The Significance of Lei Exchange in Traditional Hawaiian Weddings

In the heart of the Pacific, where waves embrace the shores with the same warmth as the sun’s rays, lies a tradition as beautiful and enduring as the islands themselves: the lei exchange.

This ceremonial practice, deeply rooted in Hawaiian culture, is a testament to the islands’ legacy of love, unity, and respect.

Setting out through the significance of lei exchange in traditional Hawaiian weddings unveils a story of cultural heritage, symbolic gestures, and the timeless allure of Aloha spirit.

The History and Cultural Significance of Lei in Hawaii

The lei, a garland or wreath that is gently draped over the shoulders, hanging down in front and back, is more than a mere floral decoration. Its origins stretch back to the earliest Polynesian navigators who set foot on the Hawaiian archipelago, bringing with them the customs and traditions of their ancestral lands.

Lei were initially created using whatever materials were available—flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers, and even bone and teeth of various animals.

Each lei was not just an adornment but a symbol of distinction, crafted with intentions ranging from welcoming and celebrating to honoring and mourning.

Ancient Hawaiians held lei in high esteem, using them in significant rites and ceremonies. The exchange of lei during weddings, for instance, was not merely decorative but served as a profound expression of love and respect.

This practice was intertwined with the belief in mana, the spiritual energy that flows through all things. 

In giving and receiving lei, this energy was shared, binding the participants in a sacred connection.

Understanding the Lei Exchange Tradition

At the core of every traditional Hawaiian wedding is the lei exchange, a ceremony rich with symbolism and meaning.

This exchange is not a simple handing over of flowers but a significant gesture, laden with the intentions and emotions of those involved. It begins with the selection of the lei, each type chosen for its specific symbolism—be it love, respect, fidelity, or prosperity.

The most common lei used in weddings are the Maile lei, known for its long, open-ended style and sweet fragrance, symbolizing the bond between the couple, and the Pikake lei, revered for its delicate jasmine flowers, representing purity and the romantic relationship.

The order and manner of the lei exchange are as important as the leis themselves. Traditionally, the groom presents a lei to the bride first, symbolizing his intentions and love.

Following this, the bride reciprocates, completing the circle of giving, receiving, and thereby, unity.

This exchange is often accompanied by oli (chants) or mele (songs), further enhancing the spiritual and emotional depth of the ceremony.

Types of Lei Used in Weddings and Their Meanings

  1. The Maile lei, with its long, vine-like appearance and sweet fragrance, is perhaps the most iconic lei associated with Hawaiian weddings. Its significance lies in its ability to represent the physical and spiritual connection between the couple. The Pikake lei, made from the fragrant jasmine flower, is another favorite, symbolizing purity, love, and a romantic connection.
  2. Lei Po’o, or head leis, are also a common sight in Hawaiian weddings, worn by brides and sometimes grooms. These leis are not just decorative but signify honor and elevation of the individual within the sacred space of the wedding ceremony.

The Lei Exchange Ceremony: Step-by-Step

The lei exchange begins with the selection and blessing of the leis, a process often overseen by a kahu (priest) or an elder respected within the community.

This blessing is not just a formality but a request for the gods’ protection, guidance, and blessing upon the couple and their union.

As the ceremony progresses, the family and guests play a crucial role, sometimes participating in the lei exchange by offering their leis to the couple, symbolizing the community’s support and blessings.

The climax of the lei exchange occurs when the couple recites their vows, each presenting their lei as a tangible representation of these promises.

This moment, laden with emotions, signifies the weaving together of their lives, the beginning of a journey marked by love, respect, and mutual support.

Modern Adaptations and Incorporations

In today’s world, where cultures blend and traditions evolve, the lei exchange has seen various adaptations.

Couples of different backgrounds are drawn to this beautiful practice, incorporating it into their ceremonies as a nod to Hawaiian culture or as a symbol of their love and commitment.

Some opt for lei made from non-traditional materials, such as fabric or paper, allowing for personalization and creativity while honoring the essence of the tradition.

For those looking to incorporate the lei exchange in a contemporary setting, consider working with a lei artist who can create custom leis that reflect your personal story or heritage, blending tradition with individuality.

Preserving Tradition: The Importance of Lei Exchange in Today’s World

The lei exchange tradition underscores the Hawaiian value of ‘ohana (family) and community. It’s a tangible expression of the interconnectedness of people, nature, and the ancestral wisdom that guides contemporary life.

This tradition serves not only as a cultural preservation effort but also as a reminder of the importance of personal connections in our increasingly digital and fast-paced world.

Engaging in the lei exchange is a powerful act of cultural preservation, keeping the Hawaiian heritage alive and relevant for future generations.

It’s a practice that resonates with the global community, reminding us of the universal values of love, respect, and unity.

Through the lei exchange, couples and families affirm their commitment to these ideals, contributing to a more compassionate and understanding world.

Moreover, the lei exchange highlights the importance of sustainability and environmental responsibility. 

Many lei makers and wearers are now choosing to source materials locally and sustainably, reflecting a broader commitment to protecting the natural beauty and resources of the Hawaiian Islands.

This practice encourages a deeper connection to the land (‘aina) and sea (kai), integral aspects of Hawaiian culture and spirituality.


The lei exchange is far more than a mere tradition; it’s a profound bridge linking past, present, and future generations, intricately weaving the threads of love, respect, and unity that are core to our human essence.

In a Hawaiian wedding, the lei exchange moment is deeply moving, perfectly capturing the spirit of the islands, and offering a compelling testament to these timeless values.

Reflecting on the significance of the lei exchange in traditional Hawaiian weddings, we’re reminded of the incredible beauty found in embracing and honoring our cultural heritage.

This age-old tradition, steeped in history and rich in meaning, continues to inspire and resonate with couples across the globe, standing as a luminous beacon of love and connection in today’s world.

Ultimately, the lei exchange transcends being merely a ceremonial act; it celebrates life, love, and the lasting bonds that unite us.

It serves as a powerful reminder that amidst change and diversity, there exist traditions capable of uniting us, underscoring the importance of respect, understanding, and shared humanity.

The spirit of Aloha, propagated through the lei exchange, continues to touch hearts and forge connections beyond the confines of time and space.

In light of this enduring tradition, if you’re dreaming of infusing your special day with the spirit of Aloha, consider reaching out to Aloha Wedding Chapel.
Situated in the heart of Las Vegas, our Hawaiian wedding chapel offers a unique blend of traditional Hawaiian wedding customs with the convenience and glamour of a Las Vegas wedding.


What is the significance of lei exchange in Hawaiian weddings?

The exchange of leis during Hawaiian weddings is a beautiful tradition that symbolizes the mutual respect and love between the couple. Leis, typically made from flowers, leaves, or nuts, are placed around the necks of the bride and groom. This act represents the unbroken circle of commitment and the eternal bond they are forming. The fragrant and natural elements of the lei also signify the beauty and naturalness of the relationship.

What types of leis are used during the wedding ceremony?

Commonly, two types of leis are used in Hawaiian wedding ceremonies. The Maile lei, made from the green, leafy vine of the maile plant, is often worn by the groom. This lei symbolizes respect, peace, and love. The bride typically wears a lei made of white flowers, such as pikake or tuberose, which represent purity, love, and a transition into married life.

Is there a specific way to exchange leis during a wedding ceremony?

The lei exchange usually takes place at the beginning of the ceremony. Each partner takes turns placing a lei around the other’s neck, often accompanied by a kiss on each cheek. This gesture is not only a symbol of love but also an expression of honor and a warm welcome to each other’s families.

Can family members participate in the lei exchange?

Yes, it is quite common for family members to also participate in lei exchanges during the ceremony. Parents of the bride and groom may exchange leis with their future in-laws, symbolizing the uniting of the two families. This can extend to include siblings and grandparents, reflecting the importance of family and the community in Hawaiian culture.

Are there any specific types of flowers or plants that should be avoided in wedding leis?

While there aren’t specific prohibitions, it’s important to consider the symbolism and fragrance of the flowers and plants used in leis for weddings. Typically, flowers like pikake, tuberose, and plumeria are favored for their beauty and delightful scents. Avoiding overly fragrant or allergy-inducing flowers can be a thoughtful consideration to ensure all guests are comfortable.