasons The Great Food Truck Race on Food Network, wherever the Hawaii food truck went, transplanted locals would appear in droves. The other contestants were moaning and groaning as the Hawaii truck won in a cakewalk.

This seems logical. I don’t remember any at my high school graduation in 1988 (greater Seattle area), but looking at this year’s virtual graduation, there were a number of leis, including candy ones. Maybe 5%? Only one person was buried in leis, the others just had 1 or 2.

Once a Polynesian (not in Hawaii) gave me black pearls as a parting gift. I was really touched.

What is the real straight dope on what the garlands of flowers represent? And the pearls?

Maybe the Californian thing is just erroneous cultural appropriation? Or not related at all?

Honestly, it’s just a way to congratulate a graduate with flowers without burdening them with having to carry them around all day. The grads aren’t wearing them to graduation; they are gifts from friends or family who came to attend the ceremony.

It’s more than that. Various sources cite that it symbolizes rank and wealth.

Leis are made with various types of flowers and variety widely in cost and complexity. Some can take hours to make with multiple different types of flowers. When made and not bought, these are especially treasured because of the time, thought and care that goes into making it.

Also, leis aren’t just made with flowers. They’re made with seeds, nuts, shells and feathers. The last, like royal Hawaiian capes can take hundreds or thousands of feathers to make.

Edit: Like the capes, some feather leis were limited only to royalty.

More contemporary, cracked seed (Chinese preserved fruit) and candy leis are also popular. Growing up I remember only Wrigley’s gum leis, but now any type of candy is used. I don’t know what other use it has, but we have stretchable plastic mesh tubing that’s used for this. And money leis are popular. Again, the time and effort to make the sometimes extremely elaborate designs is a sign of love and caring.

So, no. Leis are far more than “…flowers without burdening them with having to carry them around all day.”

A bit about lei etiquette:

"#### How to Give a Lei

Traditionally, a Hawaiian lei is presented to another by gently placing it around their neck, accompanied by a kiss on the cheek. One can also bow slightly, holding the lei just above their heart, welcoming the recipient to take the lei and place it around their own neck.

How to Wear a Lei

The beauty of the lei is that it can be worn anytime by anyone on any occasion. A closed lei should be worn on the shoulders, half of it hanging on the front and the other half on the back. An open lei should be centered on the back of the neck, with both ends hanging down on the front.

How to Dispose of a Lei

A lei should never be thrown away in the trash as it is considered disrespectful. It is customary to return the lei to the earth. You can either remove the flowers from the string* and scatter them in the ocean, bury them or burn them. Or simply hang the lei on a door or window to dry it out."


Some leis like those made with nuts, shells and feathers are meant to kept. And leis with maiie leaves are kept as the leaves dry well.

Another tradition is that when leaving by boat or ship you toss a lei into the ocean. If it returns to shore, it means you’re coming back.

“May Day is lei day in Hawaii nei” https://www.hawaiimagazine.com/content/how-may-day-became-lei-day-hawaii

In grade school, we’d give our favorite teacher a lei and run away giggling when she insisted on the traditional kiss on the cheek.

One of the most beautiful sites to see is King Kamehameha’s statute drapes in leis on May Day and his birthday.

I have no doubt of this, at least as far as how leis are made and thought of in Hawaiian culture. But, I will guess that non-Polynesian kids and their parents in California and elsewhere are unaware of all of that, and for them, leis probably are “flowers you don’t have to carry.”