Get to Know Some Island Customs

By Team

Hawaii’s many distinct customs are a reflection of the state’s rich mix of ethnicities and accompanying cultural practices, most of which have been nurtured and preserved over a span of several centuries.

Immigrants from Europe, the South Pacific, Asia and other parts of the world joined Hawaii society following English explorer Capt. James Cook’s arrival in 1779 — most of them explorers, Christian missionaries, businessmen, whalers, plantation workers and, more recently, those simply seeking a better way of life. This convergence of foods, languages, religions and family values with the native Hawaiian culture has resulted in a blend of centuries-old traditions that today largely typifies the distinct character that is called the “Hawaiian Island lifestyle.”

Read about a few of these customs:

Giving leis
In Hawaii it is customary to give a lei as a gesture of congratulations and aloha (love) to those celebrating a milestone or receiving an honor. It is also common to present a lei to a friend or relative who is arriving in the Islands — no matter from where or how long they have been away as a hearty welcome. Leis are normally worn around the neck and can be made of tropical flowers (such as the fragrant tuberose or plumeria), maile (green, shiny leaves), or nuts and berries.

Lei signify special occasions, just as they did in ancient Hawaii. On birthdays, graduations, weddings or any day of personal or professional celebration, friends and relatives ensure the honored person is adorned with lei on the special day and perhaps even several days afterward. At an Island wedding you’ll likely see the bride wearing a haku (lei encircling her head) and around the groom’s neck, a maile or cigar lei (tiny, tubular flowers strung in a tight, spiral pattern).

Each spring the children of Hawaii string hundreds of flower lei and, on May Day (May 1), place them on the graves of soldiers at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl). This sign of respect and love also extends to great people of Hawaii’s past, such as Kamehameha the Great. During the Kamehameha Day holiday and celebration each year (around June 11) the statue of Kamehameha the Great in Honolulu’s Capitol District is draped with hundreds of feet of carefully strung lei as a sign of respect and honor for the Hawaiian warrior who, in 1810, united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule.

Wearing slippers (and knowing when not to
Hawaii residents are quite possibly the planet’s least concerned about what they wear on their feet. You’ll notice at the door of many Island hale (homes) a small collection (or large, depending on the size of the family) of “slippers” flip-flops, as they are called elsewhere. The most casual of footwear (next to bare feet), slippers are worn out to dinner, school, family functions and the fancy kine, at least even occasionally to church and the office.
Two things to keep in mind in the Islands: take off your slippers and other footwear when entering someone’s home, and always be prepared, with an extra pair, for slipper “blow-out.”

The Hawaiian blessing
When a place of business or a new home opens its doors, it is common to have the location blessed by a Hawaiian kahu (guardian or minister).

The blessing ceremony dates back to the early days of Hawaiian culture. Though it has come to incorporate Christian elements since the arrival of missionaries in Hawaii in 1820, the ceremony is based on the traditional Hawaiian belief in kapu (taboos) that can be placed on a physical space. Although some societal kapu were immutable, other kapu, such as curses or negative energy, still linger in modern-day places. During a blessing ceremony, a kahu clears any kapu that might have been placed on a space, so the new occupants may move forward with a “clean slate.”

The details of this ceremony can vary depending on the occasion whether it is a home, office, building or other enterprise being blessed. Kahu often personalize blessings with readings and chants they specifically select for the occasion. Three elements are fairly universal to a blessing, however: the asking for blessings from Akua (God), the sprinkling of salt water, and the untying of a maile lei (made from the leaves of a fragrant, native twining shrub) that has been gently draped and tied across a real or virtual threshold.

An extension of huikala (a ceremonial cleansing with the healing waters of the ocean), salt water is sprinkled by the kahu on both the space and the people involved in the venture, to cleanse them of impurities. The untying of the maile lei, made from a plant sacred to Hawaiians, opens the space being blessed. The threshold may then be crossed; the kapu are amama(done, finished).


One of many ways to experience a slice of Island culture, the lu’au (LOO-ow) is a Hawaiian tradition: a feast to celebrate accomplishments, honor important people and commemorate great events. In old Hawaii it was a time to pay homage to ancestral gods with song, dance and offerings of food, a grand celebration that sometimes lasted for days.

For many a lu’au is a chance to relax and enjoy family and friends with good food and music. This spirit prevails in nearly every aspect of life in Hawaii. One of the most dutifully observed local rituals is the “baby lu’au,” a grand celebration staged on a child’s first birthday. Lu’au are also held for graduations, class reunions, and other important events.

If you’re visiting the Islands and you decide to “do” a lu’au, rest assured that time will likely be some of the nicest — and most culturally enriching — you’ll spend in Hawaii.

Making cranes
As a symbol of longevity and good luck, a bride and her wedding party will fold 1,000 tiny golden origami cranes — withe the groom contributing the final crane for a total of 1,001. The cranes are then flattened, mounted, framed and presented at the wedding reception as a good-luck keepsake for the couple.

The art of origami is widely practiced in Hawaii; and though the crane tradition is of Japanese origin, brides of many ethnicities have adopted it.

Aloha on the road
If, in your daily driving routine you’re accustomed to blaring horns, rude drivers and merging forcefully into lines of traffic, you may find Hawaii a refreshing change (unless YOU’RE blaring your horn). Most Island drivers practice aloha (love, the spirit of giving) on the road. Rarely will you hear a horn or shout in traffic, and more often than not you’ll be waved into traffic or through a stop sign by a courteous fellow driver. If this happens, smile, wave or better yet flash ’em a shaka (stick your pinky finger out, and fold the rest of your fingers over…takes practice).

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