Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change and the Good of the Community

Crossposted on Daily Kos

Held annually, the McCall, Idaho, winter carnival has become a modern tradition. A festival and celebration, it is also a source of community income and opportunity for shared community effort; a chance to display the town attractively to outsiders and to define and assert McCall's identity; and consequently, a source of disagreement among citizens over what their community is, how it should be presented, and what the carnival means.

Though rooted in the broad traditions of community festival, annual civic events, often sponsored by chambers of commerce, such as that in McCall, are as much expressions of popular culture and local commerce as of older traditions. Yet they become dynamic, newer community traditions, with artistic, informal, and social meanings and practices that make them forms of folklore as well as commoditized culture.

Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change and the Good of the Community (Ritual, Festival, and Celebration), is the first volume in a Utah State University Press series that began in 2011, titled Ritual, Festival, and Celebration.

Author Lisa Gabbert, an associate professor of English at Utah State, is a specialist in Folklore Studies. Her research includes study on landscape and place, festivals and play, and medical folklore.

Cookie traditions? Family reunions? Snipe hunting? Jell-O recipes in Utah? These are just a few of the topics that Gabbert's undergraduates research for projects in her Introduction to Folklore class. They cover:

an amazing variety of offbeat subjects. These topics may seem superficially unimportant to many scholars in other fields, and they usually are overlooked in the serious halls of academe (although undergraduate research in folklore often finds its way into professional books and publications as scholars use materials deposited in folklore archives, a recent example of which is Elizabeth Tucker’s 2007 book Haunted Halls). In fact, undergraduates’ folklore research projects document everyday practices that are the staff of local community life. These projects offer insider interpretations of local traditions, providing insight into the cultural dynamics of arenas such as family organization and the teen cultures of high school and early college. These arenas can be difficult for outsiders to study since the nature of such materials is ephemeral and rarely recorded. For these and other reasons, undergraduate research in folklore contributes to knowledge of contemporary social and cultural life.

Gabbert's students are required to go out into the community to document folklore using anthropological fieldwork techniques, and they analyze their findings in the written portion of the project.


Lisa Gabbert

Her book serves as a classic and user-friendly sample of a research product, for her students as well as anyone who interested in folklore. James P. Leary, editor of Journal of American Folklore called Winter Carnival a first rate ethnographic study:

Whereas other folklorists have scrutinized festival in relation to cultural and social systems, Lisa Gabbert offers the first fully developed study of festival in relation to work and place. Her contribution is distinguished by its engagement with environment, the industrialized backwoods, winter, and tourism in the American West.

"Without recourse to jargon, and always at a comfortable pace, the author takes us into the heart of McCall's winter festival yet always returns to key questions: how does community take shape or fragment around festive activity?" writes John H. McDowell, author of Poetry and Violence: The Ballad of Mexico's Costa Chica. "How does festival respond to changing social environments?"

"In sum, undergraduates’ folklore research benefits both students and the discipline," Gabbert writes. "Students learn about and come to more deeply appreciate community traditions; they acquire basic ethnographic skills; and they learn critical thinking by analyzing materials they have collected while they are writing up their research. In turn, folklore studies benefits from these student projects by having an ever-expanding and constantly updated archive materials upon which to base future study."

There is tremendous value in helping students see the relevance of folklore to their every day lives. I highly recommend this work for its wonderful blend of writing, theory, teaching, and practice.