If you have a graduating senior in your life, you've probably scrounging for the perfect gift, and in your hectic Googling you may have come across the term money lei. Now, most of us are aware of what a lei is — a garland of flowers worn around the neck, found in many Polynesian cultures and often associated with Hawaii — but what is a money lei? It's exactly what it sounds like: a lei made of money instead of fresh flowers.
Lei have a longstanding history that dates back thousands of years, and are much more than the necklace tourists receive when deplaning in Hawaii. In fact, they were brought to the island by voyagers coming from Tahiti, and have deep roots in Polynesian culture. We spoke to Jackie Lee, a native Hawaiian with deep roots in the culture, about the significance of lei (there is no "s" in the Hawaiian language, so lei is both the singular and plural) in her life, the meaning of the money lei, and the tradition of lei at graduation ceremonies.
"Lei can be made with all sorts of things (bones, flowers, shells, etc)," Lee explains, "and were used as peace offerings between tribes as well as for decoration and ceremonies. Over time, superstitions around lei have evolved as well. For instance, [it's been said that] when giving a lei to a pregnant woman, one must cut the lei so that it drapes down from her shoulders rather than hang around her neck like a necklace. If it hangs around her neck like a necklace, the umbilical cord could choke the fetus."
Lei are also often used at graduation ceremonies and celebrations, and it's common to see graduating seniors covered in lei made of candy, flowers, and money. Lee, for example, had her family and friends help her carry all her lei at her college graduation because she had more than could fit around her neck. And this is where the tradition of money lei originates, now used far and beyond Hawaii and Polynesian culture.
What makes money lei so special is "the incredible amount of time they take to make," says Lee. "Most of the money lei I received were made of individually folded dollar bills strung together to make a garland. Each dollar bill was folded into the shape of a frog with a quarter tucked inside — this represents a Chinese Fortune Frog (these lei were given to me by the Chinese side of my family). They represent good luck, wealth, and prosperity and are said to ward off evil spirits."
Money lei are incredibly intricate pieces of art, and their significance comes from the time put into their creation. "I don't think that haole people [non-Hawaiian people, usually white] understand just how important lei culture is at all." Lee tells us, "I believe that the process of creating money lei is incredibly important, a huge part of what makes them special. Most haole lei-givers on the mainland probably buy lei on Etsy or something."
Lee says that simply buying money lei, then, defeats the purpose of the gesture. If you are planning to use lei in your graduation ceremony or as a gift for your graduating senior, take the time to make a lei by hand, or at least purchase a lei from a Hawaiian or Polynesian seller to give back to the culture that so created this rich, meaningful tradition.