Tables turned: Whose traditions need explaining now?

Often, in our work as folklorists, we meet immigrants from various parts of the world who have resettled in the United States. Our impulse is to focus on their cultural traditions — the music, dance, crafts, and annual celebrations they left behind and how they are managing to hold onto them while making their home in a new and foreign land.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that new immigrants would also wish to fit in, to understand what holdiays are celebrated here in America, what foods are typically served, or why certain decorations perennially appear.  Why is everybody roasting turkeys? What’s up with all the lights?  Who is the bearded guy in the big red suit? And why is everyone fixated with buying gifts?

And I suppose it’s also not surprising to learn that here in Lowell, within the Cambodian community, some believe that part of becoming “American” is learning to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas. With the blurring of religious beliefs and commercialism, one can hardly blame them.

Along these lines, we were asked to address a group of Cambodian elders that were gathering at the  Coalition for a Better Acre for a holiday program. Everyone seemed to enjoy the lunch, which was a fitting mix of American and Asian dishes: roast turkey, sweet potatoes, corn, pickled mustard with pig ears, pad thai, and rice.

We had hosted some of these same Cambodian elders for a tour of Lowell National Historical Park in September. This time, we were meeting on their territory. CBA invited us to lunch and requested that we briefly explain the history and customs of Thanksgiving and Christmas to the mostly non-English speaking audience. David Blackburn did the honors, seen below holding a plate of turkey and sweet potatoes.

Turns out that hardly anyone in the audience was familiar with the Thanksgiving holiday. Christmas, on the other hand, many were aware of — and it would be difficult not to be, given how pervasive the marketing of the holiday is and the fact that schools and businesses are closed on December 25th. One man asked in Khmai, “What is the purpose of Christmas?” David offered this answer, “It depends on who you are.  For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of the savior, Jesus Christ.” Despite its Christian origins, the secular celebration of Christmas is ubiquitous in America. David spoke of the German origins of the Christmas tree and the custom of bringing evergreens into our homes at the darkest time of the year.

I wonder how many immigrants think all Americans celebrate Christmas regardless of their religious beliefs, cultural heritage, or family traditions. Hanukkah, Eid, and Kwanzaa fly just under the radar of mainstream American popular culture. Perhaps it is the immigrant’s remove from certain holidays, and their struggle to understand them, that is quintessentially the American experience. After all, it is the complexity of American diversity that makes this country what it is.

Keepers of Tradition up and running . . .

Deborah Joseph, Trinidad & Tobago Social Club, Boston Caribbean Carnival 2003Detail of Hardanger cutwork table runnerAfter almost four years of work, Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage has opened at the National Heritage Museumin Lexington. The response has been heartening – especially from artists, who feel honored, as they should. Their work is often seen only by family members — like the cutwork embroidery of Aline Drivdahl or by the specific community in which it is displayed — like the costumes of local mas bands at Boston’s Caribbean Carnival.

The media coverage and reviews are starting to come in. WBUR’s Here and Now host Robin Young spoke with me recently about some of the artists featured in the exhibition. WGBH’s Greater Boston producer Jared Bowen paid a visit to the show.

Below are links to a sampling of reviews:

“. . . this exhibition is more than just an exhibition. It’s one part of a much bigger project, which includes Holtzberg’s excellent catalog essay (it explains the stories behind the various objects in some depth) and, beyond both the show an dthe catalog, a great deal of valuable documnetation which can only help in the attempt to keep these traditions alive . . .” Sebastian Smee, Boston Globe

Keepers of Tradition reflects the diversity of the state better than any art show you’re likely to see for a long time.” -Greg Cook, The Boston Phoenix

“An engaging, informative exhibit . . .Think of this fascinating show as a tour through the markets and bazaars of the world with no haggling.” – Chris Bergeron, Metrowest Daily News

“. . . head to the National Heritage Museum in Lexington for the enthralling exhibit “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts.” This is not your mom’s folk art show: check out the stone fence, the sheet-metal “tin men,” and the boat making, as well as the scrimshaw, quilts, and redware pottery. – Stephanie Schorow, Sidekick, Boston Globe

Visit for more on the exhibition.