Category Archives: Holidays

Holidays and holiday traditions

British Celebration of Guy Fawkes Night

Interviewer: So why do you celebrate Guy Fawkes Night?

Informant: It was a big part of my childhood. I remember going to Bonfire Night Parties. So the month prior to the 5th of November, the actual date, families and friends would gather old furniture and sweep up leaves, a lot of fallen leaves, and anything else that could be burned. And we would stack it into a huge bonfire. And then on the night of the 5th of November the community would come together and there would be fireworks and we would light the bonfire. But also during the month prior children would build a ‘Guy’ and a ‘Guy’ consisted of old clothes, that were stitched or pinned together and stuffed with newspaper and leaves to resemble a person. The ‘Guy’. Guy Fawkes. This ‘Guy’ would be carried around the community in a wheelbarrow or old pram, going door to door begging for pennies. “Penny for the Guy”. These children would then take these pennies and purchase fireworks.

Interviewer: That’s kind of irresponsible.

Informant: I know! I was wuss and I hated loud fireworks, so I always purchased sparklers. There was always traditional food served at bonfire night parties: mugs of soup, oxtail, or tomato soup, and sticky Parkin Cake (Ginger cake). Adults always lit the fireworks and the bonfire, but you could throw things on the fire, basically we were pyromaniacs for a night and it was socially acceptable. Another thing that was a tradition, the dummy you made, you would always put a mask on it of a political figure. Typically one you disliked. Part of my memory of the thing, is that you stood as close as you could to the fire so your face was almost blistering and your back was wet and freezing, cuz this is England! Guy Fawkes night was THE THING for us, Halloween was ‘eh’ but Bonfire Night was it, cuz it had fire!

Context: An earlier conversation that was discussing a different English Tradition made my informant remember this part of her childhood.

Background: The informant learned the tradition from her community, there was no one person who taught her about it. She enjoys it because it’s fun. “It only gets remembered if it’s fun”. To her it’s a little “encapsulated perfection” part of her childhood and it captured what it was like to grow up in rural England.

Thoughts: It sounds like a very interesting holiday, the informant seemed to go back to the high energy and joy of that holiday. I personally wish to be able to go to her home town to see this tradition myself.

Dragon Boats Legend

Piece
It was originally a native tribe holiday. A dragon boat competition. Rowboat? Like rowboats competition, in the beginning of summer and you had lots of special food. After the festival, the weather stays warm.
In the old days, China was always a kingdom. This was before China unified to one kingdom. At that time, there were several kingdoms and there was always war, it was not very peaceful. There was a king, back before… it was called the three kingdom era. There were more than three kingdoms but that must have been the three major ones. There was a test to see who had the most knowledge, every year, and the winner would get to advise the king. The poets were very knowledgeable in literature, and there was one poet, Qu Yuan, who was very loyal to his king, but another king was trying to lure him with his daughter to marry. Qu Yuan was a very good advisor, but his king did not listen to him, so Qu Yuan worried that his kingdom would be swallowed by the others. So at the end, he gives up on the king and was so sad that he jumped into the river and die. The people of the kingdom tried to find his body and that is where the dragon boat competition started. They also made a lot of bout-zons and threw them in the river in hope that the fishes would not eat him.
Context
The informant heard this story from their mother during a childhood celebration. The informant does not practice any of the described activities nor celebrate the holiday as an adult with a family.
This story was shared during a family gathering as it related to another story told that specifically focused on the tradition of throwing bout-zons into a river after a person has died in those waters.
My Thoughts
This story highlights a lot of the attributes important to Taiwanese culture: Chiyan is loyal to his king, even when he is not heard. He cares for his people and works for their benefit. And he is honored after his death by the people that he served. He is not tempted away from his duty by the offer of a princess’ hand in marriage, but instead seeks knowledge and to do what is good for the people of his kingdom. This idea of self-sacrifice and the pursuit of knowledge is perpetuated in many Asian cultures even now. While Americans may find his death pointless, the intended audience of Taiwanese people see his death as a statement of his care for the kingdom and its people.
Scholar Huang Zheng wrote that the Dragon Boat Festival was to commemorate two individuals: Qu Yuan and Wu Zixu, and that the festival sought to exorcise evil. This version introduces another character and attempts to explain the dragon figureheads of the boats.
Zheng, Huang. “A Review and the Expectation of the Dragon Boat Festival Culture.” Journal of Hunan Agricultural University, 2010.

Japanese New Year Feast

Piece
Every year, the informant cooks a Japanese New Year Feast for their family. It is an all-day affair where hundreds of guests, friends and family, can come and go to eat lunch and/or dinner and socialize with those present. The informant makes the following traditional dishes:
Ozoni (rice cake in vegetable soup) is the first thing eaten on New Year’s day and wishes good health and prosperity to the family
Gomame (dried sardines) to bless attendees with health
Kombu Maki (rolled kelp) to bring happiness and joy
Kuri Kinton (sweet potato or lima bean paste with chestnuts) to bring wealth
Renkon (lotus root) as a symbol for the wheel of life
Daikon (white raddish), carrots, and other root vegetables to promote deep family roots
Ise ebi (lobster) for the festive red color and to symbolize old age and longevity; note: the lobster must be served whole and cannot be broken lest the spine of the old ones break
Context
The informant learned to cook and serve these dishes from their mother and has trained their daughter in how to give the feast. To the informant, The New Year is the most important holiday of the year as it is when the entire extended family comes together. Food preparations begin weeks before the event and there are leftovers for days after as a result of the concern that the table could run out of food.
My Thoughts
Some of the foods look similar to an object such as the lotus root looking like a wheel or the lobster’s spine curving like the spine of an older person while others symbolize good things for their cost or how the word for the food sounds similar to the word for whatever it symbolizes. The feast was a time to celebrate and welcome the New Year and do things that would hopefully ensure prosperity. It was a time where social barriers could be crossed and family meant everything. The extensive amount of time taken to prepare the foods probably shows the care that the family and friends have for one another and the desire to serve each other. The pursuit of good fortune in the food symbolism is an acknowledgement of the lack of control that they have over many aspects of their lives, particularly for the peasants who depended so much on the rulers of their areas.

Tsougrisma

The following is a transcribed interview conducted over a video chat between me and interviewee, hereby further referred to as SM.

Me: So how do you celebrate Easter?

SM: Well, not all families do this, but my family plays this game every Easter called tsougrisma, it’s a Greek name but many countries have their variations, like Armenia – which is where I think we got it because our country houses many Armenians. Anyways, the game goes like this: each person picks an egg. And then, in pairs of two, they duel by hitting the eggs on top of each other and the first person who’s egg cracks loses. The goal is to have the hardest shelled egg or like some technique of holding it (but I’m not sure if I believe in technique, I think it’s mostly luck.) But yeah, so if your egg wins then you battle the other winners and you keep going like that until the two strongest eggs battle and the winner of that one is the super egg. Supposedly if your egg wins this, you will have great luck for the next year. 

Me: And do you dye the eggs, like in many other traditions?

SM: Oh yeah, we dye them all sorts of colors but I know my aunt’s families are more traditional in a lot of things they do and they dye them red each year for some reason. Sometimes we do it with their family too, because as you can imagine, the game is much more fun with more people – more eggs to battle!

Background:

Interviewee was born and raised in America, but his parents are both Lebanese. He lived in Dubai during his teen years and has always had very close ties to Lebanon. He visits Lebanon at least once a year and speaks with his parents regularly, where they speak in Arabic and often chat about history. They also all continually practice many Lebanese and Arabic traditions and share folklore. 

Context: 

This interview was conducted over a video call. Interviewee and I are romantically involved, so the conversation was very open and casual. He was very willing to help out and share some of his culture’s lore. 

Thoughts:

This was the first time that I had heard of this Easter tradition. It seems to be quite varied in what region celebrates this tradition because it is widespread, yet isn’t typically celebrated all over Lebanon. Interviewee is from the northern region of Lebanon from a village in the mountain called Al Coura. While it is possible that the tradition emerged from the villagers, because there are other variations of this tradition all over the Middle East and Greek-influenced countries that I think it is safe to say that interviewee’s family was influenced by the Greeks and adapted the tradition to make a fun Easter tradition with some historical significance. In the classic Greek or Armenian game, the smashing of the eggs is supposed to represent smashing of sin. And so, the winner is most sacred. While I’m sure it doesn’t hold the same sentiment in modern times, especially in non-religious families, it is still a fun way to celebrate.

Ukrainian Easter Traditions

The following is a transcribed interview between me and interviewee, hereby further referred to as MT.

MT: We are Greek Catholics, so that’s basically between Greek orthodox and Roman Catholic and so we celebrate on the Greek Orthodox Easter, which is a week after the popular Roman Catholic Easter.

Me: Ok, and how do you celebrate Easter in your village in Ukraine?

MT: There are a lot of things that just have to be done on Easter, it’s kind of a big deal. So, one of the biggest things is this special bread called “Pascha.” My mom, and all the women, typically spend lots of time and make sure they have all the ingredients to make this fresh holiday bread. They also make sausage and jams and all sorts of stuff like that. But the bread is really the main thing – that simply cannot be substituted. And then when the food is done, usually it’s like a day or two in prep, they put a small bit of each kind of food and sometimes some other stuff, depending on how religious your family is, in a basket. Like, just a classic woven basket. 

And then they send one person from the family to the church with the basket so it can be blessed by the priest. Now, this part where us and our food gets blessed by the priest is like a game. So basically everyone waiting to be blessed by the priest stands in a large circle and the priest goes around blessing everyone and their stuff. And everyone makes room for everyone else like a large rotating circle like as soon as the priest blesses someone that spot gets switched out for someone else in the circle if it’s crowded. But no one can leave until the priest goes back to the center and blesses the cross and positions it perfectly. And so sometimes the priest goofs off and like takes his time doing that because everyone wants to rush, I mean like truly run home because supposedly the first one to get back home will be lucky the whole year. So the priest plays with them, if he’s fun, and then everyone fights to be the luckiest man of the year. It’s really funny but yeah we have to do that every year, the whole town gets involved. 

Me: Wow, cool. Do you also do colored eggs like in many other traditions?

MT: Oh, yeah. We do the colored eggs and stuff too, it’s a very busy time of year with lots of running round and food. Just so much food. 

Me: Hahaha

Background:

Interviewee, MT, is from LViv, Ukraine. His family is from a village called Rodatichi in Ukraine. He immigrated to America at age 13, but returns home for occasions. He has lived in Sherman Oaks, CA for the rest of his life thus far and has been happily married to my mom for 11 years. He has been a part of and seen this easter tradition happen all growing up.

Context:

This interview was conducted over lunch at our family home, so it was very casual. He has many stories about the customs of his country that he usually shares with me so it was just like any number of our usual conversations. 

Thoughts:This bread and blessing ceremony is interesting. The bread is pronounced pas-ka and in some languages, it is just the name of Easter. By collecting various Easter traditions from different countries, I’m learning that food and eggs typically play a big part in Easter festivities, no matter the region. What is interesting is that everything in this custom must be home-made. This must be because there have been minimal resources in villages and so women became the homemakers and chefs, especially for holidays. I liked the idea that this custom has grown and changed in order to have humor and recognize the simplicity of being blessed with holiday cheer. I’m sure not everyone can actually know if they were the first person home from church, but I bet it’s nice to think you are.

Greek Orthodox Easter

The following is a transcribed interview conducted over a video chat between me and interviewee, hereby further referred to as WN.

Me: So when do you celebrate Easter?

WN: We celebrate Easter following the Julian Calendar, or the traditional calendar. This means that our Easter is one week after the non-Orthodox Easter, the one popular in America. This year we celebrated April 19th.

Me: And why do you celebrate it one week after?

WN: Oh, because there’s a huge feud of the calendars between the Orthodox Church and the modern church. The argument is that we should be celebrating on the actual day it was supposed to be celebrated on than the day that fits with the Pagan calendar. 

Me: What do you mean that the other Easter fits with the Pagan calendar?

WN: Well, once there started getting many popular religions, there was a split between the Roman Catholic church and the Greek Orthodox. The Catholic church altered and adhered to a different calendar while we stuck with the original Julian Calendar. 

Me: Ok, cool thank you!

Background:

Interviewee was born and raised in a village called Bechmezzine in Al Coura, Lebanon. He is the Uncle of a close friend of mine who was gracious enough to speak with me. He is a fluent English speaker and has spent lots of time in America, as some of his family lives here, but he currently lives in Lebanon. He is a christian and his native language is Arabic. 

Context: 

This interview was conducted on a video call. Because he is my dear friend’s uncle, we had spoken some before this conversation but not often. That being said, the conversation was really casual and he was very willing to share some of his folklore. 

Thoughts:

This is an example in some of the variations on holidays, especially Christian holidays. Each region celebrates their own versions of holidays – especially religious holidays. The variation is endless and it was nice to hear exactly why Lebanon, in particular, celebrates the Greek Orthodox Easter. While some other countries do, each one has their own reasoning. The reasoning here is clearly that they believe they are being truer to the religion and the purpose of the holidays by honoring Easter, as is customary to determine the Greek Orthodox. So, in short, they are just being extra cautious and traditional when celebrating on this day, despite being not as traditional in many other ways. 
For more explanation on why this holiday is on this day, see here: https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/common/orthodox-easter-day

American Halloween Parties: A Festival

Main Piece: 

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me (LT) and my mother/informant (ET). 

ET: I went to Catholic school growing up, and we always had All Saints Day off, which is the day after Halloween, so we’d always have big sleepovers on Halloween. You know, since no one was going to school the next day. I’ve always loved Halloween because of that, and of course my birthday is then… and it’s just a sweet holiday. Oh, and the costumes… that’s one of the best parts… But that’s how I really got started throwing Halloween parties. Then of course, I grew up and had kids- holidays are always better with kids… I loved that our house was the hub for all the neighborhood kids and their parents when everyone was done Trick-Or-Treating. I love cooking lots of food, so everyone has something real to eat that’s not candy (laughs). Even now that you guys are older… I think I’ll always throw Halloween parties. I’ve got them down to a science, you know. Like what decorations are the best… and oh! You have to carve the pumpkins the day before so they don’t go bad, but you’re not too busy the day of. 

Background:

My informant is my mother who mainly grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. Her birthday is Halloween, and she used to always tell me she “had special witch powers” because of it. To her, Halloween is the most important holiday. Every year, she begins elaborately decorating our house weeks in advance for her annual costume party that takes place Halloween Night. She doesn’t even mail invitations anymore because everyone in our community knows it’s happening. 

Context: 

I am currently in quarantine at my informant/mother’s house, and this piece was collected while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table.

Thoughts: 

I believe Halloween parties are such big celebrations in America because the holiday is simple, fun, and nostalgic. Having grown up in a home where my parents practiced different religions, I always loved that Halloween was secular, so both my parents would get really excited about it. It’s not religious, it’s American. There’s no moral to Halloween in common practice (unlike All Hallow’s Eve- the pagan holiday that Halloween was based on, which celebrates the rising of the dead). On Halloween, people are just supposed to get dressed up, have fun, and eat lots of candy (or drink lots of booze, depending on your age). The point of any party, but especially a Halloween party, is that it’s unifying. All are invited to have a shared experience. Furthermore, the fact that it is a costume party highlights this idea by letting people be anyone they want to be. You can dress in a way that’s unacceptable any other day of the year, potentially channeling your childhood dreams or wonder that you haven’t expressed in years. 

Secret Santa/Secret Sister Gift Exchange

Background: The informant is my college roommate and friend. She spent the first fifteen years of her life in Minneapolis, Minnesota before moving to Thousand Oaks, California for high school. She is currently in her twenties and attends school at the University of Southern California. She was on a women’s basketball team all four years of high school.

Main Piece:

“So Secret Santa is basically where you have a group of people come together and anonymously everyone gets assigned a person and they either buy them multiple gifts or just one and then you do like a gift exchange at a certain ate and then you try to figure out who your secret Santa is, or you just find out when you get your present.”

Context: Beyond the brief description my informant gave me, she clarified a few additional logistical details. Secret Santa, or Secret Sister as they called it, was done every year on the high school women’s basketball team. The team captains organized it for about fifteen participants, and people filled out a premade form of things they liked (favorite color, favorite movie, favorite candy, etc) to make shopping easier. There was a fifteen to twenty-dollar spending limit. The informant isn’t entirely sure on the timeline, but she thinks that people dropped off gifts in the locker room shortly before the first home game of the season and opened them when they were done playing (in January usually) She also remarked that people liked to guess who their gift-giver was, but there wasn’t any sort of process or reward for guessing correctly.

Thoughts: It’s interesting that my informant referred to this exchange as both “Secret Santa” and “Secret Sister”—besides the process of gift-giving, nothing else ties this ritual to the Christian celebration of Christmas or Santa. Instead, it’s built entirely around a sports team folk group, and occurs in January to correspond with the first home game of the season, rather than the holiday in December. I’ve seen longer versions of this “Secret Sister” play out in both high school sports teams (always women, and always multiple gifts spread out over an entire competitive season) and in university sororities. I wonder if men’s sports teams and other club organizations also do something similar and if so, what term it would fall under, since “Secret Sisters” is gender-exclusive and “Secret Santa” implies a Christian/holiday-centered context.

Trunk-or-Treat: An Alternative American Halloween Celebration

Background Info: JB is a man in his early 20s and a close childhood friend of mine who grew up in Long Beach, California. His parents are from St. Louis, Missouri and Brooklyn, New York. He has attended a large (hundreds of members) Baptist church in South Central LA for his entire life.

Context: We were chatting over the phone about ghost stories, and JB remarked that he never participated in games like Bloody Mary because he believed in them. He then segued into talking about his church and how a lot of that fear of the supernatural originated from attending church.

Main Piece:

(In the interview the informant is identified as JB and the interviewer is ES.)

ES: Do you have any specific stuff your church did? Like what denomination were you guys?

JB: Ooh, so we were Baptist which means we liked money [laughs]. I remember for Halloween we’d always have a Harvest Festival at the church so the kids wouldn’t be out in the world doing Halloween. You would just be in the church—and they would still tell you about your salvation and eternal damnation, and like, it was kinda scary, and then you’d just get candy after your lecture. And I’m like “Uh, okay thanks, thanks Pastor.”

ES: Okay

JB: But yeah, so yeah we’d have like Harvest Festivals and Trunk-or-Treat—

ES: [gasp] Trunk-or-Treat! Yes, please explain Trunk-or-Treat to me because I did it at a [Local Church/Daycare Service] once.

JB: Mhm, so yeah, well yeah, it’s never Halloween cuz it’s church so it’s always “Harvest Time” or whatever. They would usually use the parking lot of the building and everybody of the church, like the members and the deacons, they would park their cars and have their trunks sticking out and open their trunks and you would, like, get to design the little back of your car. You could put spiderwebs or hay and you’d have candy in your trunk and then kids would just kinda walk in a circle around the parking lot and go to each thing and just go home.

ES: Yeah, and were you dressed up and everything?

JB: Yeah they would let little-little kids dress up.

ES: Okay—

JB: And, like, probably the first time I trick-or-treated was like late middle school.

ES: Oh really?

JB: Yeah, the first time my parents actually let me.

JB noted later that it was really only young children and elderly members of the church who participated in Trunk-or-Treat and that “people our age” (teens through early 20s) were probably out actually celebrating Halloween, since that’s what he does now.

Thoughts: It’s worth noting that I also participated in Trunk-or-Treat once, though it was slightly different from JB’s description. Trunk-or-Treat is clearly a spin-off celebration of Halloween, since the name is a pun of the phrase “Trick-or-Treat.” Instead of going door to door and asking for candy by saying “Trick-or-Treat,” children instead go car to car and say “Trunk-or-Treat.” Both A and I experienced “Trunk-or-Treat” in a church context, probably because organizations like churches have both the resources and community pull to hold an event as large as this. JB’s Trunk-or-Treat, however, actually occurred on Halloween itself instead of serving as an additional celebration. It seems like it was designed to keep kids in a controlled environment as opposed to celebrating Halloween, which is considered dangerous by some. JB’s offhand mention of scary Halloween-related sermons and his parents’ reluctance to let him Trick-or-Treat until he was thirteen support this.

Sinter Klaas

Context:

The informant is a Dutch immigrant to the United States in his fifties. He emigrated from the Netherlands in his thirties and lives in San Francsico. He experienced this holiday tradition every year on December 5h in the town of Lochem, with a population of 10,000 people who would gather in the market square. He told me about the tradition in a face-to-face interview. I am his son and we would practice some aspects of this tradition when I was younger, before celebrating Christmas.

Text:

Sinter Klaas would come every year, early December, he would arrive on a steam ship from Spain, he looked like santa claus, but he was slimmer, not as fat, had a long white beard. He would come and he had these svaarte pieten, black petes. It was usually women who would play them, they were often athletic and do handstands. Svaarte piet would come through the chimney, you would put your shoe out in front of the chimney, put out a carrot for Sinter klaas’ white horse, you would get a present.

There were lots of inconsistencies in the story. He would also go with his horse on the roof to deliver the presents. Where I grew up there was an actual ship that would come in with people dressed up as Sinter Klaas and svaarte piet. Svaarte piet would throw candy at everyone. One was pepernoten, these baked round things with spices, you would pick them from the floor and eat them, they weren’t packaged or anything. Later you had to do these things yourself, part of it was writing poems, teasing poems, you would lay bare someone else’s hurtful or embarrassing details. The one getting the present had to read the poem aloud and the more embarrassing the better. There would be “surprises,” – not the English meaning – which were elaborate built things. My dad built a model train after the train my sister took to school, there was some present inside. It’s not just opening the present but there’s more elaborate things going on. It needed a lot of involvement on the part of the parents. I guess people had more time in those days (laughs).

The whole svaarte piet thing… at first I really thought they were black and the relation to slavery never occurred to me. When you look back at it its kind of insane, its insane that nobody thought anything of it. There was a canal, he really came by boat. We would sing sinter klaas songs. He would come into the class at school and you would sing a lot of different songs for him.

If you were bad, they would put you in a bag, hit you with a roe (a switch, a small broom) and take you to Spain.

I think it comes from Saint Nicolas, who was a saint in Spain. He cut his mantle in half and gave it to poor people.

This was THE event for kids. Everyone in the town did it though, it was a social thing. There was always a bit of a scary aspect of it, Sinter klaas and svaarte piet. If you were not good, you would be taken to Spain! They were kind of scary, there were people dressing up as them who could have been drinking or whatever. We would sing a lot of naughty songs.

Thoughts:

Sinter Klaas is a cherished Dutch holiday. This festival mobilizes so many different modalities (sight, smell, taste, sound) that it is hard to know where to start in terms of analysis. A big standout and controversy in recent years is the character Svaarte Piet. He is a black-faced, big-lipped caricature of a Spanish moor, and acts as the slave of Sinter Klaas, the white patriarch. The Netherlands was a substantial dealer in slaves during the expansion into the new world. This dehumanization happened partly by way of representations of the African as a jester, a helper, obedient, athletic, savage, primitive, and so on. This common representation seems to have seeped into the cherished tradition of Sinter Klaas and has been used as a justification for white people to don blackface and act out a caricature every winter. Interestingly and shockingly, this tradition continues today. It has recently come under flak from anti-racism groups as a representation and perpetuation of Dutch slavery and colonization. Svaarte Piet is largely, as we see in my informant’s experience, a way to normalize racist perceptions of Africans and instill in children a casual attitude of extreme otherization in the homogenous white community in which he grew up. My informant had thought the people in blackface were really black (he had not much experience with real black people) and thought of this whole ceremony as a normal, fun tradition, he reflects that “it’s insane that nobody thought anything of it.”

The festival had an immensely positive impact on the informant as a child. Much more excessive, dramatic, and embodied than Sinter Klaas’ American iteration Santa Claus – people would pilot a boat down the canal on which a tall figure dressed in royal red with a long curling white beard would throw out good wishes to the crowd – this tradition is very intricate and at times seems like the staging of an elaborate play. People write teasing poems to each other, parents set up ‘surprises’, elaborate constructions designed to shock and amaze the children, and actors traipse around the town throwing sweets to the people. Much less private and domestic than the American Santa Claus tradition, this celebration pours out into the streets, into the canals, and engages all generations in a communal, public celebration which works to articulate a notion of who the Dutch people are and how they are situated in relation to the rest of the world. The blatant otherization of the African is an integral part of the ceremony in this process of articulating the boundaries of the self.