HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
The following retrospective is provided by The Bishop Museum:
May Day is an old European celebration, in honor of spring. Naturally, in a cold climate, you are very happy for the weather to warm up and for plants to turn green, and for flowers to appear – thus you have a celebration. In the USA there would've been small events, usually for children, and involving a Maypole.
In Hawaii, in 1927, a man named Don Blanding decided that the tradition of lei making and wearing needed to be commemorated and celebrated. Blanding was originally from Oklahoma but had come to Hawaii in 1916 and had worked as an artist, writer, and in advertising. Having a sentimental and romantic outlook, and genuinely loving Hawaiian culture – and seeing that it should be preserved, as well – he came up with the idea of making May Day into Lei Day. He worked on this idea with a writer for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin named Grace Tower Warren. They successfully promoted the project, and so on May 1, 1928, the first Lei Day contest was held, overseen by a Lei Queen.
The lei were displayed in the lobby of the new Bank of Hawaii building at the corner of King St. and Bishop St. (This building is gone; it was demolished in 1968). The contest had 7 categories; 3 for schools, and 4 for adults. In the latter group, the classifications were for individuals, organizations or clubs, lei sellers, and florists. In addition to prizes ranging from $10, $15, and $25, the overall grand prize for the "most beautiful flower lei" was $50 – all awarded in gold coins! P.S. The $50 grand prize would be worth about $600-$700 in today's money, although of course actual gold coins (which were what the winner received) would today be worth more than the comparison of just dollar values.
Lei Day celebrations spread quickly to schools, which still occur today. The main event happened for years in the courtyard of Honolulu Hale, moving to Waikiki in the 1950s.
(Sideline: May 1 also became the main celebratory day for Communism and workers in general, so it has that meaning too, in many places. Communist governments used to observe May 1 with their biggest parades of huge numbers of marching people, immense banners, and as much military equipment as possible.)