Folklore, Celebrations, And Rites Of Passage

I’ve written about the intersections of folklore and sexuality in the past. Now, with the upcoming holiday season, I’d like to focus on two aspects of folklore – celebrations and rites of passage – that are both relevant and interesting to discuss, especially in light of gender and sexuality.

If we define folklore as expressive culture, then most holiday celebrations are informed by and can be categorized as folklore. Whether the holidays or festivals celebrated today are sacred or secular or some mix of both, when people gather in groups they display important aspects of their identities. To be sure, holidays in America are also influenced by pop culture and the mass media, not to mention capitalism and commercialism.

But I’ve found, especially in teaching units on holidays to my students in the folklore classroom, that holidays remain meaningful at the level of the family unit. When I ask my students about their families’ Thanksgiving food practices, anecdotes and descriptions emerge and are shared with smiles and laughter. The point I’m usually trying to get across – that group celebrations tell us something about the values of that group, while also reinforcing those values – becomes obvious the more we talk and share.

Similarly, rites of passage emerge (in both classroom discussion and the real world) as a meaningful way that individuals and groups display and shift identities. In folklore and anthropology, we define rites of passage as initiations designed to move someone from one social identity to another. This is accomplished through rituals (repetitive, symbolic actions) and it usually occurs in three parts (separation, liminality, reincorporation). Examples of rites of passage include baptism, marriage, sweet sixteen birthdays, quinceañeras, graduations, and so on.

Everyone participates in rites of passage throughout their lives, whether as the main participants or spectators (usually both at some point). From a folklore perspective, it’s fun and interesting to talk about how traditions are transformed over time to reveal a shift in people’s values. This is true from a gender and sexuality perspective, as well.

For instance, when we talk about weddings, the experiences of the (traditionally heterosexual) bride and groom are bifurcated according to gender. Not only are many of the rituals (bachelor parties, wedding showers, bouquet tossing) gender-specific, but the meaning of going from single to married also changes depending on your view of sexuality (like whether people should not have penetrative sex until marriage or whether the point of marriage is procreation).

Similarly, gender and sexuality emerge as important organizing factors when talking about holidays. When we discuss, for instance, Thanksgiving, the focus tends to revolve around food: which foods are traditional in your family/ethnicity/region, what happens when innovations crop up and are either accepted and rejected, and so on. But who prepares the food? Who cleans up after it, sets the table, deals with the leftovers? Food preparation is gendered in many cultures still. And as people grow up and elect to spend holidays with “chosen family” rather than bio-family, sexual identity is a frequent factor in who you want to be around during important times (well – not just sexual identity, but how your family, however defines, reacts to and accepts your sexual identity).

How we celebrate matters. Who we celebrate with matters. Every study of culture must take into account joyful and playful times as well as serious and transformative times. And let’s not forget – everyone can relate to celebrations!

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About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.