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On the long flight from Chicago to Hawaii, a young woman whiles away the hours by stringing a lei of pearl-white shells. At the Honolulu airport, a little boy holds a lei of sweet-smelling yellow blossoms and eagerly watches for his mother. "I made it myself," he says shyly. At the same gate, a tour guide welcomes his group with leis of carnations and tiny orchids. "Aloha!" he says. "Welcome to Hawaii."

The lei is so closely linked to our image of Hawaii that it is surprising to learn that this, like other Hawaiian traditions, was on the verge of disappearing 40 years ago. When Marie MacDonald began her career with the state's Department of Parks and Recreation in 1952, she was one of a small group of recreation teachers and professionals determined to revitalize the arts of Hawaii. "We grew up making leis," MacDonald says with a smile, "but I had so much to learn."Today, MacDonald is a renowned expert on the leis of Hawaii, and her students' students continue to pass on her knowledge and enthusiasm. She joined dozens of other tradition-bearers from Hawaii in sharing the state's rich heritage with visitors to the Smithsonian's Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C.

The Polynesians who first settled the Hawaiian Islands 15 centuries ago carried with them the tradition of making leis from natural materials at hand - seeds, shells, teeth, feathers and plants. The years that followed brought explorers, visitors and settlers from South America, Europe, Asia and North America, and "anytime anybody introduced something to the islands," MacDonald says, "somebody made a lei out of it."

The lei played a key role in traditional Hawaiian religion, music, poetry and lore. Preparing the lei remains a key part of the hula ritual. Today, the lei tradition belongs to everyone in the state, whether their forebears were Hawaiian or came from Japan, China, Puerto Rico, Okinawa, Samoa, Southern California or all of the above.

Leis welcome the stranger or the friend; they celebrate holidays, weddings and birthdays and honor the dead. Hawaii's cowboys wear leis in parades, at rodeos and just for the fun of it. At prom time, a boy gives his date a lei to match her dress, and at graduation the students are piled with leis "to the eyebrows," MacDonald says.

Each lei-making technique has its own challenges. "Hili" is a simple braid of a single material. In "haku," the most difficult, the lei-maker braids ferns or other leaves, mounting flowers into the plait. A "wili" lei is bound with a thread of hibiscus or fabric. And there are many, many variations of stringing the lei "kui."

Lei makers have a vast array of materials to choose form, and since Hawaii has virtually no seasons, buds, blossoms, fruits and leaves of any given plant are available year-round. Many native species are endangered, and MacDonald encourages her pupils to grow lei gardens. "Orchids, carnations and other things, you can buy in the supermarket," she says.

This profusion of flowers is lacking only on the arid island of Ni'ihau. "So for centuries, the shell has been the flower of Ni'ihau," says Linda Moriarty, coordinator of the Smithsonian program. During the winter months, the great Pacific storms churn up the tiny shells that wash ashore on the island's beaches. The shells of Ni-iahu are not unique, Moriarty says, but their abundance and quality are unmatched. Residents make regular daylong forays to the beaches, gathering a cupful of shells on a good day. Shells are stored until summer, when the lei-making begins.

Many shells are discarded or damaged in the process of sorting, cleaning and piercing for stringing. The islanders have a vocabulary distinguishing the subtle differences in color that develop as shells are tumbled in surf and bleached by the sun. The most valued are the pearl-white "momi."

In the old days, shells were strung on the green cotton thread used to make throw nets, the tip stiffened with beeswax. Nowadays, nylon or polyester thread and quick drying cement are used. There are many styles of stringing, some named for flowers. A traditional wedding lei of 20 60-inch strands contains 6,000 carefully selected shells. A bride's friends might work for a year to produce such a lei, Moriarty says.

If there is a king or queen among floral leis, it is the ilima lei. This deceptively simple golden-yellow garland inspired the familiar paper leis. Hundreds of tiny fragile blossoms are opened and stacked to form a round strand. Ilima leis were so valued that for centuries Hawaiian royalty accepted them in payment for taxes. Receiving one today is a great honor. "It will last through the day and then wither," MacDonald says. But the fragrance lingers, and the memory lasts forever.

In fact, in making traditional leis, materials are chosen first for fragrance - "better than French perfume," MacDonald says. Then there is the color scheme, which may be brilliant or subtle. Many lovely leis are made from greenery. The lei maker also considers texture and the way the material will feel against the wearer's skin. Movement is very important for leis worn by hula dancers and for head leis. "They are very intriguing and graceful, and enhance the beauty of men and women," MacDonald says.

The least important part of a lei is how long it will last, a concept that escapes many tourists, who are often heard asking, "How can I keep it?" Some Westerners have trouble understanding that the meaning of the lei is in the making and giving," MacDonald says, "perhaps because they live in such a plastic world." Indeed, some do settle for a lei of artificial flowers. She cringes at the thought. "Sure, make leis out of plastic beads of shapes, but please, oh please, don't make plastic imitations!"

"The lei is an expression of love, affection, respect or honor," she explains. "It's the most beautiful thing I can make, from the most beautiful material at hand. As long as the lei is at its peak when I give it to you, it shows that I care."

Westerners are also often uncomfortable with the idea of men wearing flowers, MacDonald says. "For the Pacific man, the more flowers the better,' she says. "One paniolo (cowboy) summed it up when he said, `We like to show off. The girls all look at you when you wear a lei!' My husband, a Virginian, got so in tune with the custom that he often wore a lei on his hat while working with his Pan Am ground crew."

For the cowboys, hat leis have a practical side - they keep hats from blowing off. Old-time paniolo tell MacDonald of making leis on the way home, sometimes gathering material "at full gallop, for the fun of it." One paniolo confided to MacDonald that he relied on his lei to show his wife that he had really been out in the high pasture and not off gallivanting.

The paniolo are great customers for another lei tradition, the feather hat band, descended from the round feather leis once worn by Hawaiian royalty. Tsugi Kaiama, another Smithsonian festival participant, has been making feather leis for 51 of her 75 years. "I thought I would retire," she says, but customers keep coming.

Kaiama gets her feathers from hunters who come to the Big Island ranches to shoot pheasant, peafowl, quail and other game birds. "They only want the meat, so they give me the skins," Kaiama says. The birds' plumage is so varied that an infinite number of patterns are possible. "Some leis can be completed in a few days," she says, and then points to a deceptively simple band of perfectly matched iridescent blue feathers from the necks of dozens of Chinese ringnecked pheasants. "That one took six months."

Fine feather leis are kept and handed down for generations, but Kaiama fears that hers is a dying art. Younger lei makers lack patience, she says. "They calculate in their minds, `so much an hour.' But we're not making money, we're making feather leis. You must love to do this." She has high hopes for her grandniece, a fourth-grader "who can sit beside me for hours." Like MacDonald, Morarity and other lovers of Hawaiian traditions, Kaiama wishes to give the gift of the lei to future generations.

It is Lei Day, May 1. In Honolulu's Kapiolani Park, people crowd in front of the mayor's grand-prize winner, a lei of deep green laua'e fern leaves fashioned into hundreds of roses no bigger than the tip of a pinkie. The winner, a Vietnamese refugee who came to Hawaii in 1979, says he learned "by watching."

Demonstrators are showing how to make leis of every description. There are leis made from silk, roses, glossy black candlenuts, paper clips, candy, cigarette papers - and plastic six-pack holders. One woman is creating intricate patterns from seed pods. A friend sits down to admire the work. "Will you make one for me?" she asks. The answer is a smile and a shake of the head. "I'm not gonna make for you. You gonna learn do yo' own!" They pick up the needles, and the lesson begins.