#FolkloreThursday: Customary Folklore

#FolkloreThursday: Customary Folklore May 4, 2017

When folklore crosses into the realm of religion, ritual, festival, and holiday, we consider it customary folklore: cultural materials people learn traditionally.

Performing folk dance to folk music at a festival event (Flint Creek RenFaire).
Performing folk dance to folk music at a festival event (Flint Creek RenFaire).

In the first post in this three-part series, I defined verbal folklore as all the various types of folklore that are expressed orally/aurally/linguistically. Here, I’ll describe customary folklore, which is based more in the realm of actions and beliefs.

There is, of course, some debate as to where these broad categories begin and end. I lump traditional behaviors and beliefs into the same category, while Lynne McNeill considers them separately in her book Folklore Rules. Here’s her take on both areas:

When it comes to things we do, we’re entering an incredibly broad area of folklore studies. Customs (like holiday traditions), gestures (like a thumbs-up or flipping someone off), parties (like costume parties or tea parties), rituals (like fraternity or sorority initiations, or bar mitzvahs), celebrations (like sixteenth of twenty-first birthday parties), dances (like the two-step, the “Macarena,” the electric slide, the chicken dance), games (like kick the can, tag, capture the flag, and four-square)…these are all things we do, and since many of them exist in forms that we learn informally, from our experiences in regular, everyday life, they fall under the purview of folklore. The quality these things all share in common, of course, is that they require some kind of action–some type of body movement or physical participation in the tradition. (44)

[T]he category of things we believe overlaps with all the other forms of folklore quite regularly. As a discrete form of folklore, however, the phrase “folk belief” is commonly understood to refer to superstitions, legends, and beliefs about the supernatural. Now, there’s one very important thing to note at the outset of any discussion about folk belief, and that is that folklore can be true. It certainly isn’t always true, despite often being believed, but the classification of something as folklore does not mean that it’s specifically not true (56, italics in original).

Again, my take is that it’s easier to lump in belief with behavior, though there are reasons to do it otherwise. I tend to view belief as difficult to articulate unless there’s an actionable component to it; this is part of why folk ideas and worldview are so tough to isolate and study.

Jan Brunvand talks about customary folklore as follows:

Customary folklore, which often involves both verbal and nonverbal elements, includes folk beliefs and superstitions, folk customs and festivals, folk dances and dramas, traditional gestures, and folk games. (11)

As has been observed, much of folklore is already customary in nature, at least in terms of its transmission. Even when we’re talking about a pretty straight-up verbal genre of folklore, like a narrative, in folkloric contexts the active bearers of that narrative would likely have learned how to be a good storyteller through observation, not necessarily through reading a book or taking a college course on the subject.

But the experience or performance of customary folklore is especially, well, experiential. This relates to McNeill’s observation: “Thus, the modes of transmission for this kind of folklore are largely observational. Unlike a legend, which can be e-mailed as easily as told in person, it’s not so easy to e-mail someone a Thanksgiving dinner celebration. Maybe you could e-mail someone an aspect of the custom, like a photo of the turkey or a copy of the toast someone gave, but not the whole experience” (44).

Brunvand echoes McNeill’s emphasis on the experiential aspect of customary folklore, noting: “Placing a folksinger’s lyrics in one category, his or her guitar-playing style and melody in another, and the call and figures of a dance done to the same song in a third is not intended to lead to fragmentation of either the tradition involved or the study of it…Without an awareness of these elements of a traditional performance, there would be a tendency simply to tape-record ‘the song’ without capturing its context or nonverbal nuances” (11). So, we’re aiming for as much holistic analysis as possible, aided by these categories rather than constrained by them.

This is a major area where religion and folklore intersect, too: the spaces where beliefs and behaviors unite the human and divine or supernatural worlds. As always, our mission as folklorists is to document and analyze without necessarily judging. That said, I find it useful to approach belief as a mostly-atheist/agnostic type of person, yearning for the empirical while being open-minded about things I don’t understand yet.

Examples of customary folklore genres include:

There are always more, but those are some of the major ones I’ve written about. What sorts of customary folklore do you engage in?



Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].

McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.

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