The concept of “tradition” has long compelled folklorists. What is a tradition, and where does it come from? While in its daily usage this term seems to have many meanings, folklorists apply this hallowed but rather slippery concept to many expressive practices, including traditional music, traditional arts, and traditional performances.
Since at least the 1970s, however, folklorists have also understood tradition to be not one static thing, but rather a shifting concept, a moving target. Dell Hymes used the term “traditionalized” to suggest the social process through which something becomes traditional. Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin in 1984 defined it as “not a bounded entity made up of bounded constituent parts, but a process of interpretation, attributing meaning in the present through making reference to the past.”
As the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic came and went in March 2021, this process of finding meaning in the present by looking to the past perhaps seemed ever more relevant. As the stories in Folklife Magazine’s Chronicling Culture in Crisis series demonstrate, the ways we interacted with one another were influenced profoundly: festivals were canceled, religious services took on new forms, and grandchildren went unhugged.
But so many in our communities were also adapting and rising to meet the pandemic’s unforgettable obstacles in surprising ways, while still keeping their eyes on the past. They created new memories with loved ones and community members, and returned to the social practices that brought them joy. In the words of Ray Cashman, Tom Mould, and Pravina Shukla in The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives, “we all use elements of the past to meet our needs in the present and our hopes for the future, in the process we make tradition our own, leaving our marks…they are all simultaneously autobiography, a reflection of the self as forged in the shaping and re-shaping of tradition.”
Throughout the pandemic, the staff members and interns of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage were no different. Some used their artistic abilities to help their communities, while others mustered their creativity to come together and connect with loved ones in new ways. Curator Diana N’Diaye, for instance, began sewing masks, while intern Maya Prestipino looked back to her family’s tradition of turkey calling. Many others created their own traditions, which will likely long outlive our current public health crisis.
Keep scrolling to read about the many ways the people at the Center rediscovered old traditions and made new ones.
The heart of the Center’s office is the grazing table in the kitchenette. Anything on there is up for grabs. You definitely need to make it there as soon as the office-wide email goes out, or there’s nothing left. The magical table can hold anything from catered meeting leftovers to treats from curatorial travel, to baking experiments gone right or wrong. Arlene and I missed the table and people to share things with, so we organized a socially distant cookie swap, which used former curator Olivia Cadaval’s porch as a drop-off and staging area (she is pictured). —Kathy Phung, Folklife Festival foodways coordinator
From the beginning of the pandemic, my husband Dean has made classic cocktails for us nearly every weekend to make it feel special and distinct from the work week at home. We also had our deck redone last year, and now that it’s spring, we’ve moved our happy hours outside. This weekly tradition has gotten us through some tough and isolating times, and it’s one thing that I’d like to carry with me long after this pandemic is behind us. —Cecilia Peterson, digital projects archivist
Last year I picked up gardening after a long hiatus because I wanted to feel closer to my family. I come from a long line of farmers and flower-lovers, and even my small container garden brought me a feeling of sanctuary and a sense of connection. Pictured here next to the potted strawberry plants is a rather large baby bunny who had moved over the hose I was using when my back was turned. —Emily Buhrow Rogers, fellow
Ever since my grandfather passed away in July of 2020, my family has been calling turkeys to our woods using the different tools pictured here. In the far back, a box call, then a striker call, then three different wing bone calls—the unadorned wooden one handmade by my grandpa. He was an avid turkey hunter and loved the species his entire life, a trait we all inherited, and is now remembered whenever a gobbler peeks over our hills to find the hen we’ve imitated. —Maya Prestipino, research intern
Getting creative is necessary in our “new normal.” I have dusted off the sewing machine, tried new recipes, and—maybe most fun of all—started collaging with my friend Martha. Every couple of weeks, we call each other and chat while gluing little pieces of cut-up magazines and other paper and even maybe fabric scraps onto pieces of paper to create some kind of artistic thing. But the product is not the point. It’s the companionship, which comes simultaneously with the art-making, that is the real exchange here. —Betty Belanus, education specialist and curator
I have family in the area who I see often. In order to not miss out on any events during this past year, the fire pit and deck heater have allowed us to continue being with those we enjoy. Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and family get-togethers—just for the sake of gathering—were all celebrated! —Arlene Reiniger, program specialist and intern coordinator
During the pandemic, I have been able to revisit my love of writing for myself by making an (almost) daily habit of journaling. In the past, I was not good about keeping up with it, but I’ve been very consistent this time and am almost finished with my second journal this year. I prefer writing early in the morning at the start of my day, and just letting words flow out onto the pages. —Sarah Berry, research intern
As I’ve written in Folklife Magazine before, I only really embrace my Filipino heritage during Christmas. If I had been with my family during the holiday, we would have unboxed the traditional paról lantern made by my mom many years ago. I didn’t even feel safe going to the craft store, much less a family gathering, so instead I fashioned my own paról out of things in the cupboards: construction and tissue paper, wire from some produce ties, packing confetti, needle and thread, and the broken top of a waste basket that I knew would come in handy one day. —Elisa Hough, editor and web content manager
Here’s my eighty-eight-year-old mother, my sister, and I, wearing our first masks, homemade and sent to us by our cousin, who is a nurse. What seemed strange at first seems normal now, a year later. A small price to pay for our safety. —Claudia Telliho, administrative specialist
My husband is a recent immigrant and, due to the pandemic, has not been able to see much of the U.S. like we had originally planned. We started going on weekend day trips to small towns in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania to escape our crowded area. My husband has been able to experience a part of the U.S. he had only seen in movies, and I have a better understanding of the different cultures that exist in my country. —Grace Dahye Kwon, curatorial assistant
For the past decade, our collaborative research project, The Will to Adorn, has looked at the many meanings behind the things that we wear and how articles of adornment contribute to the survival of our cultural and social identities. Face masks are no different: they are so desperately needed to protect us. Early in the pandemic, people in my neighborhood of Cheverly, Maryland, and elsewhere began using their skills and their time at home to make protective masks for use at local hospitals. From the safety of our homes, we shared instructions and patterns and gave virtual tutorials, creating new experiences of community and belonging. —Diana N’Diaye, cultural specialist and curator
Emily Buhrow Rogers is an ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.