Festivals as Celebrations of Place in Modern Society: Two Examples from Norway
Selberg, Torunn, Folklore
This article concerns the role of festivals in marking places as unique and interesting in the modern world. Two festivals from two peripheral areas are discussed--one is a revitalisation of a saint's feast dating back to medieval times, and the other is a new construction from the late nineteen seventies. The article focuses on the narratives that are ritualised in the festivals, on their connection with narratives and discourses far beyond the borders of the two areas, and how the ensuing dialogue gives these remote sites a place in global discourses.
There seems to be an almost general assumption that the number of symbolic expressions, such as public festivals and rituals, is radically reduced in modern society. Many scholars have forecast that increasing secularisation, industrialisation, the rationalisation of production, mobility, the mass media, and alternative sources of entertainment, would take their toll on the number and viability of public rituals. The fact is, however, that since the 1970s, the number of public celebrations has actually been increasing in the western world (Boissevain 1992). American anthropologist Frank E. Manning states that, "Throughout both the industrialized and developing nations, new celebrations are being created and older ones revived on a scale that is surely unmatched in human history" (Manning 1983, 4). He also adds that the flowering of celebration is a truly striking aspect of contemporary society. In Norway, for example, the number of festival events has exploded over the past decade, and there now appears to be one in every local community, and one for every taste (Aftenposten 17 June, 2004). There are festivals for classical, jazz, folk, or rock music, for example. There are also festivals celebrating old wooden boats, or traditional crafts, literature and poetry festivals, or festivals focusing on a community's history and the past; the examples are legion. In fact, one could almost talk of a "festivalisation" of culture. Common aspects of festivals are that they are celebrated at regular intervals, almost like calendar rituals, and that they take place in specific locations. Thus, in addition to focusing on a particular theme, festivals are also often a celebration of the location where they take place. A place can, therefore, become inextricably linked to a certain festival, and, in this way, a community can become "the city" of the particular theme that the festival celebrates.
Very often the subject of the festivals is the local community itself; and when this is the case, the emphasis of the event is often directed to the community's past or its history. In this article, I discuss two festivals the main focus of which is the celebration of places and their past. The increasing popular interest in the past and history has been termed the "use of history" by some Swedish historians. The underlying implication here is that the past is being staged and reused for purposes other than the acquisition of knowledge. In fact, it has been argued that stories of the past are being employed to confer desired meanings on the present (Aronsson 2004). Local events, persons, myths, and narratives are being ritualised and actualised in festivals. The celebrations, therefore, are designed to make us remember the past--or those parts of it selected for retelling during the festival. Festivals dedicated to the past include those that have been newly invented, as well as revitalisations of older public rituals, or new creations with an alleged traditional content. But, irrespective of whether the festivals are old or new, they convey a message that relates not only to the contemporary local world, but also to the external world far beyond the boundaries of the immediate community. While the festivals' emphasis on the local communities' uniqueness is directed towards local identity, I would suggest, however, that if a festival is to be successful, its local narratives must stand in dialogue with those currently relevant in the outside world. A festival can, thus, be viewed as a focal point for the merging of local and global narratives, and as an occasion when, and a space where, relations between global, national, regional, and local levels are discussed, negotiated, and, perhaps, redefined.
Place, Past, Narratives, and Festival
The two festivals discussed here are modern events, which take place in two small, peripheral, yet very different places. The festivals also differ from each other in content, expression, and atmosphere. I will consider especially the narratives about the local past that are ritualised in the performance of the festivals. By comparing these two different events, and the locations and communities in which they take place, I hope to show in both specific and general terms, how place and festival relate to each other. We shall travel between the west and east of Norway, from the small North Sea island of Selja, to a woodland region called the Finn Forest on the Norwegian/Swedish border. The festival that takes place on Selja is called "Seljumannamass" and that relating to the Finn Forest is called "The Finnish Settlers' Days." Seljumannamass is a revitalisation of an old Church feastday, which dates back to medieval times, while The Finnish Settlers' Days is a new festival dating from 1971.
While the Finn Forest has always been on the periphery, located as it is on the Swedish/Norwegian border, Selja's history as a religious and political centre dates back to medieval Norwegian times, as the island was a pilgrim destination in the Middle Ages. Remains of the sacred monuments dating from early times are still standing there, and form a vital part of the celebration of the Seljumannamass. These structures are set against the background of the open sea and make a magnificent impression. The Finn forest, on the other hand, is an area of deep forests, scattered lakes and marshes, and a dispersed population.
The two festivals take place every year at the same time--the second weekend of July--and while they can be regarded as calendar customs, they are more celebrations of place than of time. Time is present, however, since narratives of the past of the two local communities are significantly present in the festivals. And, as is the case with so many contemporary festivals, one of the goals of the two events is to signify that the locations where they take place are unique in a globalised world. In this context, the perceived distinctiveness of the festival locations are largely derived from, and created through, narratives of each local community's past. This, in itself, is a globalisation trend--in the contemporary western world, a global construction of what is particular to a local area is to be observed (Featherstone and Lash 1995, 5). As already indicated, however, I would suggest that such local particularity is not only locally derived, but also that a sense of place would appear to be created by means of dialogue with narratives and ideas in circulation far beyond local borders.
The articulation of a group's, or a local community's, cultural heritage can thus be seen as an important purpose of many festivals. According to the Swedish folklorist Barbro Klein (2000, 25), cultural heritage refers to phenomena in a group's past that are given high symbolic value, and therefore must be protected for the future. She also states, however, that heritage is not something that is merely there; rather, it is selected or appointed by means of complex processes. Festivals and …
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Publication information: Article title: Festivals as Celebrations of Place in Modern Society: Two Examples from Norway. Contributors: Selberg, Torunn - Author. Journal title: Folklore. Volume: 117. Issue: 3 Publication date: December 2006. Page number: 297+. © 1998 Folklore Society. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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