Family Folklore

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Family Folklore

Family folklore encompasses the traditional expressions that people make, say, and do in the constitution of family life and in consideration of family members, events, and history. Traditional expressive behavior helps members identify themselves as a family group over space and time and provides knowledge about appropriate actions and ways to find meaning in the world. Material culture connected with family life may include the vernacular architecture of homes and other arts learned in families. Folklorists are increasingly interested in the production or display of items significant to the family, including heirlooms, quilts, crafts, photographs, home videos, and other memory objects. Traditional verbal expressions important to families include names, songs, stories, sayings, proverbs, riddles, and inside jokes. Customary expressions play an essential part in family life and often incorporate verbal and material traditions also. These customs may occur as daily and weekly routines as well as annual, seasonal, or life-cycle events. Some customs practiced by families move members through the day from songs in the morning, to games at midday, and to bedtime stories or lullabies before a night's rest. Customary actions can help family members assign household chores and responsibilities, maintain gardens and animals, prepare and consume food, and negotiate shared living space. Life-cycle events mark changes and transformations in the family involving birth, puberty, marriage, migrations, reunions, and death. Holidays and festivals unite the family with wider communities.

The identification of three major types of family folklore matches the categories of material, verbal, and customary lore that folklorists in the United States have used to study their field since the 1970s. The role of folklore in family life can be better understood by considering some specific forms of folklore in each major category. Material culture has been overlooked by some folklorists interested in customs and spoken traditions, whereas other folklorists have noted the significance of artifacts in understanding a group's way of life. Many families around the world still live in structures constructed with traditional designs and local materials, and most families manipulate their built environment to match their needs. The arrangement of objects and of domestic living space can both reflect and influence the values and identities of family members. In The Dynamics of Folklore, Barre Toelken (1996) describes the initial worldview of a baby in Anglo or European cultures who lives in a home with flat, painted ceilings, a crib with sharp angles, and distance from other family members. He compares this with a Navajo child in a traditional hogan, surrounded by a domed roof of mud and stones, a cradleboard that allows an upright view, and integration with family activities. Folklorist Henry Glassie (1999) includes photographs and drawings of family dwellings in Sweden, Turkey, England, Wales, Ireland, Bangladesh, and several areas of the United States in Material Culture. Glassie indicates that the structure, materials, interior layout, and decoration of houses reflect and influence the knowledge and culture of individuals, families, and their communities.

Physical buildings and their interior furnishings may or may not identify residents as family members, but dwelling places often provide physical and symbolic shelter for families. Many cultures divide living space and attendant duties according to gender or age; some cultures by economic necessity or by deeply held beliefs minimize divisions of public and private space. Therefore, the production and arrangement of objects and space can play an important role in how a family signifies and understands relationships among members, between the genders, and with other community members. Many folklorists interested in material culture value objects made by hand using traditional methods and materials. Skills for making these items are often learned and shared in families. Some of these arts include weaving, welding, pottery, woodworking, quilting, basketry, cooking, and painting. Sometimes the artifacts actually make up the home, whereas at other times the objects are used functionally for household chores or for decoration. Michael Owen Jones (1987), a folklorist interested in material culture, points out that even home remodeling allows for the personalization of space. Jones discusses ways that people change suburban homes to serve better the needs and values of the residents. Folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (1989) writes how everyday objects inside houses, such as a wooden kitchen spoon, can be material companions from childhood to old age, whereas souvenirs and collections can be acquired and displayed in a home to evoke memories and reflection. The artifacts that family members make, use, or display can be an unseen backdrop to the duties and demands of family life. Alternatively, they might be carefully crafted statements about the values and expectations of family tradition bearers. Family stories, photos, and memories often can be associated with the decorations and details of family dwelling places and ancestral homes.

The verbal art of family life also has an early and lasting impact on families. Naming traditions, courtship stories, songs, sayings, and inside jokes identify individual family members and explain how the family came to be. Oral traditions connect the family to ancestors or to other significant groups such as religious or ethnic communities. Most cultures have preferences for what names are acceptable, who selects the name, and how the name is given. Families that adhere to certain religions may follow conventions of naming children for saints or prophets. Parents also may select names to remind children of their ethnic heritage. Jacqueline Thursby (1999) notes that third-generation Basque Americans often select ancestral or mythic Basque names, such as Argia (meaning light), to perpetuate their cultural heritage. Other families tell stories of ancestors whose names were anglicized upon migration. Elizabeth Stone's (1988) grandmother was Annunziata Bongiorno in Sicily and became known as Nancy Bonney after emigration to the United States. Because she knew a story about Annunziata's mother running away to marry the postman, Stone associates her great-grandmother with the founding of her family. Although she has other great-grandparents and ancestors, Stone believes her family started with the strong-willed act of the first Annunziata. Families can include great diversity in personalities and historical circumstances; the possibilities of closeness and unity are challenged exponentially by the past and the future. Names, stories, sayings, and songs can be a resource to maintain coherence and to recognize or construct continuities in family history.

Although not every family has lengthy stories about ancestors or important happenings, many families have stores of stories, sayings, songs, and humorous incidents that can be alluded to with key phrases. Children in many cultures are taught values, reasoning skills, and appropriate behavior through proverbs and riddles. These verbal expressions deal with recurring human experiences such as humorous predicaments or hardships, and they teach family members values and attitudes for responding to life events. However, each family knows and understands a unique repertoire. Folklorist William A. Wilson (1991) explains that these stories and sayings are comparable to a family novel that requires knowing the contexts of family events and the various character traits of family members to fully understand and appreciate. Steven J. Zeitlin, Amy J. Kotkin, and Holly Cutting Baker (1992) include family expressions in their collection of U.S. family folklore; these expressions demonstrate the creativity and useful shorthand of allusions in family life. Families use phrases such as "easy hands" and "my shoes are too big" to allude to inside jokes about making excuses for poor behavior. Some families attuned to the power of music use songs to accompany household duties, as well as to mark transitions and celebrations. The combination of words and music makes particularly strong memories that often are eagerly shared over generations.

Customary practices can be significant in daily family life and throughout the human life-cycle. With the invention and availability of cameras and other forms of documentation, families have tended to capture and preserve images of their celebration of holidays and festivals. Zeitlin (1992) quotes Carol Maas, who notes that family pictures in the United States document the same recurring images, including Christmas trees and families behind a birthday cake. Cakes and Christmas trees or other appropriate objects assume significance in celebrations; usually stories, songs, and sayings are repeated among family members during these events as well. The presence of the camera also demonstrates that technology can be embraced by families to document and perpetuate traditions. Larry Danielson (1996), a folklorist, has noted that technology and the media affect but do not necessarily displace family traditions. Often families use technology and transportation to gather physically or to share images across distances. Some families in a cultural or religious diaspora, or affected in other ways by migrations, may make pilgrimages to distant sites important to their heritage. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (1996) discusses the transnational ironies and different meanings that he and family members experienced on a pilgrimage to Meenaksi Temple in South India. Participating in and documenting customs allows family members to identify changes and continuities in the family structure. Traditions provide images and symbols that members use to find or question their place in the family and the world.

Folklorists have considered traditional daily practices and the religious observances and occupational traditions that may affect families in significant ways. Folklore archives contain many examples of family customs, some gathered by students. "Valuing, Preserving, and Transmitting Family Traditions," by folklorists Jill Terry Rudy, Eric Eliason, and Kristi Bell (2000), includes family customs from an archives collection. In the collection, students note that parents wake them up by singing lines from the Brigham Young University fight song, "Rise and shout, the Cougars are out!" Other parents sing, "Good Morning, Mary Sunshine," or "You Are My Sunshine." Siblings in a variety of locations claim to have invented games like "Hot Lava," where they jump from item to item and avoid touching the floor because it is hot lava. Most students admit that these games are created and played out of boredom, but stories about them later bring happy memories. Many families maintain mealtimes not only to eat together but to exchange stories and riddles; some families share ways of preparing and serving food that are important everyday, on weekends, or for holidays. Janet Goode, Janet Theophano, and Karen Curtis (1984) note that food is used by families to maintain, negotiate, and display ethnic identity. From carpet weaving and musical performance to firefighting and medical professions, families occasionally establish occupational traditions as well. Occupational traditions can inform a person's daily activities, leisure, and many aspects of identity. Religious commitment also can affect identity and stem from and contribute to family traditions. Grace at meals, prayer, and religious devotions promote gratitude and instill a sense of the sacred in family life. Religious traditions can serve families in times of adversity and struggle as well. Traditions mark the spaces and bridge the times of family life. Traditional artifacts, sayings, and customs identify family members as part of a group and help confirm or adjust values and behaviors.

Functions and Values of Folklore for Family Relationships

Margaret Yocom (1997) mentions that L. Karen Baldwin called families the social base for folklore. There is a difference, however, between families as the social base for folklore and folklore as the social and expressive base for families. The Zeitlin collection of U.S. family folklore and other works suggest that traditional expressions serve key functions in establishing and maintaining family relationships and values. Zeitlin and his colleagues (1992) indicate that families select images and traits that match their beliefs to perpetuate as traditions. Families use these traditions to present themselves to themselves, to characterize each other, and to note important transitional events as they memorialize the family. Selecting who can and cannot appear in a family photograph, for example, demonstrates the boundaries of the group. Both Danielson (1994) and Yocom (1997) emphasize defining family is variable and that dysfunctional and untraditional families, households, and committed relationships should be included in family lore studies. Toelken (1996) discusses immediate families; horizontal families of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents; vertical families of ancestors; and ethnic families from larger dynamic units that family members affiliate with. Toelken also asserts that traditional expressions develop a family sense of "us" that is distinguishable from other groups. Because family often is the first group a person knows, the habits and assumptions acquired through family traditions shape perception and experience in profound ways. Most people require belonging to a group and the stability of the familiar and the intrigue of the unfamiliar as traditions are repeated and altered.

Folklorist William Bascom (1965) identifies four functions of folklore that also work in the family folk group. He asserts that folklore serves to (1) amuse, (2) validate culture, (3) educate, and (4) maintain conformity. Families retell stories and celebrate holidays and events because they are entertained by their lore and by each other. Bascom notes that there usually is more than amusement going on when folklore is being performed. He acknowledges that some traditions invite fantasy and creativity, allowing people to imagine living in a better situation or escaping the limitations of life and death. However, these fantasies often release tension to prepare group members to accept or adapt to their life situations. Moreover, if family members question how things actually are, often there is a tradition to validate what the family stands for and to indicate how members should behave. Stone recounts the story of a blond, blue-eyed family that told stories about failed marriages with dark-haired men. To perpetuate the family as a unit over space and time, often traditions will validate previous behaviors and attitudes even if other options are appealing or even more viable. Traditions thus have a function to educate, primarily to instruct on how to act and live. Bascom notes from his research in Africa that children in nonliterate societies primarily are taught by stories, sayings, and ceremonies. Families can use traditions to teach appropriate behavior and to gently or openly reprimand members for making unacceptable decisions. Finally, Bascom asserts that folklore will be used as an "internalized check on behavior" to encourage conformity to group values. Although Bascom sees folklore performances as maintaining the status quo, traditions also can be altered to allow families to recognize themselves in spite of new attitudes or circumstances.

Family members come to know each other as performers of particular stories or customs, and they often relate to each other by deferring to the person who best knows the tradition. Toelken (1996) calls this "traditional deference," noting that often many family members know how to perform a tradition but allow or expect one person to be the primary performer. Although seldom a formal process of selection, traditional deference occurs with respect for age, ability, interest, or custom itself. Sometimes when the primary performer becomes incapable of continuing the tradition, others can readily step in to make the baskets, organize the holiday celebration, or tell the joke. Other times, the tradition has become so associated with one person that it must be radically altered or can no longer be practiced when that person is no longer available. The willing and easy sharing of traditions among family members can be a source of pride and unity, but disagreements over heirlooms or other invisible traits may indicate strained areas of family relationships. Although associating stories or artifacts with particular family members may cause contention, the informal distribution of traditional performances among family members can enhance identity, esteem, and bonding. Family folklore helps members relate to each other, know each other's moods and talents, and learn how to adapt relationships when changes occur.

International Scholarship and Applications of Family Folklore

Obviously folklorists find many elements of family life under the rubric of traditional expressive behavior. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, two brothers with a keen interest in their German language and traditions, encouraged collecting lore in the nineteenth century through their publication of household tales and legends. Scholars around the world became inspired to find and publish traditional materials. With brothers and other father-son or husband-wife pairs as founding figures, family has been an important aspect of folklore studies. However, family lore was not an early interest of scholars. Often folklorists collected tales, ballads, or games that belonged to a particular national group, or they tried to trace international similarities and differences. The focus on larger groups throughout the early twentieth century tended to obscure the traits and talents of individuals and specific families. Even when folklorists collected from family members, they focused on the songs, stories, or artifacts rather than on the function of lore in family life. Folklorist Mody Boatright has been identified by Yocom (1997) as one of the first to focus specifically on family folklore in his 1958 study of family sagas. By the 1970s, more folklorists studied and considered the family as the primary and essential group for the perpetuation and performance of folklore.

The traditional expressive behaviors studied by folklorists also have been researched as family ritual in other disciplines and presented in museum exhibits and web sites. Folklorists emphasize the description, function, and aesthetics of traditional behaviors, whereas family studies scholars tend to investigate the analytic, evaluative, and therapeutic elements. Family studies scholars may come to their study through clinical work with families, such as those dealing with alcoholism, and folklorists often study families who focus on artistic elements of family traditions. The folkloric approach can be enhanced by efforts to assess the efficacy of traditions in creating healthy family life, and the family studies approach can be enriched by attention to the artful and symbolic aspects of traditional behaviors. Folklorists teach community members how to document family lore through web sites, community organizations, and museums. The web site My History is America's History, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, includes ways to document family traditions and artifacts. A traveling exhibit of the Vermont Folklife Center, Family Stories, Family Sagas, features six New England families from a variety of ethnic and religious affiliations. Units on family folklore, such as Louisiana Voices and FOLKPATTERNS, help school and community groups teach children how to interview family members and preserve artifacts and photos. Radio programs and scholarly research focus on family stories, on African-American family reunions, and on family, childhood, and material culture in Europe. Although family historian John Gillis (1996) asserts that families are a world of their own making, increasingly important and fragile in contemporary society, family folklore reminds that families connect with wider communities such as ethnic, religious, or occupational groups. Family traditions are performed as practical responses to daily demands of family life as well as hopeful bridges between generations of time and space.

See also:Family Rituals; Family Stories and Myths; Food; Housing; Intergenerational Transmission


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jill terry rudy

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Family Folklore

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