Background: The informant is a 75 year old female. She grew up in Illinois, attending both high school and college in the state. After she married her husband in 1963, she gained some new tradition from her mother-in-law, who had some German descent.
Context: When catching up over dinner, the informant started talking about her New Year’s traditions, because someone at the table over had been served herring.
MC: “I learned my New Year’s Tradition from my mother-in-law and I have now been doing it for around 50 years. It has four parts that you place out on your windowsill: Eating herring, which I believe is from Germany or Scandinavia, and the silver skin represents coins and prosperity; the silver coins which is money in your pocket; the pieces of bread which is good that you will have over the coming year; and sweeping out the front door which is sweeping out all the bad omens and bad lucks that happened over the year.
Informant: She didn’t do the tradition in her childhood but it has since become integral to who she is and remains extremely important for how it reminds her of her grandmother.
Analysis: The informant adopting the tradition at an older age represents that folklore comes and goes depending on the social context. In a sense, the informant taking up a new tradition upon getting married symbolizes how she has been “adopted” into a new family and is taking on their traditions. The informant has kept up with the tradition for over 50 years, symbolizing how strong even an adopted tradition can become. That is the nature of traditions, it should be allowed to be shared and taken up by whoever will respect it. The informant respects every element of the New Year’s Eve celebration.
Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”
Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?
Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.
The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.
Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!