Violet orchids, palapalai fern, scarlet bougainvillea, ohia blossoms, and other vibrant floral and fauna litter the newspaper lined tables at Dole Cafeteria. It is three weeks before carnival and booth chairs are teaching volunteers the art of making haku lei. Ranging in price, size, and shape, this beloved booth sells 600 to 800 pieces a year. The month-long process of learning to make the lei, and the sweet-smelling finished product, is rightfully one of the favorite annual traditions of the Punahou Carnival.
In 1932, the Punahou Carnival began as a means for students to raise money to print the yearbook. Today, the Carnival is synonymous with Punahou and Hawai?i. The largest fundraising carnival in the state, it raises money for the school’s financial aid program. The three-day celebration galvanizes the extended Punahou community as the Carnival Haku Lei Booth illustrates.
For the month leading up to Carnival, families from all over the islands donate flowers from their yards and volunteers gather for many Saturdays to prepare haku lei. No prior experience is necessary. Students, parents, teachers, friends and family gather to learn. Expert lei makers from throughout the state donate their time. Alumni from Hawai?i Island donate flowers annually, shipping them to O?ahu for the event. In an interview one parent said, “I have friends who come and help us make haku lei and they don’t even have a connection to Punahou. They come for the fun, friendship and community.” Like many of Punahou’s most cherised traditions, the Carnival haku lei build community across the generations.
Amelia Ana Kaopua Bailey or “Tutu” was a Punahou icon. As a parent, she volunteered her master sewing and lei-making skills for many years. From 1965 – 1984 she was the costume coordinator for all the School’s theatre productions. Bailey was captivated by Hawaiian lei making when her daughter Beryl ’64 married classmate Gary Blaich ’64, and the two chose haku for their wedding party. It was hard to find haku lei in those days and Bailey took apart the lei sent from Hawai‘i Island to see how they were made, then sought every opportunity to learn. In her enthusiasm, she convinced her amazing “green room” costume team of sewing mothers to make lei together, and the Punahou Carnival booth was born.
For 40 years, she shared her expertise in lei wili (wrapped lei) for various Punahou functions, including teaching workshops for Carnival, and making lei for retiring Punahou employees. Her granddaughter Mehana Blaich ’93 Vaughan recalls, “Tutu said lei were ?love shared.’ When she taught her workshops she told people this was the first day of their new life, that they would never see the world in the same way again, but would notice beautiful things growing everywhere! Once when someone asked her the secret of her long and full life, she told them, ?I make a lei everyday.’” So generous were her contributions from costumes to lei making that in 1980 she received the Punahou Alumni Association’s Old School Award for outstanding service to the school community.
These traditions cross generations, passing from grandparent to parent to child to grandchild. Bailey taught her ‘ohana not only lei-making practices, but to care about the ‘aina – explaining the entire process from planting to harvesting, and from flower to lei. Vaughan notes that, “My sister and I and all our cousins all make haku. My sister Meleana Blaich ’97 Estes teaches workshops. Every time I make lei I think of Tutu, and how hard she worked to grow and care for the plants to gather. We are so grateful that she gave not only her ?ohana, but so many in the Punahou community and across Hawai?i her gift of lei.”
For many, Carnival would not be carnival without the Haku Lei booth. “To me, Carnival isn’t Carnival without lei,” Vaughan adds. “So many hands make the lei booth possible every year including, the Eldredge ‘ohana, many master lei makers of Hawai‘i, everyone who picks and gathers and brings flowers, and the many parents and student volunteers. Seeing people wearing lei in the booths, on rides, after Variety Show, and all across the midway makes the Punahou Carnival unlike any other, while teaching younger generations about the beauty, work, detail and love that goes into Hawaiian lei.”
The tradition of the Carnival lei booth has stood the test of time. Carol Rosa, grandmother to Kealohilani Myers-Rosa ’15, started volunteering at the Haku Lei booth over 10 years ago. Her sister also volunteers and her own granddaughter recently started kindergarten. Their lei-making expertise comes from their mother, and they want to share their gifts with their grandchildren and larger Punahou community. One day, Myers-Rosa and Bailey’s great grandchildren may all sit side by side at the newspaper-lined tables at Dole Cafeteria making Punahou Carnival haku lei.
PUNAVISION has chronicled these traditions and the Punahou community since 1983. This 2013 video on the Carnival haku lei shows the process behind this annual and uniquely Hawaiian Punahou tradition: