Tag Archives: celebration

Hunting Trolls

Background: Informant has a Norwegian background from his fathers’s side and was raised being told about these Norwegian traditions and holidays, and this anecdote was told to me over a FaceTime call.

Informant: We would have a special toll hunt on the seventeenth of May… or syttende mai. Kind of like an easter egg hunt but trolls.

Me: Why did you hunt trolls?

Informant: Umm… it’s because trolls have a negative connotation, like how you’re supposed to clean your house in Chinese tradition on Chinese New Year to get out the bad luck… for us it was trolls.

Me: Did you get a prize for finding the trolls?

Informant: Yeah, we would get rewarded in chocolate.

Thoughts: Syttende mai in Norway is also known as Constitution Day, which is an official public holiday throughout the country. Essentially, it’s a country-wide party—people dress up in traditional costumes, with a lot of parades and drinking and ice cream. Syttende mai is not celebrated in any large way outside of Norway, as it would be like celebrating the Fourth of July as an Irish person—it just doesn’t really make sense to. It’s interesting to me how the informant’s mother brought together various folklores in order to give her children meaning on syttende mai as children born and raised in America. Trolls in Norway are seen to be creatures that are evil and dangerous, and beings that belong in the wilderness, not by the home, so there is even meaning behind the act of hunting trolls in Norwegian folklore, especially since the informant was rewarded for finding the trolls.

Santa Lucia

Background: Informant has a Norwegian background from his fathers’s side and was raised being told about these Norwegian traditions and holidays, and this anecdote was told to me in person.

Informant: It’s a Swedish tradition, it’s like mid-December. Saint Lucia was a martyr and her name is after lux, the Latin word for light. The Santa Lucia celebration is a celebration of light in mid-December when it’s really dark in the Arctic in Scandinavia. You sing this song about her and then you walk down the aisle and everyone carries candles and little lights. 

My informant sung a portion of the song as well for me.

Thoughts: It’s interesting what exactly is the most meaningful to different cultures in different parts of the year. For instance, in Scandinavia, it’s dark almost every hour of the day in the depths of winter, and it makes sense that Scandinavian people would want to celebrate light in the darkness. It’s also interesting to me how many Scandinavian countries have so much in common culturally—even though my informant is Norwegian, and not even from Norway, he has a lot of knowledge of other Scandinavian holidays and culturally important events because they’re all so related.

Traditional Arabic Dessert – Ka’ak

Text/Context

EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.

Analysis

This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.

Yuán Xiāo Jié (Chinese Lantern Festival)

Background: The informant is my mother, who was born and raised in China but immigrated to the US after receiving her undergraduate degree. She grew up on a small island off the coast of China.

A: yuán xiāo jié is for tuan yuan – which means that um…family gets together for this celebration

We make round rice cakes called yuán xiāo filled with sweet black sesame and we eat them, and different colorful cute animals or flower shaped lights using wood or bamboo or paper and drawings on them, sometimes we make characters even. The…government, or community…would hang these very big lanterns in the streets, for a lantern festival we go to where riddles are written and hang under the lantern, and when you solved the riddle you could keep the light. People could buy these lanterns or make it themselves, and they had a candle inside of them so they could be lit.

Me: When is yuán xiāo jié celebrated?

A: It’s on….I think it’s on the 15th day of the Chinese New Year, it’s the day when the moon is the roundest. The shape of the yuánxiāo is modeled after the shape of the round white moon. 

Me: How did you learn about this festival?

A: No one needs to tell you about it exactly, everyone just knows. It was just something that everybody did since I was very young. All the kids had lights, and the kids always competed over who had the prettiest lantern. Once when I was young I got a lotus flower lantern and I thought it was so beautiful…I was very proud. I would happily walk around with the adults and look at the beautiful lights.

Me: What does it celebrate?

A: It’s about spending time and enjoying time with your family. Families walk around the streets with the lanterns and can all enjoy their time together as well as when they get together and eat the rice ball. We celebrate togetherness and the happiness of the family. It’s part of the new year traditions.

Context: This was told to me over a recorded call.

Maypole Dance at Waldorf School

This friend told me this story late at night in the kitchen on May 1, 2021. We were surrounded by four other friends who moved in and out of the room, and he spoke about his experience attending annual Maypole celebrations at a New York (Ghent) Waldorf School.

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“I went to a very alternative school called a Waldorf School… and they have a lot of different celebrations and practices and things, and one that is very timely is their May Day celebration… one of the main components of May Day is a maypole. I’m not sure which kids are assigned different parts but each has a ribbon and they dance around the pole creating a pattern, this interesting woven pattern on the pole. The ribbons all weave to form a lattice.”

The speaker said that he thought the celebration might be a way to welcome summer, and that different grades performed different tasks in the May Day celebration. The school included grades Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and students in the third grade often performed the Maypole dance. Students in the sixth and seventh grades played instruments (flute, cello, violin, clarinet, viola) in the orchestra.

I asked the speaker to explain, in his own words, what it meant to attend a Waldorf school. “Waldorf school is a pedagogical movement that began in Germany as an education system started by these same people wo run the Waldorf Hotels or Waldorf cigarette companies, and they started this school for the kids of the factory workers,” the speaker said. “And the goal is like to offer holistic creativity-focused education. So there’s a lot of visual arts and performing arts and a lot of things that wouldn’t really fall under the generally accepted scope of academics.”

The speaker said that grounds crew set up the 20- or 30-foot Maypole in late April and that the structure stayed up for a few weeks after May. He said that every student had to take part in this celebration. Younger students would get excited about the celebration. He said that older students did not want to stand in the hot sun playing a violin wearing a dress shirt.

The speaker said that he does not do anything special for May Day, and that he did not appreciate this celebration until after he left the Waldorf school. “That school never really communicated why we were doing what we were doing,” he said, noting that he appreciates this experience in retrospect

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I did not know that this friend attended a Waldorf school, and I was able to tell him later that the Maypole dance is a fertility dance. It seems odd that third graders would take part in this dance, but they are also young and full of life. The Maypole represents a phallus. I asked questions about how the students received this tradition, and it struck me odd that a school designed to promote the arts would not explain the history or meaning of this celebration.

It is also relevant that this speaker told this tale on May 1. He later explained that he remembered this tradition because he had received a school email describing online May Day celebrations. This shows that some newsletters can be very important for the communities in which they share information. He continues to be loosely part of this Waldorf school community long after he graduated and moved away from this location.