(and why this should become an important part of your family tradition)
Thanksgiving Day in America has caused this week's post to be a day late. I trust all US Folkloristic readers have enjoyed some time with friends and family — and at the very least a long weekend.
The Christmas season is now full on. It's "Black Friday" as I write this, and I, for one, am thankful to be sitting at a table overlooking trees and dull, gray sky with a coffee and a laptop writing this post, rather than in a line at Best Buy fighting someone over a TV.
Today is the day the Christmas tsunami breaks on America - retail-ly speaking. Christmas music started in October this year for some reason. Now it's full swing Andy Williams everywhere.
There is an Andy Williams song which has confused me over the years. The song "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" has a line about telling "scary ghost stories" and "tales of Christmases long ago."
Ghost stories? That seems odd to most of us. Perhaps we'll explore the victorian tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve in another post. However, I do wonder if the opportunity for the general telling of stories during the holidays is something we have mistakenly overlooked.
When generations gather, there is an opportunity for stories to pass, and I believe this is an opportunity we shouldn't miss.
That's the very definition of folklore. And this is something we should care about.
This speaks to one of the big questions I wish to answer in this place, over time: "Why should folklore be important to North Americans?"
Stories are important for every culture. And stories may be more important in present day North America than ever before.
Stories connect us with our heritage.
It's interesting to observe increased advertising and interest in sites like ancestery.com — where you can have your DNA tested to find out how your family immigrated to the US. (Mildly ironic, in light of increased anti-immigration sentiment which has become so politically popular in recent days.) Perhaps we've lost connection to heritage because we've lost connection to family stories. The tradition of story-telling at family events is being lost because we don't ask the older generations to tell their stories — and they don't get passed along. This leaves future generations in a place of insecure foundations and an unnerving sense of rootlessness. We need stories to stay connected with our past, whatever that past may have looked like.
Stories cause us to feel.
This is not a researched conclusion. Nor is it some kind of social/anti-technology commentary. But I do wonder if technology has made us less empathetic than we might be. Could reality TV and movies and video games somehow be making us less sensitive to the very real pain others feel? Could our entertainment choices be desensitizing us to the media's narrative of war, displaced peoples, and racial and social inequity, causing us to distance ourselves emotionally from those realities? Don't know for sure. But I wonder.
There are studies which have proven that literary fiction, in particular does increase empathy. A story told properly will allow us to enter into another persons plight and to potentially feel their pain. And allow their pain to change us.
I remember the first time I saw tears in my Dad's eyes. It was while he was telling a story to my brother and I about a time he'd taken advantage of one of his friends as a little kid. Even as a child, I could feel his regret for what I know to be uncharacteristically mean behavior. From hearing his story, I knew I didn't ever want to be a perpetrator. His story made me a better person and more aware of others — not just that day, but for the rest of my life. It was a story passed down, lore, if you will, which changed me.
Stories help us to see what is real.
Especially folklore, because folklore is intrinsically connected to what is real. By definition, folklore is "tales of the people". Folklore (and ensuing myth and legend) are stories that orient us as a culture. These stories motivate us, as well. Thus it is so critical for our North American society to pass along the right stories that will help us understand our current realities.
In being aware of our own stories, tales, myths and legends, we become more aware of ourselves and our history.
The telling and perhaps, more importantly, the re-telling of stories is peculiarly important to the North American context. As a relatively young society, the United States, being a cultural "melting pot," has a tendency to be culturally shallow. I wonder if we would find our culture deepened, as we learn to extract, record, and retell our family stories? Generational stories. The stories which make us who we are. The lore of our own folk.
As we step into the holiday season, what are some of the stories important to your family?
- Ask. At a family gathering over the holiday season, sit down with one person who is of a different generation than you — and ask questions about their childhood and teenage years or early adult years. Ask them what they remember about their parents or Grandparents or uncles or aunts. Ask about their school; their worries and their fears. Ask them what they remember of family and living conditions. Ask them about anything you find interesting.
- Listen. It's a rare and valuable gift. Give it. Turn off your phone and give undistracted attention and interest to someone in your family. It's the most humanizing thing anyone could do for anyone.
- Record. When you finish listening, record what was said in whatever way serves you best. Use the voice recorder on your phone, a journal or a notebook, or a piece of software like Evernote or the Day One Journal.
- Retell. Tell the stories of the older generations to those who are of the younger generation. Tell them publicly and (when appropriate) online, with a blog or a Tumblr. Use them to illustrate whenever possible. Life lessons. Business lessons. The possibilities are endless, really. Re-tell the stories of your people. Your family. Your folk.
Post in the comments some of your family stories, which you feel free to publicly tell. We'd love to hear some of them.
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