Money Leis and Currency Garlands

Danny Cohen, David Eggers, Britni Falter, Scott Jarvis, Jennifer Rickard

A visitor to a graduation ceremony held at any of the universities in Southern California would not have to look very far to see students adorned in leis, or garlands fashioned in traditional Hawaiian style, in addition to the standard caps and gowns. Additionally, a number of these graduation leis are made entirely out of genuine dollar bills, rather than the flowers or leaves one might expect when thinking about this Hawaiian custom. They are constructed using United States currency (an object already intrinsically steeped in symbolism), but also bring together the original symbolism of leis in Hawaiian tradition, the hotly debated interpretation of money’s meaning and what it does to preexisting social norms when it is introduced to cultures and societies, and the fusion of these symbols created when they are combined in the construction of the money lei.


Money lei with intricately folded bills, found on


In his book, The Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel introduced to the world the idea that money was a means of liberation from feudal social ties and as an agent in the proliferation of anonymity behind the guise of a standard currency. However, Simmel had only begun to superficially examine the affect of modern money on social bonds, and the existence of money leis points to holes in Simmel’s argument. Viviana Zelizer offers an antithetical perspective regarding monies in her book, The Social Meaning of Money: That monies actually create and negotiate new social ties. Currency garlands remain a microcosm of the vast array of earmarked monies, to use Zelizer’s term, used for non-monetary purposes.

We will demonstrate that “while money does serve as a key rational tool of the modern economic market, it also exists outside the sphere of the market and is profoundly influenced by cultural and social structures” (Zelizer, 18). Non-Monetary uses of monetary objects have the power to create, facilitate, and even strengthen social ties as seen through the use of currency garlands and need to be analyzed for their socio-cultural importance as well as—if not more than—their monetary importance.

Before getting too deeply into analysis, however, it is important to understand what money leis are. A common style of these currency garlands is an attempt to fold the money in such a way that the bills mimic radiating flower petals. Arlene Peterson, a writer for the website “Creating Keepsakes,” comments that “money leis are usually given for special occasions such as graduations and 'extra special' birthdays or anniversaries.” Peterson then gives precise directions for creating a garland in this style. Although currency garlands are often purchased from vendors—who charge appropriate rates per denomination of United States currency desired—relatives often make the garlands themselves prior to the special occasion (Peterson). One interviewee we talked to for this project was a teacher at a Southern California university who has witnessed these leis at graduation. She said that 1991 was the first year she had seen these leis incorporated into the ceremony, and described the lay as having a mix of real carnations interspersed with dollar bills folded into the shape of a flower. Several years later, she noticed a student wearing a garland made entirely of money, without any flowers mixed into the design. It is important to note that the students wearing these garlands are not just of Hawaiian or Pacific Island ancestry, and that the leis themselves come in a variety of styles. The fact that leis have been adopted into mainland American ritual practices, as well as the fact that the elements used in lei construction have changed with this adoption giving way to a number of new interpretations of this symbolism, is notable. In order better to understand this very modern tradition, it is necessary to have some background knowledge of how leis emerged in Pacific island cultures, and the original meaning of giving them.

The origin of Polynesian leis occurred during the Aurignacian Epoch with extremely crude ornaments consisting of “marine snail shells, teeth, or even fish bones” (Brown 1931:615) all of which are deemed “nonperishable” items. These sorts of leis were not regarded as “friendship” leis. Through the excavation of human graves, it is known that the ornaments were replaced by beads and ivory (Ibid.). Today, leis are most commonly adorned with flowers and assorted foliage; however, the knowledge regarding the genesis of the usage of these “perishable” items is minute. By inferring that the earliest humans would have used natural elements as ornamentation, leis might date back 17,000 years (Ibid.). Before the transformation of perishable leis to currency garlands the leis were used to ward off evil spirits and honor the gods. The four main gods were Kane, Ku, Lono and Kanaloa. The Hawaiians built many Heiau (temples) and placed offerings on specially constructed altar-like towers. Most offerings were edible and wrapped in ti leaves to keep the evil spirits away. Leis were used in these rituals. The socio-cultural transformation of leis from an ornament of worship to a token of congratulations occurred when the Polynesians “were released from the persecution of their bitterest enemies” (Ibid.). The environment transformed into one of friendliness and trust. Social bonds and friendships flourished because of newfound Polynesian freedom, which eventually led to the giving of leis “as a special mark to honor friends” (Brown, 616). In this case, Polynesian politics has transcended into the social realm of their culture in that the giving of leis has morphed from the private sphere of ritual into the public sphere of gift-exchange. The idea of the lei spread, and other societies adopted it and extended its cultural parameters. In this sense, currency garlands are the Western adoption of the Polynesian lei with a cultural emphasis on congratulations. Using money as the medium for making leis, however, opens up a host of interpretations of the significance of this new form.

In order to cope with the multitude of social relations in everyday life, Viviana Zelizer argues that people “identify, classify, organize, use, segregate, manufacture, design, store, and even decorate monies” in numerous systems (Zelizer 1997:1). Rather than being some abstract force capable of masking its owner, money has aided in strengthening bonds between people through rituals, customs, and its other various non-monetary uses. Paul Bohannan describes general purpose money in terms of its functions as being a means of exchange, mode of payment, standard of value, and storage of wealth. However, general purpose monies transcend Bohannan’s framework when used in non-monetary customs, creating a new category of currency in which money is abstracted even further from its “Gold Bug/Metallist” origin as intrinsically valuable. Gertrude Stein was blinded by money’s abstraction when she stated: “whether you like it or whether you do not money is money and that is all there is about it” (Zelizer, 2). Money has more of a social life than economists give it credit for. Economists’ tend to classify money in terms of market transactions “making distinctions only of price and quantity” (Zelizer, 4) which, consequently, commensurates all forms of money into one functional category. However, paradoxically, we are well aware of the varying uses of money that do not relate to price, quantity, or any quantitative measure. The example of money leis fits quite well into Zelizer’s model: U.S. Dollars—by far the most commonly used currency in money leis—are strung together to represent a Polynesian or Hawaiian lei and are decoratively worn throughout the ceremony. The dollars on the currency garland are not customarily spent but, rather, saved as a token memory of that rite of passage.

Recently anthropological studies have looked into money as a cultural medium with greater detail. Essays edited by anthropologists Jonathan Parry and Maurice Bloch “demonstrate the heterogeneity of money, showing how the multiple symbolic meanings of modern money are shaped by the cultural matrix” (Zelizer, 23). Modern money unburdened by ritual, tradition, or social controls can function effectively as a universal medium of exchange, method of payment, standard of value, or store of value. Georg Simmel’s theories become problematic however in that he argues money is similar to an acid by eroding social ties and breaking down social boundaries. Currency garlands prove parts of Simmel’s theory incapable of relating to the culturally diverse practices employing modern money today. Currency garlands demonstrate that social ties are kept alive through monetary ritual and tradition. Zelizer argues that monies are not universally fungible, that is, despite the way modern money allows for anonymous exchange, it is not always interchangeable with everything. Cultures systematically delegate different meanings and separate uses for particular monies like the Hawaiian lei. Instead of Simmel’s erosion of ties we have a hybrid of interchangeable systems. Instead of monetary scales, we need to look into socio-cultural meanings of money.

This practice of using currency garlands in ritualistic ceremonies extends further than Hawaii. Currency garlands are also commonly used in Pakistani weddings as a means of congratulations for newlyweds. In Pakistan this money is being given and worn to display a new union and new prosperity for the future. Money is shaped into flowers and worn around the neck. These garlands have become a staple of Pakistani culture because they are an integral part of a vital ritual. At one point the Pakistani government attempted to ban them from wedding ceremonies because these practices took money out of circulation. However, the ban was not passed because of the multiple political leaders that argued that these garlands were an important and “conventional ritual of our culture” (Ali 2004). The proliferation of currency garlands in Pakistan displays that money is not a mere means of exchange but, rather, an essential cultural force within a society. In this case, the use of money has facilitated political discussion as well as maintained cultural importance.

In an interview with a person who had witnessed this practice in the United States, we learned that a garland was used as a sign of giving the bride away. The bride’s father gives his new son-in-law a currency garland—primarily during the reception—as a means of expressing gratitude for marrying his daughter. In this person’s experience with weddings, a garland using flowers was used in lieu of currency. Our interviewee made it clear that in the United States, flowers and money are interchangeable; however, in Pakistan, the interviewee noted that currency is primarily used to construct the garlands. The garlands are highly valuable, culturally speaking, and would never be spent or sold in times of need. Garland types differ based on preference, and are usually made by a florist or another specialist who will make the garlands for the ceremony.

Robert Foster (1999) argues that Western thinkers concern themselves too deeply with the idea of representation versus reality when it comes to currency, which prevents them from fully understanding the social uses of money in other cultural contexts. In order for Western paper money to circulate successfully it has to be accepted as commensurate with the abstract value it represents. Western money relies on abstraction in order to manifest all of its functional purposes into one representation. Ultimately, the currency of the United States is not backed by anything but faith; consumers must place faith in the ability of money to maintain its value based on government backing. In other cultures people do not encounter the abstraction of value in the same way. Polynesians can use money as a symbol that joins people into larger social networks and use the money as mere paper to construct garlands that symbolize those networks. Foster argues that the inability to see past the actual usage of dollars in exchange is a Western problem because money is not being interpreted in a cultural context but, rather on the individual level. National currencies, despite their standardization, have multiple meanings rooted in cultural values.

Currency garlands represent the flaws in Simmel’s argument in that their sole purpose is to promote and create societal bonds between people. Currently, numerous ethnic groups partake in the currency garland trend, using Western paper money despite Simmel’s argument that it would erode all social ties. The transcendence of currency garlands among numerous groups displays the creation of new social ties, not only between people, but also between groups. This non-monetary use of Western currency symbolizes the fusion of peoples, much like the graduation ceremonies they are used to celebrate.

References Cited:
Zelizer, V. (1997). The Social Meaning of Money. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brown, E. D. W. (1931). “Polynesian Leis”. In American Anthropologist, New Series (v. 33. n. 4. pp. 615-619).

Foster, R. “In God we Trust?”. In Akin, D. & Robbins, J. (Eds.). (1999). Money and Modernity: State and Local Currencies in Melanesia (pp. 214-231). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ali, A. (2004, September 26). Currency in Circulation. Pakistan & Gulf Economist. Retrieved online November 26, 2004 at:


Dollar bills folded into the shape of a frog, symbolizing good luck, found on