Tag Archives: winter

Sinter Klaas

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Dutch American
Age: 55
Occupation: Scientist
Residence: San Francisco, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/27/20
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Dutch

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.

Pondy

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: United States
Date of Performance/Collection: March 20th
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Main Piece:

The informant: “I’d always play pondy in the winter, I never played hockey though”

Background:

The informant grew up in a small, midwestern town on the Great Lakes where winters were always below freezing and lakes were of easy access. The informant’s high school also had a very competitive hockey team. Hockey was ingrained into the town as something all kids would play for at least a year, according to the informant.

Context:

The informant was telling me about her hobbies she had when she was younger.  I thought she played hockey, but the prior quote is how she corrected me.

Thoughts:

This demonstrates a piece of folk speech that has been created to differentiate one activity. Outdoor hockey is exclusively known as pondy while indoor, rink hockey is just hockey. From context clues, this word is easy enough to understand which lends itself to being used by young kids out playing games. Pondy also implies a sort of casual play to the game instead of competitive hockey. It is interesting to see the same sport be defined by its location through a colloquial expression.

Martinmas Festival

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 55
Occupation: Teacher
Residence: Austin, Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/15/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Content:
Informant – “On November 11th, Waldorf schools around the world celebrate Martinmas. As the story goes, Saint Martin was a Roman soldier. He saw a beggar shivering in the cold, so Martin cut his own cloak in half and covered the beggar with half. The beggar was actually Christ. To commemorate his generosity, the 1st and 2nd graders create lanterns and walk through campus sharing the light with the school”

Context:
Informant – “This is a festival of light. As the light decreases on Earth, the light becomes more inward. We bring the light inwards so that we carry the light within. Martinmas is celebration of Saint Martin, but it is also a sharing of our own internal light with the everyone.”
The informant learned about this festival when she started teaching at Waldorf.

Analysis:
Despite the references to Saint Martin and Christ, the actual festival is more pagan than Christian. It’s interesting that only the youngest grades make the lanterns and carry them through the school. Not only are they are spreading light at a time of darkness, they are also spreading youth and life at a time of dying.

Michaelmas Festival

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 55
Occupation: Teacher
Residence: Austin, Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/15/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Content:
Informant – “Every fall, on September 29th, Waldorf schools celebrate Michaelmas Festival to honor Saint Michael defeating the dragon. The 4th grade puts on a play. The play is different from year to year, but the overall plot is the same. A town is besieged by a dragon. A maiden gives herself up to the dragon to save the town. Saint Michael saves the maiden by taming the dragon. After the play, the high school sings a powerful three part harmony.
‘Hearken all, the time has come when all the world at last the truth shall hear; then the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Our lances shall be turned to reaping hooks, swords and guns be cast as plowshares, nations shall live in lasting piece, all men unite as brothers.’ ”

Context:
Informant – “Around this time, meteor showers are very prevalent in the Northern Hemisphere. The whole festival is very indicative of iron coming down to earth and strengthening humanity for its fight against the darker forces as summer ends and winter begins. The dragon isn’t really a dragon – it’s the evil within us. Saint Michael is the Lord of Light, his iron comes to strengthen mankind with light. The whole festival is a celebration of our higher, nobler self defeating our lower, base impulses.”
The informant learned about this festival on her own when she was studying Waldorf education.

Analysis:
The festival is an interesting mix of pagan and Christian influences. It’s intrinsically linked to both Saint Michael and the ending of summer. The fact that the dragon is tamed and not killed is also interesting. It reinforces the informant’s claim that the dragon is not an external enemy, but our own internal demons. We cannot kill our base impulses, but we can learn to control them. The timing of the festival is also interesting. It is a celebration of light and peace at a time when the world is getting darker and all the plants are dying.

Advent Spiral

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 55
Occupation: Teacher
Residence: Austin, Texas
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/17/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

Content: Advent Spiral
Informant – “The Advent Spiral is a somber ceremony for grades 1-8. It happens in the winter. Fresh pine boughs are laid in a large spiral in the center of a dark room. Paper star mats are spaced out equidistantly along the spiral. In the center of the spiral is a single lit candle. A class enters the room. There might be a harp player in the corner, or it might be silent. One by one, a child enters the spiral. Each child has an apple with a candle stuck in its center. The child walks through the spiral, lights their apple candle from the candle in the center, then places their apple candle on one of the star mats. Then the child sits outside the spiral. Once everyone has gone, the room is full of light.”

Context:
Informant – “Walking into the spiral symbolizes walking into the spiral within yourself. Lighting the apple is like lighting the flame within yourself. The apple itself is a symbol of new life. This ritual has is based on the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Celts. They took an ember from their city, from their central sacred hearth of their city temple and transported it carefully to the new land. They took an ember from their holy hearth to whatever land their were colonizing, and then they would light their first sacred hearth with that ember. All the fires were started from that first original coal. That sacred fire is holy, regardless of the religion. It symbolized them carrying their religion forward. It symbolized a unity with the old land, a unity with their culture and religion. That’s similar to the advent spiral. The students place their apples on the stars. Stars represent our connection to the cosmos, an outer world, a spiritual world. It shows that you are giving your light to the whole world. By the end of the advent spiral, the whole room is filled with light. It’s symbolic of what we want the students to do. It’s not Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, whatever. You are a light filled person, and as you grow older share your light so the world becomes a light filled place.”
The informant learned about this ceremony when she started teaching at Waldorf.

Analysis:
The use of pine boughs reminds me of Christmas trees. They are evergreen, a sign of life in the dead of winter.
I couldn’t find any references to Greeks, Romans, or Celts transporting sacred coals on Google. Still, I agree with the informant’s interpretation of the ritual (i.e. it is symbolic of sharing your inner light with the world to make it a brighter place).

For another version and explanation of this festival, see “Winter Spiral and the Meaning of Advent.” www.clws.org/events/winter-spiral-and-the-meaning-of-advent/.

The Festival of Lights

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Ashland, Oregon
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/23/18
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): French

Context & Analysis

The subject is from Ashland, Oregon—a relatively small town in Oregon that is an extremely tight-knit community. She expressed to me that Ashland has a rich tradition of festivals— the subject has a lot of pride for her town and it’s traditions and it’s interesting that this is a tradition that involved the entire town. I asked her to elaborate on a few of the festivals and she mentioned that her favorite is the Festival of Lights. The Festival of Lights takes the weekend following Thanksgiving which signifies the entry into the winter, or the ‘holiday season’. Despite not necessarily being a religious celebration, I find it interesting that the festival chooses to feature figures traditionally associated with Christmas (i.e. Santa, Mrs. Clause, etc.). Additionally, the fact that the subject can name the precise restaurants where the appearances take place underscores the small town’s community and the importance of the event to her.

Main Piece

“The Festival of Lights takes place at, like, night at, like, usually 7 or something like that—maybe not quite that late, yeah. Um, but there’s a parade and you go downtown and it’s the Friday after Thanksgiving every year, um, and, like, Santa comes down to the plaza and he goes up into the balcony of one of the restaurants called…I think it’s the Bookroom? Or maybe it’s Granite Tap House. I think it’s the book room [nods]. It’s gotta be the book room. Um, and he comes out on the balcony so does Mrs. Clause and one of the reindeer—‘cuz you know they’ve been, like, coming down the street—and they turn off all the lights in the town. And then they count down from ten…[she pauses for dramatic effect] and every single Christmas light lights up and my town becomes a winter wonderland [she smiles broadly]. Um, and then you can get hot chocolate afterwards and there’s caroling—people who like stand and sing carols and it is—ugh, it’s so much fun and so quintessential small town.”

The Snowmaiden, Snegurochka

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Indian, Spanish, USA
Age: 22
Occupation: Student
Residence: Saratoga, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/20/16
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

Folklore Piece:

“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.”

 

Background information

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.”

Context

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.”

 

Analysis

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.

Some Cherokee beliefs about incoming storms

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 18
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA; Indiana
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/29/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s):

When my friend told me she was part Cherokee Indian, I was curious to hear what kinds of traditions and pieces of wisdom were passed down to her. The following is what she had to say.

“So, my grandma, her mom is a Cherokee Indian, and some sayings that she passed down that my grandma always says is that, if the pine tree has a bunch of [pine]cones at the top of the tree, then that means it’s gonna be a really tough winter, and if animals have really thick pelts, then that also means its gonna be real hard because the animals have to fatten up I guess. And if you see the backs of the leaves, then that means a storm’s coming.”

I have heard several folk beliefs about when people think there might be a storm coming, or other types of natural occurrences. Native Americans seem to be particularly in tune with nature, and my friend told me that she thinks the above folk beliefs are true because so far she’s witnessed them to be true.

Pust

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Slovenian
Age: 54
Occupation: electrical engineer
Residence: San Jose, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 2014-04-24
Primary Language:
Other Language(s): Slovenian, English, German, Serbian, Greek

Pust is a pagan holiday that is celebrated in Slovenia in the beginning of every February. Designed to scare away the winter cold, this festival is mounted to celebrate the coming of Spring. Young men are the main arbiters of some of the festival’s central traditions, as they don terrifying masks and large suits made of animal furs. Most of the masks represent different characters that recur in Slovenian folklore which are generally localized to particular regions, the principle character being called the “kurent.” [the informant could not offer any more examples of such characters and what they represent.] These costumes are paired with belts from which hang many cowbells, and the young men enter the center of the village in a procession of aggressive dancing and grunting. The idea behind this is to scare away the dark, evil spirits of Winter, in the hopes that Spring will bring good tidings and a prosperous year of harvest. Pust usually takes place in the rural villages of northern Slovenia, the Gorenjska region especially.

More modern exhibitions of this festival in different parts of Slovenia allow all children to participate and go door to door begging for candy and money, much like at Halloween in other parts of the world.

Born and raised in former Yugoslavia, what is now known as Slovenia, the informant was continuously exposed to folk traditions that originated and permeated this region. The festival is a kind of protective ritual to ensure a short winter. It is riddle with celebratory symbols of dominance and fertility. For example, the suits are made from the pelts of animals these young men had killed, demonstrating their capability of providing for the well-being of the village.

Winter Solstice Festival (冬至)

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Taiwanese-American
Age: 52
Occupation: Housewife
Residence: San Marino, California
Date of Performance/Collection: February 2007
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Mandarin, Taiwanese

冬至
dōng zhì
Winter Solstice Festival

“The Winter Solstice Festival is very important to the Chinese culture.  It is celebrated around December 21, the shortest day of the year.  This festival celebrates longer daylight, which means that there’s more positive energy.  For this festival, families get together and eat tangyuan.  Tangyuan are glutinous rice balls that represent reunion.  It allows families to reunite.”

My informant learned the item when she grew up in Taiwan.  It’s an important Chinese tradition that most people participate in.  My mom has been celebrating the Winter Solstice Festival ever since she was a little kid, and now my family celebrates it every year.
My family celebrates the festival on December 21.  We have a huge family reunion with my aunts and uncles.  We go to a Chinese restaurant to eat a delicious dinner, while catching up on everybody’s life.  After dinner, each family separates and goes home.  At home, my mom cooks tangyuan for my whole family.  Usually, she makes several stuffed tangyuan and many small plain ones.
My mom enjoys this celebration because she loves family get-togethers.  With the busy lives that everyone leads now, my parents do not get to see their brothers and sisters often.  This festival is a chance for everyone to reunite.  This celebration is particularly important to my mom because of the fact that we always have a family reunion on this day.  This day also allows my mom to sit down with my family while eating tangyuan.
I think that this festival is significant to Chinese culture and Chinese families.  I agree with my mom, and I think that families really don’t have very much time to sit down and talk to each other.  Even family dinners are becoming so rare in American families.  Parents are always working and children have extracurricular activities and large amounts of homework that keep them from eating at a set time.  Also, this festival shows Chinese values.  Chinese people value positive things, so the fact that after the winter solstice is over and there will be days with longer daylight is relative to their beliefs.