Jordan here once again to chat with you about our Appalachian folklore. Last week, we talked about the role material culture can play as a response to COVID-19 and structural racism. This week, I want to talk with you about our customary practices, which are the things we — the folk — do.
Customary practices can include dances and gestures, rituals and rites of passage, as well as celebrations and holidays. Throwing up a peace sign? That’s a customary practice! Flatfooting like a dancing outlaw? Customary practice. Trick-or-treating for Halloween or decorating an altar for Día de Muertos? All of these are customary practices, or informally-learned actions that we participate and engage in as we interact in our small groups.
Some of our most common and recognizable customary practices are seen through holiday traditions. Celebratory holidays generally occur around the same time each year and remind us that, despite the passage of time, there are still consistencies in the world that can provide comfort or routine.
As we near the end of 2020, there are many calendar customs to observe here in Appalachia. Autumn is a big time of year for celebratory events in my hometown of Pineville, West Virginia, where we usually have a Lumberjackin’ Bluegrassin’ Jamboree, an Autumn Fest (complete with chili cook-off, pumpkin-carving contest and hayrides), and — of course — Halloween.
Much like our people, our practices and traditions travel around, shape us and are shaped by us in the process of enactment throughout time and space. Folklorist Jack Santino has traced Halloween all the way back to Samhain, an ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of harvest, the beginning of winter and the time when the living could interact with the souls of the dead as they journeyed to the underworld.
According to Santino, Christian missionaries sought to change, diminish or eliminate Celtic holidays like Samhain, so they linked the Celtic underworld to Christian Hell and attempted to substitute Samhain with the feast of All Saints (or All Hallows) Day on November 1st. This attempted substitution gave rise to All Hallows Eve or Hallow Evening, where the dead, the supernatural and the living mingled. Offerings of food and drink were set out for wandering spirits, and this practice, alongside dressing in costumes and traveling door-to-door (mumming), evolved into trick-or-treating.
In rural parts of Appalachia where trick-or-treating is often difficult, we can see another evolution or variation of the practice take place: the candy tailgate. This is a great example of how the folk innovate or variate traditional practices to fit our needs.
The transition from October to November is also home to another holiday gaining traction in Appalachia: Día de Muertos. Although Halloween and Día de Muertos both have connections to the missionary attempts of substituting traditional customary practices with Christian ones, like All Saints Day, they are not interchangeable holidays. Día de Muertos, a traditional celebration that has traveled to our region from Mexico, is actually more similar to Appalachian Decoration Day rituals where we honor those we’ve lost and their spiritual journeys, celebrate how the living are connected to the dead and share a meal.
As Samhain, Halloween, Decoration Day and Día de Muertos all remind us, though, our calendar customs and practices in the mountains provide a time and space to reflect on beginnings and endings, life and death and all the traditional folk things we do that remind us of the transition from one to the other.
As we inch closer to the end of this calendar year, I invite you to find creative, expressive ways to commemorate all those lives tragically stolen from us this year, to honor and celebrate their journeys, and to remember and respect their deaths.
Thanks again for following along, and I’ll see y’all next week!