Mariamena Morisa grew up in Hawaii. She and her family moved to Alaska in the late ‘90s.
At her high school graduation, her mom walked in carrying leis made out of saran wrap and ribbon with candy inside. Other parents asked if she would sell them.
“She’s like, ‘No, these are for my daughter and her friends,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, if you sell them we’ll buy them,'” Morisa said.
The rest of the family got on board, and they started selling candy leis in 2001.
“My dad cuts the paper. My mom goes and buys the supplies. My little sister and my niece fill our buckets with the candy. And my brothers, when we go to graduation, they have to carry all the stuff for us,” Morisa said.
Listen to this story:
Candy leis have been growing more and more popular ever since. Now, the Morisa family starts preparing in March for the influx of orders that come each May.
Morisa said they make 75 leis for each high school in corresponding colors. Prices vary depending on the length of the lei and the type of candy inside. Their most popular leis cost $20 and are made of small candies, like Hershey Kisses and Jolly Ranchers, wrapped in two colors of cellophane.
Some customers add dollar bills folded into origami. At a table in the family’s front yard, Morisa held up an extra long lei with orange and black cellophane, West High’s colors. Including the price of the cash on the lei, it cost $200.
And customers aren’t just ordering them for graduates. A banner outside their home lists other occasions for candy leis — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and birthdays.
That banner caught the attention of Sanwari Finn.
“I’m getting them for my son,” she said. “He’s going to graduate on Monday from Bartlett.”
She picked out the lei with blue and gold cellophane.
“They’re pretty. They’re beautiful,” she said. “I’m not too much into candy, but my son is.”
The Morisas also advertise on Facebook Marketplace.
That’s where Brittany Hoskins sells her leis, too. A few years ago, she started selling balloons filled with toys, money and confetti as graduation and birthday gifts. Then, her customers started asking her if she sold leis.
“It wasn’t until the last couple years that there’s been a real big want for candy leis,” she said.
Hoskins said every candy lei maker works differently. For example, she likes cellophane more than saran wrap because it’s less sticky. She also pays close attention to allergens like latex and peanuts.
“These are non-peanut ones,” she said as she opened a bag of leis with Skittles and Starburst candies. “I keep these in a bag completely separate in my living room.”
Most of Hoskins’ customers buy leis for kids celebrating the move from preschool to kindergarten, or from kindergarten to first grade. In an email, Polynesian Association of Alaska director Lucy Hansen said she planned to drop off 150 candy leis to a local elementary school.
Like the Morisas, Hoskins has fulfilled orders from all over the state.
“I’ve had some go to Deadhorse, I’ve had some go to Bethel, I’ve had some go to Barrow and I’ve had some go to Perryville,” she said. “And then I’ve had some be picked up and I don’t know where they go, but I know they’re going on a plane.”
Here in Anchorage, they’ve also been spotted somewhere else: Walmart. They’re $4.48 each and have candy wrapped in mesh netting instead of cellophane. Hoskins sells her candy leis for $15 each.
“A couple people who didn’t want to pay my prices, I let them know Walmart has some, not out of spite, but maybe they didn’t know,” Hoskins said. “Maybe that’s what’s in someone’s price budget. That’s ok.”
Morisa said that sometimes, it’s a competitive market. A few years ago, she got approval from the Anchorage School District and the Sullivan Arena to sell candy leis inside the arena. Other lei makers set up booths outside.
“People were going across the street and asking owners of those houses if they could rent their driveway,” she said. “That kind of hurt a little bit because we’ve done it the right way. They’re getting the customers outside before we get them inside, and that felt like they were stepping on us.”
This year, the Morisas are the only candy lei makers allowed to sell inside the Alaska Airlines Center during Anchorage School District graduations.
Morisa said there’s enough of a demand to go around. And she’s happy to see Polynesian culture add something new to Alaskan celebrations.
“It allows not just us to be able to enjoy our traditions, but it lets other cultures as well,” she said. “It was our tradition, but that doesn’t mean it only has to stay with us.”
From Hawaii to Anchorage and Bethel and beyond, candy leis are making graduation a little sweeter.