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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Folklore: Who Needs It? (We All Do)

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Folklore isn't just for children and old folks in rocking chairs. It touches our lives more than we realize.
Folklore isn't just for children and old folks in rocking chairs. It touches our lives more than we realize.

Tuesday of this week, August 22nd, was World Folklore Day. After four years of writing a blog that primarily focuses on and celebrates Celtic folklore, I realized that I have never written a post about folklore itself. So, here it is, and about time too!

But, you may ask, what’s so important about folklore? After all, it’s just a collection of old stories about a lot of stuff that, well, let’s face it, we’re all too sophisticated to believe in nowadays. Stories about faeries and ghosts and some larger-than-life epic heroes who never existed. Good entertainment for children but that’s it. They're just a collection of old-time beliefs, superstitions, home remedies, and old wives’ tales, right?

Oh, but they are more, much more than that.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), whose mission is to “[contribute to global] peace by promoting cooperation in education, sciences, culture, communication, and information” (, states in its 1989 “Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore” that folklore “forms part of the universal heritage of humanity” (

Stand with Ukraine.
Stand with Ukraine.

The universal heritage of humanity. That sounds rather significant. And it is. The bottom line is that folklore forms us. It contributes to our identity as a people and as members of a group. Or, more accurately, groups. Folklore exists at various levels: national, regional, ethnic, even familial. Folklorists claim that each family has its own folklore.

Folklore involves much more than stories and superstitions. Under its umbrella are music, dance, games, crafts, and, perhaps more importantly, customs, rituals, and language, among other things. Folklore teaches the norms, values, and morals of the specific society in which it exists and passes these on from one generation to the next through oral transmission and social behaviors that are imitated and reinforced.

Through folklore, members of a group learn how to fit in, what is normal, what is expected, and they acquire a sense of identity and belonging. American folklorist William Bascom also claimed that folklore can be a means by which social control is exerted on a culture's individual members.

Did I mention folklore was much more than a collection of stories told by old-timers sitting in rocking chairs?

Types of Folklore

Although we are all familiar with the term folklore and probably can give examples of some lore that we have heard, from the time we’re children we’re exposed to much more of it than we realize. It’s rarely formally taught, but it is all around us and part of our everyday lives. As said above, folklore exists in many more forms than simple storytelling.

There are four main genres of folklore: verbal, customary, material, and children’s. Under these are numerous subcategories.

Ghost stories are a type of verbal folklore.
Ghost stories are a type of verbal folklore.

Clearly, stories fall into the category of verbal folklore. Although they may eventually be written down, folkloric stories begin in the oral tradition. Examples include stories about encounters with ghosts or banshees. These may originally have been told by someone sharing a personal experience or by someone making up a story to entertain or frighten a small group of friends.

Folklore stories also are told within families. It could be a story about how Aunt Susie emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. and worked hard as a domestic until she had enough money to buy her own house. The story starts as a retelling of fact then gets told over and over down the generations with each person adding embellishments until Aunt Susie becomes a family hero or celebrity. And there is an often unspoken but understood value lesson attached to the story, such as “You can accomplish great things if just you work hard enough.”

Other verbal types of folklore include jokes, songs (especially narrative ballads), fairytales, and tall tales (George Washington never told a lie and Davy Crockett defeated a bear when he was a mere toddler). Included in this category as well are legends (e.g. King Arthur), urban legends, and myths, especially creation myths such as the Irish stories that explain how the Boyne and Shannon rivers came into existence. (Read those myths here.) Proverbs, superstitions, charms, curses, blessings, and magic incantations are a part of verbal folklore, too.

Also under this category fall two things essential to every culture: how to greet others and how to take your leave of them. Folklore includes customs and traditions. We are taught from a young age the proper way to greet people, especially in regard to an initial meeting. This involves words. In the U.S., when meeting someone for the first time, we often say, “Pleased to meet you.” In Spain or Mexico, the usual phrase is Mucho gusto (“much pleasure”), while in France, it’s customary to say, “Enchante” (“enchanted”).

Are you a hugger?
Are you a hugger?

Gestures commonly accompany the words. These vary from a handshake to a bow or even a kiss, depending on the culture. This is where a clash of cultures can arise. When a person from a circumspect family from the northeastern U.S. encounters a U.S. Southerner who was raised to hug people as a greeting, the result can be uncomfortable for both people. The southerner might be put off by the northerner’s apparent coldness and the northerner may feel his or her personal space violated when hugged by a stranger.

Customary folklore includes a wide range of gestures and rituals. Among these, in addition to handshakes and hugs (especially knowing when these are appropriate), gestures include waves, thumbs up (or down), crossing your fingers, clapping, snapping your fingers, and an array of others depending on the culture. Again, this can cause unintended offense when people raised in two different folklore environments interact. Many British and Irish people use their middle fingers to point at something, such as a word on a page, but in the U.S., using the middle finger is a rude gesture. For people in the U.K., raising two fingers means the same thing as the middle finger in the U.S. So, an American in Britain needs to be careful when making the two-fingered peace sign.

The rituals that are part of celebrations and life events, such as birthdays and weddings, also are a part of the folklore tradition of any culture. In the U.S., it is customary for the bride to wear white. In Ireland, the bride traditionally wears blue. This is changing as more and more young Irish women are now wearing white, but they have tended to stick with the tradition of wearing flowers, lace, or ribbons in their hair rather than the U.S. custom of wearing a veil. Irish brides also have steadfastly held onto the tradition of walking down the aisle in old shoes. and carrying her magic handkerchief. (To read more about Irish Wedding Traditions, click here.)

There are several other differences in the wedding rituals of the two cultures. Rituals are a part of the reception as well. One that might prove problematic during a mixed culture wedding is the traditional Irish gesture of friendship extended from the groom’s mother to her new daughter-in-law. It is expressed by the new mother-in-law breaking a piece of wedding cake over the bride’s head. An American bride might misinterpret this gesture if she hasn't been forwearned.

An American bride might be shocked when her new mother-in-law breaks wedding cake over her head.
An American bride might be shocked by her new mother-in-law's gesture of friendship.

Other customary folklore traditions include barn raisings, baby showers, trick-or-treating, Groundhog Day (in the U.S.), Fourth of July (U.S.), Beltane, Lughnasa, and Samhain in Ireland as well as May Day in Wales and Hogmanay (New Year) in Scotland.

Material folklore concerns physical objects, such as the Irish custom of weaving reeds into Brigid’s Crosses on St. Brigid’s Day / Imbolc. Herbal medicine and folk remedies fit into this category as well.

Children’s lore is the stories and customs children disseminate among themselves, often without the knowledge of adults. Examples can include things parents are familiar with, such as children teaching others how to play hopscotch or jump rope. But children also share stories and pass secret knowledge to each other. Within a group of children, there often is one who becomes the authority, a wisdom figure who tells the others about how things work, the way things are, and the other great secrets of life. He or she will enthrall the group with the details of how the haunted house on the corner got its ghost or reveal that you can get rid of warts by sticking a pin into a willow tree at midnight on a full moon, or that if you eat three caterpillars one three consecutive days and say magic words, you will become a butterfly.

Folklore always has a Keeper of the Knowledge, a tradition-bearer who passes on the stories, rituals, customs, and so forth to others. The audience then carries that lore forward, remembers it, and acts on it or is influenced by it. Some of these listeners, in turn, will become tradition-bearers themselves, passing the lore onto the next generation.

Visiting and decorating holy wells and hawthorn trees is an ancient Celtic custom for Beltane still practiced in Ireland today.
Visiting and decorating holy wells and hawthorn trees is an ancient Celtic custom for Beltane still practiced in Ireland today.

But not everything is passed on. Folklore, whether stories, customs, rituals, or any of its other forms, only continues in a culture if the culture finds value in them. They have significance and meaning that goes beyond the literal or the practical. In Western civilization, many stories of heroes have come and gone, but Arthurian legend has been passed down through generations and told over and over in literature and movies for over a thousand years. So, what is it about this body of stories and characters that continues to speak to Western cultures? Equality under the law? Fair-mindedness? Integrity? It’s worth reflecting on.

In Irish culture, visiting holy wells on Beltane is a folklore custom that has continued since the time of the druids. On Lughnasa, cattle and horses traditionally are walked through water to bless them and protect them from disease and illness. Could these customs stem from and continue because of an ingrained Celtic respect for nature and the Celtic spirituality belief that there is a spark of the divine in all things?

Folklore touches and influences us more than we tend to notice. Maybe it’s time to give it the respect it deserves. While we’re paying attention, it'd be good to evaluate which customs, beliefs, and values we want to continue passing on, and drop those that are best left in the past.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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