What is a Folk Custom?

What is a folk custom?

Hello, and welcome to the Folklore & Fiction newsletter. In this edition, I'm writing about folk customs with help from scholars Richard Sweterlitsch and Wayland Hand, author Naomi Novik, and friends Vigdís Andersen and Sveinn Svavarsson, among others. This edition of the newsletter marks a departure from folkloric belief and the beginning of a broad-strokes introduction to various folklore genres designed to fill the rest of the year. Each of the upcoming topics is widely studied by folklorists, but because they're less immediately applicable to writers, I'll only be glossing them. However, the structure of the newsletter will remain the same, and my hope is that you'll find something useful in the material for world-building, setting, and dialogue. Next year, I'll be starting something altogether new!

Folkloric Discussion of Folk Customs

Customs are traditional and expected ways of doing things, and they are performed with enough regularity that they become part of a group's social conventions. Calendrical customs are associated with particular times of the year, rites of passage are associated with life transitions, festivals may honour notable individuals or commemorate significant events, and other customs may be related to beliefs held in common by a group (Sweterlitsch 1997, 168). Folk customs occupy a middle ground between oral traditions like storytelling and material culture like pottery, and they emphasize group interaction rather than individual skills and performances. They may be large-scale and general, like Christmas celebrations, or they may be specific and local, like an annual festival memorializing a village's founding mother (Dorson 1972, 3). They tend to cross categories as well. An example of this can be found in the English folk custom of telling the bees about a death in the family, which is arguably part of the deceased's last rite of passage and part of a belief that "Failure to inform the bees of a death, particularly the death of the master, would cause them either to die or depart" (Hand 1970, 152).

I recently reached out to Icelandic friends Sveinn Svavarsson and Vigdís Andersen for more information about another rite of passage, one I encountered while visiting them in 2017. They had just welcomed their second child into the world, but while I had an opportunity to meet and hold him, I didn't learn his name until some weeks later. This is because in Iceland, it is customary for parents to keep secret the name of a newborn child until he is baptized. Sveinn writes that "Back in the day people did not want the name of the child being passed around for gossip before the name and the child could be blessed by Jesus. However, as a result the word skírn (baptism) is commonly confused with name giving. And a lot of people use the word skírn when naming pets, airplanes and ships...but there is also a lot of people fighting against the broadening of the meaning so you hear some people complaining saying, 'you are not really baptizing that airplane, you just gave it a name'" (Andersen and Svavarsson 2020). Vigdís discusses the custom as it relates to her family's practice of it, writing that "In relation to our own boys names, we weren't firm on the names 100% when they where born and I personally wanted to get to know them better to be sure I felt they fitted them. That being said I didn't feel that Svavar fitted the younger one (that's why I insisted on calling him by his middle name Diðrik) but now I think he rocks that name and call him that every now and then though Diðrik is primary" (Andersen and Svavarsson 2020). Sveinn adds: "In my personal opinion on when to tell the name of the child is that it is the normal thing to do to tell the name after a while or during some sort of ceremony, which could be a baptism or a name giving ceremony/party" (Andersen and Svavarsson 2020).

This example of folk custom gives us a lot to unpack. Historically, it was important to preserve the child and his name from negative gossip, and this was done by withholding the latter until the child was baptized. But as a result, the Icelandic word for baptism came to be used for naming in general, though that usage is presently contested in Iceland. More personally, Diðrik's parents thought his naming and introduction to the community were worthy of special ceremony, and they took the time between his birth and rite of passage to make certain the names they selected for him were a good fit. There are rich layers of meaning here; historical, linguistic, and personal, which is why folklorists are careful to study customs not by category but in the contexts of the discrete groups who keep them and the individuals who find meaning in them.

Now let's take a look at a folk custom in fiction.

How Folk Customs Have Been Used in Fiction Writing

Here, Naomi Novik subverts the trope of the maiden devoured by a dragon and introduces us to a calendrical folk custom in which a young woman is given to a wizard every ten years in exchange for his protection:

Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.

He doesn’t devour them really; it only feels that way. He takes a girl to his tower, and ten years later he lets her go, but by then she’s someone different. Her clothes are too fine and she talks like a courtier and she’s been living alone with a man for ten years, so of course she’s ruined, even though the girls all say he never puts a hand on them. What else could they say? And that’s not the worst of it—after all, the Dragon gives them a purse full of silver for their dowry when he lets them go, so anyone would be happy to marry them, ruined or not.

But they don’t want to marry anyone. They don’t want to stay at all (Novik 2015, chap. 1).

I selected this passage because the custom itself is the scaffolding for the first chapter, and we learn most of what we need to know about it in three short paragraphs. It takes place every ten years, its primary participants are young women and a wizard called the Dragon, the surrender of a young woman secures the Dragon's protection, the young woman chosen by the Dragon is changed by the experience, and there is a great deal of negative gossip about the arrangement outside the valley. Later in the chapter, we learn how the folk custom is enacted. It takes place during a harvest feast (which is itself a folk custom), the young women dress for it in their finest clothes, and the Dragon comes to choose from among them. We also learn how Agnieszka, the protagonist in the novel, feels about the whole business:

He wasn’t evil, but he was distant and terrible. And he was going to take Kasia away, so I hated him, and had hated him for years and years.

My feelings didn’t change on that last night. Kasia and I ate our chestnuts. The sun went down and our fire went out, but we lingered in the clearing as long as the embers lasted. We didn’t have a long way to go in the morning. The harvest feast was usually held in Olshanka, but in a choosing year, it was always held in a village where at least one of the girls lived, to make the travel a little easier for their families. And our village had Kasia.

I hated the Dragon even more the next day, putting on my new green overdress. My mother’s hands were shaking as she braided up my hair. We knew it would be Kasia, but that didn’t mean we weren’t still afraid. But I held my skirts up high off the ground and climbed into the wagon as carefully as I could, looking twice for splinters and letting my father help me. I was determined to make a special effort. I knew it was no use, but I wanted Kasia to know that I loved her enough to give her a fair chance. I wasn’t going to make myself look a mess or squint-eyed or slouching, the way girls sometimes did.

We gathered on the village green, all eleven of us girls in a line. The feasting-tables were set out in a square, loaded too heavily because they weren’t really big enough to hold the tribute of the entire valley. Everyone had gathered behind them. Sacks of wheat and oats were piled up on the grass at the corners in pyramids. We were the only ones standing on the grass, with our families and our headwoman Danka, who paced nervously back and forth in front of us, her mouth moving silently while she practiced her greeting (Novik 2015, chap. 1).

How Folk Customs Might Be Used in Fiction Writing

Now that you've read a bit about folk customs, here are some questions I hope will be helpful as you think about creating one of your own:

  • What is the history of your fictional folk custom?
  • Is your fictional folk custom calendrical, a rite of passage, a festival, related to a folk belief, or a combination of these?
  • How is your fictional folk custom practiced among the wealthy? Among the working class? Among people living in cities? Among rural people? Etc.?
  • How has the practice of your fictional folk custom influenced other parts of your fictional culture?
  • Is your fictional folk custom viewed positively by some people and negatively by others? If so, why? (I'm thinking about the annual Orange Walks held in Northern Ireland as I write this.)
  • What nuances of meaning do individuals and family groups bring to their personal practices of your fictional folk custom?
  • How might any of the above change in situations of migration from Earth to another world? Among societies that enforce class equality? In family groups containing multiple male and female parents? Etc.?

An Exercise in Writing with Folk Customs

This month, I'm giving you an exercise in writing fan fiction. In column A, I've selected three famous fictional planets for you to choose from and provided a link to the Wikipedia page about each one. In column B, I've listed three kinds of folk custom. In column C, I've listed three events that could occasion a folk custom. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to combine one item from A, B, and C into a short paragraph describing a fictional folk custom using the questions in the above section of the newsletter for help. Best of luck!

 

Planet (A) Folk Custom (B) Event (C)
Alderaan Calendar Custom A Fruit Harvest
Arrakis Festival A Week of Theatrical Performances by a Local Troupe
Vulcan Rite of Passage The Wedding of a Prominent Citizen

 

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! I'll be back next month with the summer solstice newsletter, which is devoted to folkloric elements in my own fiction.

Bibliography

  • Andersen, Vigdís, and Sveinn Svavarsson. 2020. ‘Icelandic Naming Customs’, 28 April 2020.
  • Dorson, Richard Mercer. 1972. ‘Introduction’. In Folklore and Folklife: An Introduction, edited by Richard Mercer Dorson, 159–72. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hand, Wayland D. 1970. ‘Anglo-American Folk Belief and Custom: The Old World’s Legacy to the New’. Journal of the Folklore Institute 7 (2/3): 136–55.
  • Novik, Naomi. 2015. Uprooted. Del Rey.
  • Sweterlitsch, Richard. 1997. ‘Custom’. In Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, edited by Thomas A. Green, 168–72. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Monthly Folklore Archive Link

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in April 2020.


My name is Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran. I'm a PhD candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and I'm also a speculative fiction writer under the pseudonym C.S. MacCath. The Folklore & Fiction newsletter synthesizes these passions with a focus on folkloric scholarship aimed at writers. You'll find the newsletter archive (and the rest of my work) online at csmaccath.com.