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Folklife & Folk Art Education Resource Guide

Teaching Students about Folk Customs

Folk Customs Background Information

Customs are the things people do (like playing games, celebrating holidays and weddings, and body proxemics: how close we stand to others) in which action is just as important as the final product itself. Much of folk custom is based on special events which allow a "time-out-of-time," a day out of the ordinary routine to share and teach group ideals, values, beliefs. For example, birthdays in family folk groups are usually celebrations: cake, special dinner, party games, and gift exchange are all customary actions. How each family decides to celebrate a birthday reflects the family's sense of self and traditions.

Celebration days are important to all folk groups: family (reunions, birthdays); religious (Easter, Passover); occupational (work parties); ethnic (St. Lucia, Cinco de Mayo, Obon Festival); regional (Koosharem's "Old Folks Day," Brigham City's "Peach Days," and Mendon's century-old "May Day"); age-based (Halloween, birthday parties) gender (stag parties, bridal showers, and trousseau teas).

Foodways include customs for the way food is procured, preserved, prepared, and presented. Think of the way you learned to bake bread, peel a cucumber, or serve a turkey. You probably do these things differently than your neighbor, depending on the foodway traditions of your family folk group. Foods are an important part of many celebrations.

Folk customs also deal with the traditional practices such as folk medicine (growing, picking and using catnip tea for stomach aches, hiccup cures, and wart cures) and protecting oneself from bad luck (throwing salt over the left shoulder, crossing one's fingers, or touching someone when complimented to ward off the evil eye).

The way we use our bodies to communicate is also an expression of folk custom. Body communication includes ritual behaviors, such as processions, kneeling or standing to pray; gestures, like the "high five" or "flipping the bird"; informal social interactions, such as curtsy or bow; art forms, like folk dances and instrumental folk music; and games, such as hand claps, "Run My Sheepy Run," and the Hopi bone game, which children perform.

Teaching Students About Customs: Traditional Celebrations and Foodways

Activity #1: Learning about celebrations

Ask: Have you ever had a birthday party?

As students describe what takes place at their birthday parties, list their responses and lead a discussion about the similarities and differences between the childrens' birthday celebrations. NOTE: Some children do not celebrate birthdays (or any holidays) so you will need to be sensitive to your students' beliefs.)


  • Why aren't all your examples the same?
  • Where did you all learn these traditions?
  • Who made the food for this event?
  • How did they learn to make it?
  • Is the food the same every year?
  • What type of gestures do people use at the party?
  • (Example: thumbs up on great gifts; "Heavy, heavy hang over thy poor head" ritual/gesture)
  • What kind of games do you play?
  • Are they the same from year to year?
  • Who organizes the games and the party?

FYI: You could tell the children that in Japan when children go on a picnic, or sometimes at birthday parties, their mother will make sushi (a seaweed rolled rice and fish and/or vegetable dish). Ask them how they would like sushi for their birthday. Make the point that birthday traditions differ based on where a person grows up.

Suggested Activities:

Writing Activity:

Have your students complete the Family Fun Worksheet. Using the worksheet as a jumping off point, have the students write about their favorite family celebration and share it with the class.


Have a spry older person from your community (perhaps someone the children identified in the community survey) visit your classroom and talk about their childhood birthday celebrations, including games. Play some of the games from your visitor's childhood.

Activity #2: Learning about Foodways

Ask the children how they would like hot dogs for Thanksgiving dinner or a turkey dinner on the 4th of July. Let them respond and then ask them why they would not like these foods switched around. (They will probably say that it would not be the same at either celebration if the foods were different.)

Explain to the children that celebrations are made more memorable by the foods that we make and share with one another. The traditions of procuring, preserving, preparing, and presenting food are called foodways. People everywhere procure food (cultivating or purchasing), preserve food (refrigerating, canning, picking, drying, and freezing), and prepare food (traditional family recipes and practices such as mixing dough with one's hands, giving a child the mixing spoon or bowl to lick). Traditional preparation may also govern who cooks what, where, and when. For example, it may be customary for the father of the house to serve as outdoor chef on a grill, while children may fix popcorn for a family gathering.

Ask the children who cooks on the outdoor grill on the 4th of July or who prepares the turkey on Thanksgiving.

The presentation of food and its use on particular occasions is a major function of foodways. Often the specialness of an event is marked by the serving of particular foods: turkey on Thanksgiving (holiday), cotton candy at fairs (festivals), and wedding cake at weddings (rite of passage).

Example: Ayako (Ako) Maeda, Sushi maker

Raised in a traditional Japanese home in Tokyo, Japan, Ayako (Ako) Maeda learned the art of sushi making by watching her mother, older sisters, and aunts prepare for holidays or other family gatherings. Sushi is a finger-food made with vinegar-seasoned rice and various foods such as gourds, egg, and fish. The rice is patted onto a piece of nori paper which is made out of seaweed. The remaining colored ingredients are placed on the rice in a special order and rolled tightly with the aid of a bamboo mat. The roll is cut into cross sections about one inch thick, revealing a vibrant, flower-like design.

Ako remembers sitting in the kitchen while the womenfolk made sushi to take to picnics and family gatherings. She also remembers finding sushi in her lunch on days her class would take field trips to see the beautiful apple blossoms.

Ako recalls her first meal in America. She was at a pancake house with her American host family. She saw "buttermilk" on the menu and thought, "Yummy," and ordered it. But, when she tasted it, she thought, "Yuck!" Her ethnic and family custom of manners kept her from saying what was on her mind, so she drank it anyway. From this experience, Ako learned that all groups of people have different food preferences. Today, when someone tastes sushi and doesn't like it, she says, "That's all right, we all have our own taste buds. All I care about is that you respect my choice to have and like sushi."

Today, Ako lives in Utah, where she continues her family tradition of sushi-making for family and friends. She says that making and eating sushi reminds her of her home in Japan.

Additional Activities

Family & Ethnic Recipe Collection

Have your students collect (in dark ink) family celebrations recipes from home. Collect the recipes and make a copy of each recipe for your class and have them spirally bound for each student. Your students can illustrate the cover with pictures of their foodways. After the cookbook is complete, invite some of the children's parents to visit the class and help your students make and sample the special foods. This is great activity and a treasured class memory.

Traditional Mealtimes

Mealtimes are a great time for families to share the events of the day and to share their traditions with one anther. Lead a discussion with your class about their family's mealtime activities.


Make a list of moods or emotions (thumbs up, OK hand sign, etc.). Divide the class into small groups and then into teams and give each group a set of cards with emotions written on them. Have your students use familiar gestures to express the emotions written on the cards. (Examples of emotions: good luck, A-ok, bad, mad, etc.) It will be fun to see the way children "act" out the emotions with their body--bodylore.

Occupation Visitor

Invite a construction worker, traffic police officer, baseball coach, etc., folks who use hand signs in their work, to visit your classroom and show and tell about their job and how they use "occupational gestures" to communicate with other workers.

Folk Dances

Invite someone to come and teach your class a folk dance. Try involving some of your students' parents. (See section titled "Visiting Folk Artists.") There may also be some records in your media center. You could also talk with an ethnic dancer or dance specialist in your school or district and invite him/her to help you teach a traditional dance. (Examples: Native American powwow "Friendship Dance" and German polka.)

Visiting Foodways Artist

All folk groups participate in celebrations in which foodways play a major role. Invite a tradition bearer to demonstration foodways in your classroom. (See information on Ayako Maeda.) Encourage students to ask question like: How long have you been making . . . . . ? Who taught you how? Where did the recipe you use come from? Do you have this food other than on a certain celebration? Who is the best maker of your food? Again, this behavior helps students learning interviewing and question and answer skills.

Extension on Family Fun Worksheet

Have the students take the Family Fun Worksheet home to survey parents and siblings about their favorite family celebration. Ask students to write about the responses they collect.