Folklore. It’s a common enough word. When I tell someone I am a folklorist, a scholar who studies folklore, they kinda already know what that means. This word, for most, conjures up a number of cultural items: the stories that your grandparents told you when you were young, the art of the people in the countryside, songs that you hear in the “real traditional” pubs. If these things come to mind when you hear the word “folklore” then you would be quite right. And yet, folklore is also a lot of other things that we don’t often think of when talking about folklore. Jokes are also folklore. So is the lingo that you use with your coworkers. Or the graffiti scrawled on the restroom stall.
Folklorists used to think of folklore as cultural artifacts of the past: those old stories, old beliefs, old ways of acting in the world. But now, folklorists have a pretty broad definition of folklore. We see folklore as the stuff that we learn informally, by watching and communicating with those around us. Folklore is the knowledge, beliefs, and ways of acting in the world that we don’t learn from manuals or from formal education. You don’t learn how to tell a good story or joke from reading an instructional pamphlet on the subject. You learn from watching others tell them successfully, and you learn just as much from watching others unsuccessfully tell a story or a joke.
Because folklore is essentially a social part of our lives, it tells us so much about who we are as individuals and communities. Though we learn from others, we are still individuals. We don’t like all the jokes that we hear, so we aren’t going to tell them all. We are also creative so we might change up the stories that we are telling, depending on the audience and our own interests or simply because we forget a part of it. I am talking mostly here about verbal folklore because that is what I study, but the same could be said about material culture and customs as well.
Think about the Christmas dinner that you have each year. Who is there? Where is it held? What dishes do you have? This is folklore as well. You don’t learn in some formal way the “right” way to make a Christmas dinner. You learn that from your family and friends. And those things can change from year to year, but it’s still Christmas dinner. Say, your aunt who always hosts is sick this year so you switch to having the dinner at your grandparents’ house. And your cousin has a new food allergy, so you try a new recipe that is similar to the previous way of making it but it has slightly changed so your cousin can enjoy it too. Though the place, group, and recipes have changed it’s still Christmas dinner. This process happens all the time.
Folklore is always in a constant state of remaining and changing. Some parts stay the same because they are familiar and they work, but other parts change because the situation and the audience changes. People change and so folklore adapts to meet new needs because at the heart of it folklore is meaningful communication for present circumstances. We draw on tradition when it helps us, but when it isn’t useful we find new ways to communicate our hopes, values, beliefs, and knowledge.
Folklore then is all of the stuff in our lives that we come to learn from being social. It is the old stuff, but it’s also the new. Folklore is a constant part of our lives. It’s how we learn to first communicate—what to say in certain situations, and what not to say in others. It’s something that we are constantly learning and using. Folklore is traditional, it is contemporary, and it is meaningful.
So, folklore is the common expressive culture of a group.