Background: A.J. is a 65-year-old woman who was born and raised in Poprad, Slovakia. She relocated to the United States from Slovakia 20 years ago, while her son was attending University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A.J. holds a degree in child development and since coming to the United States has worked as a nanny. She is married to her lifelong sweetheart and has one son and three grandchildren. She often talks about her home and family in Slovakia – about the beautiful mountains and the culture. Although she is now a US citizen, she incorporates many Slovak traditions into everyday life, and enjoys telling stories about her family and her family traditions.
A.J.: On first May, boys went to the wood, cut, made tree nicely decorate and they built in front of house their girlfriend and then they were singing very nice song like we built May or very nice song. They were walking during the whole village – they were walking through the whole village with the tree – every boy what her girlfriend built this tree in the front of house they his girlfriend – yeah. And they have like cart like with horses that was pulling this cart. This tree was on the cart and they pulling this cart across the village and they build in the front of girlfriend house and they were singing.
Q: How did they decorate the tree?
A.J.: Decorate with nice colorful ribbon.
Q: Did you only do it for girls you were dating or was it somebody you like and you want to date?
A.J.: Yeah – exactly – was when somebody like this girl it was building this tree for her. If she like him they would start dating. If not, they would just forget about this tree.
Q: And this was in the villages – not in big towns?
A.J.: No in big town NO – only in village. In big town we have big houses like apartments you cannot build that. That was not tradition for towns more for villages.
Performance Context: The ritual of creating a May Tree would occur on May 1st in the small villages of Slovakia.
My Thoughts: The idea of “May Day” or the celebration of the spring season is common in many cultures. In the United States and Great Britain, for example, many people partake in making a maypole, in which ribbons are braided around a tall, wooden pole to create a pattern. Creating the maypole is usually done by children, which may symbolize the freshness and youth of spring.
“Ok, so, there’s these two parents. Well, wait, not parents. There’s this couple, and they can’t have kids, and they’re, like, pretty old now. So it’s snowing one day, and the husband goes outside, and has an idea to build a snowgirl…? So like a little girl instead of a snowman. They made her look really realistic and then a stranger comes by one night, and he, like, does some sort of magic and then he leaves. Then, at night, the snowgirl comes to life. And so they’re really excited, because now they have a daughter, so they take her inside. But, she’s, like, snow, so they keep her from going outside as it becomes spring and summer, and in the summer the girl wants to go outside, um, and her parents always tell her ‘no’, and they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her why, they don’t tell her that she’s snow. Um, so, the parents go to like the market, or they leave the house one day, and the girl goes outside, and she melts. And the parents come back and she’s, I guess, dead.”
“I mean, I like it. It’s stuck with my all of these years. I don’t know, I didn’t do, like, a great job of telling it. I think the message is to always be honest, I guess? And I like that, I think if the parents were, um, more honest with their daughter they could’ve saved her.”
“My parents got, like, a little set of stories from India. It’s not an Indian story, but they used to read it to me at night. Sure enough, I actually met the informant’s mother later that day. I asked her about the story and she said, “Oh yes, we used to have plenty of books filled with little stories that we’d tell the kids before they went to bed. Not necessarily Spanish, or Indian, just some fairy tales and little stories.”
I had originally asked this informant to participate because I knew that her and her family were very much still in touch with their roots. She visits India nearly every year, goes to Indian weddings, lived in Spain near her family for half a year, talks about all the traditional Spanish food her mom makes. So when I asked her to share with me some form of folklore, be it a proverb or a cultural event, or a story, that this is the one she thought of.
To be honest, it could have been because she had been around a previous informant who was also telling a tale, but I still believe it is telling. Out of all the stories that her mother told her over the years, and I’m sure countless relatives had told her, she remembered “the one about the snow girl.” She couldn’t remember exactly what the story was for some time, and I suggested that maybe she think of something else. But she was adamant about teling this story; she called her mom, called her dad, called the house, and finally it clicked.
After more of my own research, I found the origin of the “Snow Girl” tale to be, in fact, Russian. The Snow Girl, or Snow Maiden, is formally known in Russian folklore as Snegurochka. There are many tales of Snegurochka, and many variations of this same story that the informant had told me. Here is a variant where she melts, but does so intentionally, after her parents compare her to the value of a hen when a fox brings her home from being lost in the woods. However, in this story, she refuses to leave with the fox, and her once banished dog brings her home and is rewarded, and she remains in tact and happy. To read yet another version, you may want to check out The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales by Bonnie Marshall. (Marshall, Bonnie C. The Snow Maiden and Other Russian Tales. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2004. Print.)
Beyond the interest of all these variations, however, is the context of this informants nationality telling this story. Clearly, with so many stories, the Snegurochka is something that Russian’s identify their culture with. Yet, here is a girl, whose parents are from countries that don’t even traditionally see snow, retelling the tale in Southern California as the one piece of folklore that she would like to share. This just goes to show that while one’s heritage and self-proclaimed culture are important, they are not all encompassing of the folkloric artifacts that they hold dear.
Okay, so Persian New Year, it lasts seven days…So, basically the Tuesday before or during, everyone goes to a special place or they do it at each other’s houses and they make fires, like small fire pits.
Inside or outside?
Outside, it’s always outdoors. Like in an alleyway, or if you have a big backyard, or they do it at the beach. And then people jump over it and they say a saying that’s kind of like, I don’t know how it’s translated but it symbolizes throwing your bad energy or anything bad from the past year into the fire, or like from other people, into the fire. That’s basically it.
Do you know the phrase in Farsi?
Yeah, but you’re not gonna get it. It’s like, “sorheitaz…?” I don’t even know how to say it, you’re kind of just saying whatever is bad is going into the fire. And you kind of say it with a friend, like whatever’s bad from each other, your relationship goes in too.
When is Persian New Year?
Our calendar is different, the Persian calendar is a little different. It’s first day of Spring, so it starts on March 21st, and then it lasts seven days. And we always set a table, it’s called the Hafseen, and Haf means seven, so like everything starts with an “S” you can look this up, I don’t know what each thing symbolizes.
So there’s a lot of symbolism involved?
Yeah, there’s seven things, there’s like a fish, and then there’s a specific thing you grow, it’s like a grass, and then there’s flowers… It’s really specific but it’s all with Spring and has to do with new beginnings and stuff like that. So it lasts a week, and then after that you get rid of the table and everything, and they throw out the grass thing, they’ll go to the river and get rid of it, there’s like special ways. And they celebrate after too.
The informant is clearly engaged in her family’s and culture’s traditions and customs surrounding New Year, although it is clear there is a generational gap – she speaks Farsi, but doesn’t know exactly what she’s saying or what it means when they jump over the fire. She also participates in the traditions and knows the general gist of how things are set up, but doesn’t know specifics about the symbolic elements of the festival. However, she is aware of how the ritual is done, participates in it, and has a general idea of why these things are done and what they mean. The new year festival is about being away with or burning away all the old, stale, bad things from the past year, and bringing in the new year. There are very specific things that must be present and actions that must be done to ensure good luck, success, happiness, good relationships, etc. in the new year. This also corresponds with the earth cycle, and not with the biblical calendar.
Contextual Data: I had been hanging out with one of my friends and we got into a conversation about our different cultures and religious backgrounds—he’s a Persian who practices the Baha’i faith. And at one point, he mentioned the Persian New Year, which had just occurred the previous month on March 20th. He grew up in the United States and his whole family (including his grandparents and his extended family) lives here, but they still partake in the these New Years’ traditions. I asked him to tell me more about it — about any specific characteristics or rituals — and the following is an exact transcript of what he described.
“The only ritual I can think of in New Years celebration is the arrangement of what’s called the Haft Sín — Sín is equivalent to the letter “S” in the English alphabet and Haft means “seven.” So what Iranians do in their homes is they create… um…kind of like a banquet of different items beginning with that letter that all have a symbol. Like síb, which means “apple” in Farsi, is a symbol of health and life. And sekhé, which is like a gold coin, is a symbol of wealth. And…um… I think sekhé—No… Seer, which is garlic, is like a symbol of fertility. Or… There’s—There’s like a lot of these different things. I think that there’s apples, there’s goldfish, there’s painted eggs…Yeah. [Laughs.]”
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A few other items that can be a part of the Haft Sín, which my informant later mentioned to me, are: sumac, which is a spice; sír, which is vinegar; sangak, which is wheat bread; and then sometimes a bed of wheatgrass, which the family has grown. When I asked him about what he thought the significance of it was, he replied, “It’s just like, if another Persian came into your house around that time, they would like, look at your Haft Sín and be like ‘Oh, that’s nice’— Kind of like the Christmas tree for Christians, in a way.”
My informant mentioned that in Persian culture, Naw Rúz falls on the first day of spring (usually March 21st), which he says relates to the symbolic idea of spring as “the beginning of life.” So in thinking about Naw Rúz as a celebration of this new life, as well as the liminal nature of the New Year (the in-between phase when people pass from one year to the next), it seems as though the Haft Sín is an important way of ushering in luck for the “new life” ahead — good luck related to health, wealth, fertility, and so on. My friend mentioned that the arrangement varies from family to family, and that the arrangement can exceed seven items, which suggests that it can be a more individual reflection of what a family is hoping to be blessed with in the upcoming year. The arrangement therefore also seems like an important way of bringing together the family.
Given that my informant and his family live in the United States, part of the reason for partaking in this tradition could also be as a means of holding on to their Persian culture.
This offers another description of the Haft Sín table, listing additional items, as well as alternative symbolic meanings to the items. This again alludes to the way that the arrangement can vary from family to family, based on the faith of the family and on what they might be looking forward to in the New Year. Social media also presents a great way to see this variation—searching the hashtag “#haftsin” on Instagram or Tumblr pulls up photos from many different users, illustrating the different ways that Iranian families arrange their tables, as well as what items they include in the arrangement.
Contextual Data: A friend and I were sitting together one day after class and exchanging different bits of folklore we had encountered in our childhood. She mentioned to me that she was Bulgarian and there was one particular tradition that her family continued to participate in, which had just passed the previous month. The following is an exact transcript of her description.
Informant: “Okay, so Baba Marta. It’s a holiday for Spring in Bulgaria, um, and the name—it literally translates as, um, Grandmother March, since March is like the month of Spring, and we start celebrating it on March 1st. And what you do is, um, you put this little pin on you. Um…Or a bracelet. And it has to be with red and white threads because those are, I guess, Bulgarian symbols of Spring. And they kind of symbolize, you know, rebirth and regrowth and newness. And you have to wear that pin or that bracelet. And it can come in, like, many different forms. Um, especially nowadays—they get really creative with the designs and they have like little dolls, and etcetera. But you wear it for the entire month of March. Um, and then you can take it off either when you see a flowering tree, or—like you take it off and you pin it on the tree—or just like at the end of March. And then again, you find some nice blossoming tree or flower and you just kind of pin it on there. And we get ours from our relatives and they just kind of like mail it to us—because you obviously can’t find any here—which is nice. And then you get to… Just kind of wear it and, like, still be connected to the culture and like people ask you about it and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s for Spring.’ Um, which is cool. And… It’s a nice little decoration or bracelet I guess.”
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This ritual very much seems to be a part of a life-cycle celebration. My informant explained that the beginning of March marks the beginning of Spring in the Bulgarian calendar, and as can be seen in many different cultures, this time of the year symbolizes “rebirth and regrowth.” That people perform this ritual could therefore be a way of sort of earning luck or signifying a rejuvenation as they move forward. It could even just be away of acknowledging the importance of this “rebirth” in the earth cycle — particularly if the colors stand as “Bulgarian symbols for the Spring.” My informant also mentioned that now that she lives in America, it is kind of a way of allowing her to still be part of the Bulgarian culture and to connect to her family back in Bulgaria (particularly as her grandparents are the one to mail her the bracelets). Whenever she sees those bracelets hung on trees during this time of year, she does get a little thrill of excitement from it — a kind of “oh, that’s nice.”
My informant was raised in Poland and has lived there most of her life. In the late 1970’s, she first participated in this traditional festival as one of her Girl Scout activities. She explained that this festival dates back to pagan times, and that everyone was allowed to participate. They would build a doll of straw and tree branches and dress it in old clothes. The clothes were supposed to look rather trashy and they would decorate the doll to look ugly. Then everyone would gather around to throw the doll into a river. Hence, the Americanized name for this festival is the Drowning of the Doll.
Traditionally, the doll symbolizes winter. After months of freezing weather, the Polish wish to free themselves of the cold, so they personify the winter as a doll. My informant explained that the doll “symbolizes winter, so it’s ugly.” Then, when the doll is thrown into the river, it’s like they’re killing the winter that has passed and they can look forward to warmer months.
The festival is only celebrated by the Polish because it represents their unique pagan past, a time without the foreign influences of modern times. This does not mean that this holiday is only celebrated in Poland. My informant has not attended Marzanna since her youth, but she has heard of instances of people of Polish heritage having their own festivals in other countries to connect them with their homeland
On the first day of spring, it’s tradition to give pussy willows to people, so when my parents came to visit me, they gave me a vase-full.
My grandmother showed me this tradition. She was born and raised in Latvia, had her first daughter there, and my dad was actually born in Germany during WWII because his father was off fighting in the war and my grandmother had to pack up everything she could carry and take her daughter and start walking- all while pregnant with my father. There is a very large Latvian community in Willimantic, CT which is the town next to the one I grew up in. A lot of Latvian traditions were part of my childhood, but bringing Pussywillows for Spring was a big one. It’s fun because they are these branches with these soft little buds on them- they feel like a cat. As to what it means, I think it’s simply an offering of some sort, like poinsettas at Christmas or Lillies at Easter.
I agree with Kate in her suggestion that the giving of these pussy willows is some sort of an offering. It could possibly have to do with trying to bring prosperity and good fortune in the spring. A pussy willow is not the most beautiful of flowers, its possible that it was an abundant flower in the region of Switzerland where the tradition originated.