Virtual Folk Celebrations

The effects of lockdown in the UK have seen all events cancelled from mid-March 2020 until the foreseeable future. As a result, the folk celebrations usually seen in the UK have not been able to go ahead in the usual manner. Social distancing rules mean that large scale gatherings are banned, so community folk groups have had to employ ingenuity to keep the events calendar alive, with many turning to online and digital platforms.

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Online Summer Solstice

In the UK, the yearly calendar is steeped in traditional customs and folklore, with many of the associated events playing key parts in the lives of individuals and communities. For the Pagan community, the summer solstice on 21st June is one of the most important events of the year. In normal circumstances, thousands of people would gather at Stonehenge, the site of a neolithic stone circle, in order to celebrate the summer solstice at the sacred spot. Unfortunately, this year’s meet-up celebration was cancelled in order to adhere to social distancing rules. However, this didn’t stop the event from going ahead, with live streams of the sunset and sunrise appearing on social media. Streaming the event meant that those who would usually attend were able to do so, in some capacity at least, albeit virtually.

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Summer Solstice, Stonehenge, 2018

The Jack in the Green is a popular calendar custom that takes place on or close to May Day and is celebrated in different areas throughout England. Jack in the Green has a long history and it’s origins as a May Day festival have been traced as far back as 1640 by folklorist Roy Judge. Judge examines every historical mention to Jack in the Green or any associated symbolism and concludes that the festival we see today originated during the folk revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [1] This is the case for many of the folk customs, traditions, and events that exist in the UK today, for whom we have key folklorist individuals such as Cecil Sharpe, Sabine Baring-Gould, and Ralph Vaughan Williams to thank. It is especially important to consider the origins of folk customs and events when analysing expressions of folklore during lockdown in 2020; there has been a conscious continuation of what Warshaver and Trubshaw refer to as Level 2 folklore. [2] Rather than cancel the event entirely, Jack in the Green processions were moved online, much in the same way as the summer solstice at Stonehenge. One of the biggest celebrations of Jack in the Green takes place in Hastings on the south coast of England. The day acts as a community celebration whilst also creating an economic boom amongst local businesses, due to the vast numbers of tourists who visit the town especially to see or take part in the procession. In order to keep the spirit of Jack in the Green alive during lockdown, a local art project encouraged the immediate community to participate in a creative collaboration that ‘asked local people who love the festival to design a leaf which will be used to create a huge collaborative picture to celebrate the four day festival‘. The unveiling of the artwork took place on the 3rd May and be seen in the video below.

The organisers of the festival encouraged people to take part by dressing up at home and participating in processions that were held remotely over social media. A huge charity incentive was also introduced which saw donations being made to the NHS; this is something echoed by many other folk festivals and customs that went online, including the various Morris dancing troops that exist throughout the country. The interaction between folklore and fundraising has really shown that folklore can be used as a force for good, whilst also reiterating the important role that folklore plays in society. Folklore, whether it be in the form of familial traditions, art and craft, or festivals, is vital for morale when we are faced with trying times and will continue to uplift communities and individuals when it’s needed most.


Further reading

[1] Roy Judge, ‘The Jack in the Green’, (London, UK: FLS BOOKS, The Folklore Society, 2000), p. 84

[2] Bob Trubshaw, ‘Explore Folklore’, (Loughborough, UK: Heart of Albion Press, 2002), p. 127

Home and Street Crafting

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Image supplied by Claire S.

Since the very early stages of lockdown, there has been a surge in uptake of home crafting to stave of boredom, as well as the marked increased appearance of colourful street art and craft. The art and craft being carried out at home and on the streets fits rightly into the definition of folk art/craft, in that it is being carried out by the general public, separate from the state, that is reflective of the communities in which the art and crafts appear. Some examples fall into the more ‘traditional’ examples of art and craft, such as hand embroidery, whilst others take on a more contemporary appearance, such as the handmade posters being displayed in windows in support of the NHS. Both the traditional and contemporary expressions can – and should – be regarded as folklore. They serve as another example of how a subset of folklore is helping society to cope with the pandemic, whether individuals are conscious of the folklore aspect or not; art and craft is after all, a folk custom. In fact, Joseph Feinburg would suggest that unconscious expressions of folklore are the most authentic. [1]

Art and Craft at Home

As mentioned above, hand embroidery has taken on a new lease of life amongst those of us who have had to endure day upon day of isolation during the COVID-19 health crisis. Some of us may already have been well-practiced in the craft, whilst others (like myself) may have taken it up as a new hobby to fill all the new free time that we have been presented with since being furloughed or asked to work from home. In fact, the Guardian reported that purchases related to hand embroidery and cross-stitch has risen by 410% since the start of the lockdown in the UK; the biggest increase only second to jigsaws. Hand embroidery stretches back to at least the time of famous Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, with examples being found during excavations of his tomb. In this sense, those undertaking embroidery at home during the pandemic are participating in one of the oldest documented forms of folk craft which has been practiced by humans for millennia, making it a form of mass authentic folklore which can easily be regarded as timeless.

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Floral Collars from Tutankhamun’s Embalming Cache

Embroidery has proven such a popular distraction during this pandemic that organisations are encouraging the general public to participate and contribute to community projects that aim to document the crisis through needlework. Jarrow Hall, self-described as an Anglo-Saxon Farm, Village, and Bede Museum, is currently running a project called ‘Threads That Bind Us‘, that is completely open to the public and accessible via the Twitter hashtag #ThreadsThatBindUs. As folk craft, this does conflict with Feinburgs interpretation of authentic folklore that rests on unconscious expression, however, there does exist another theory surrounding folklore that focuses on three levels of interpretation. Bob Trubshaw explains the three levels of folklore as set out by Gerald Warshaver. Level 1 includes customary practices, or ‘not self-conscious’ folklore (weddings, lingerie parties, funerals), Level 2 comprises of ‘what most people would think of as folklore’ (fairy stories, morris dancing, folk craft), and Level 3 is ‘where folklore is self-consciously incorporated into entirely modern activities’ (video games, movies). [2] If adhering to the Trubshaw and Warshavers theory, organised community embroidery projects, such as Jarrow Hall’s, can be classified under Level 2 folklore due to wide-spread participation in what is historically a traditional folk craft. In any event, home embroidery during COVID-19 can fall under either definition of folklore, whether it is considered ‘authentic’ or otherwise.

Other examples of folk crafting seen in homes during the crisis include candle making on the more traditional end of the spectrum, and the creation of magical folklore-inspired fairy doors to be hidden around the house for people to find when they are next allowed to visit.

Street Art and Craft

Outside of the home, especially in the UK, urban landscapes have been transformed into sea’s of colourful rainbows that line pavements, adorn windows, and stretch between houses on bunting. The rainbow has very heavily associated folklore, ranging from the creation stories of the Rainbow Serpent belonging to Australian Aboriginal groups, to leprauchauns and pots of gold in Irish Celtic mythology. Rainbows are also seen as symbols of hope and renewal due to the role they played in The Book of Genesis. After the Great Flood, a rainbow appeared in the sky to represent God’s promise never to flood the earth again (Genesis 9:13–17). This folkloric element has been carried through and rainbows have now been adopted by the masses during the pandemic to act as a reminder that things will get better. As a result, the rainbow has also become the unofficial emblem that recognises the hard work of all key-workers, especially those working for the NHS.

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Rainbow Chalking

Pavement chalk art has been appearing everywhere during the pandemic but it has not been limited to rainbows. There has also been a surge in botany related graffiti appearing in city streets where open green spaces and access to private gardens are extremely limited. One individual has been annotating the pavement with names of trees and plants to give the local community access and connection to botany and nature, even including some folklore in the descriptions.

Another contemporary expression of folklore/folk craft that can be seen outside of the home and has been more often during lockdown is a practice known as Yarn Bombing. Carried out by secret crafting societies all around the world, Yarn Bombing involves adorning areas of towns and cities with knitted or crocheted pieces of art, comprising of figures or decorations which are placed on things such as postboxes and lampposts. Yarn Bombing falls under the definition of Serial Collaborative Creations (SCC) provided by Lynne S. McNeill in an article from 2007 that appeared in the Western Folklore Journal. McNeill explains that there are four types;

  1. ‘People come into contact with objects through geographical movement. Either the objects are passed from person to person (type A) or the people pass by the objects (type B).
  2. People involved contribute to the object, either by adding to its physical form or by continuing its journey through some sort of personal effort.
  3. Multiple people interact with the object, but they do it one at a time or in small, sequential groups
  4. Those who interact with the object individually (or in small groups) are aware of others’ involvement with the object’s existence, though they may not interact with them directly. This awareness is expected and necessary; the object, by virtue of being a chain object, implies the presence of past and future participants.’ [3]

 

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Yarn Bombing

As objects that remain in one place, Yarn Bombing falls into category 1B of the SCC. Though clearly intended to bring joy, Yarn Bombing does remain a point of contention for some environmental groups. For some, it would be classified as ‘ritual litter’, often seen as a negative term used by individuals and groups who disapprove of such actions because of the detrimental effects that depositing folkloric items can have on the environment. Lovelocks also come under fire for the same reason, due to the damage that their amassed weight does to the bridges onto which they are placed. Nevertheless, physical manifestations of folklore have appeared in great numbers during the lockdown as a way for communities to connect in a time of separation and will likely continue to do so even after the crisis is brought under control.


Further reading

[1] Joseph Feinburg, ‘The Paradox of Authenticity: Folklore Performance in Post-Communist Slovakia’, (Wisconsin, USA: University of Wisconsin Press, 2018), p. 191

[2] Bob Trubshaw, ‘Explore Folklore’, (Loughborough, UK: Heart of Albion Press, 2002), pp. 3-4

[3] L. McNeill, ‘Portable Places: Serial Collaboration and the Creation of a New Sense of Place’, Western Folklore 66 (3/4), 2007, pp. 281-299

Love & Connection in Lockdown

Whether its familial love, romantic love, or platonic love between friends, we can all agree that love is good. But what happens when our ‘normal’ way to demonstrate that love is taken away? It would seem that humans are driven by an innate and admirable need to express affection, and have taken steps to overcome the physical separation being experienced during lockdown by turning to more creative expressions of love and connection. Because of the enforced isolation enacted in the fight against COVID-19, many of us have been unable to express affection in the ways we are perhaps used to. Where we would usually spend birthdays with family, take mums out for a Mother’s Day meal, have a weekly catch-up at the pub with our friends, or book a table at a restaurant for a first date, we find ourselves turning instead to virtual gatherings hosted through online platforms or physical gatherings that only include those in our immediate household. Some are even going the extra mile by making incredible improvisations when it comes to the usual customs surrounding dating, as seen in the image below.

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A creative, socially distanced, first date in New York

Re-Envisioned Traditions

Writing in ‘Explore Folklore’, Bob Trubshaw states that “in the end what is most interesting about folk customs are the ways they adapt and mutate”. [1] Custom and tradition are the cornerstones of both individual communities and the wider societies that they exist in. During the COVID-19 crisis, we are seeing the adaptation of pre-existing traditions, but also the invention of new or instant traditions. Some of these traditions will continue beyond COVID-19. The weekly ‘Clap for Carers’ which started on 25th March and was held every Thursday at 8pm for ten weeks; though the weekly clapping has ended, there are plans for the 25th March to be designated as a yearly ‘Clap for Carers Day‘ going forward. This is what Amitai Etzioni would refer to as an ‘engineered custom’ or an attempt “to create wholly new holidays”, and is one that I believe will endure. [2] It is likely that some COVID-19 traditions will not endure after the crisis has ended, such as the weekly online pub quiz that so many have taken part in, some of which have broken world records. Sociologist Edward Shils would propose that this short-lived participation of virtual pub quizzes with friends should not be regarded as a tradition. Shils believes that “if a belief or practice catches on but survives only for a short time, it fails to become a tradition…It has to be over at least three generations – however long or short these are – to be a tradition”. [3] However, this is something that I disagree with, especially when looking at contemporary rituals and traditions and taking into account the nature of digital society. The quizzes will be remembered by friends as COVID-19 traditions, who meet up in physical spaces and revert back to their original traditions, where they do not have to connect through a screen. 

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Online Pub Quiz

Examples from Lockdown

In the UK, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the fourth Sunday of Lent. On 17th March, just 3 days before Mother’s Day, the UK government announced a nationwide lockdown. As a result, many plans were cancelled to comply with social distancing and essential-only travel. However, this did not stop people from following the custom and celebrating their mothers in new and inventive ways. Again, technology has been the answer. Many families connected virtually with each other to celebrate Mother’s Day over a video call. Others utilised internet shopping to send gifts and flowers to their mothers’ doorsteps. Some creative examples compiled by BBC News can be found here.

For those enjoying relationship and wedding anniversaries in lockdown, attention was turned towards celebrating at home. Romantic getaways have been replaced by virtual BBQ’s and takeaway afternoon tea, whilst others enjoyed homecooked meals and the chance to reminisce on their special day by looking at photographs together.

Birthdays have been spent socially distanced at the front door, with people turning up at the homes of family and friends with balloons and waving from the front gate, some are even lucky enough to receive a cake on the garden wall. Internet shopping has no doubt seen an increase during this period, suggesting that capitalist and consumerist behaviour are being pushed by more admirable means; the need to stay connected and continue traditions to the best of our ability when in such an unfamiliar and restrictive situation.


Further reading

1 – Bob Trubshaw, ‘Explore Folklore’, (Loughborough, UK: Heart of Albion Press, 2002), p. 129

2 – (Etzioni, A. 2004. Holidays and Rituals: Neglected seedbeds of virtue. In Etzioni, A. and Bloom, J. (eds.) We Are What We Celebrate: Understanding Holidays and rituals. New York University Press: 1-40, p.30)

3 – Edward Shils, ‘Tradition.’ (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. 15

 

Folk at Home – Introduction

Current Circumstances • New Normal • Unprecedented Times

Three phrases that have entered into buzzword status during the global COVID-19 health crisis.

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COVID-19

The world has changed. National lockdowns are in place, there is an invisible threat to our health, and people are enduring enforced isolation rendering them unable to connect with friends, family, and loved ones in ways they usually would. Things we have taken for granted, such as weekly coffee shop meetups with friends, or the ease of a fast-food drive-thru dinner, have been taken away and postponed. Festivals and conferences have been placed on hold or cancelled altogether. Schools, colleges, and university campuses are closed. There is no hope for the promise of a jovial summertime that we spent all of the winter looking forward to. On paper, we have never been more disconnected, or so it would seem…

In a time of despair, frustration, and sadness, it is all too easy to miss the positive things that are happening. Folklore – the beliefs, customs, and traditions of communities – has kept many of us going, whether we realise it or not. This blog will analyse the way that digital and physical expressions of folklore have been used to keep people connected during the COVID-19 health crisis, and will demonstrate the ways that folklore has and can be used as a force for good. It will also demonstrate many of the theories surrounding contemporary ritual and tradition and how those theories can be applied to the study of folklore in the modern, digital age.