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Leis were originally worn by ancient Polynesians and some Asian people as part of custom. They were often used by Native Hawaiians to signify their ranks and royalty. They are also worn as a form of honor to each other and their gods. The religion of the Native Hawaiians as well as the hula custom is tied into the leis that they wore. Native Hawaiians, who are Polynesian, brought the tradition of lei making and wearing with them to the Hawaiian islands when they arrived. On the first of every May, an event called Lei Day is celebrated to honor the act of lei making and the custom surrounding it.
There are many customs and protocols associated with the giving, receiving, wearing, storing, and disposing of lei. A story that originated during World War II tells of a hula dancer who dared to give a lei to a US soldier along with a kiss, leading it to become a tradition of lei distribution in modern times. To this day, leis remain a notable aspect of Hawaiian culture. Traditionalists give a lei by bowing slightly and raising it above the heart, allowing the recipient to take it, as raising the hands above another’s head, or touching the face or head, is considered disrespectful.