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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Corn Carnival, Minco, 1908
(23196.52, Meta Chestnutt Sager Collection, OHS).


Festivals bring to mind a wide variety of events, each of which transmits significant meaning. They are often associated with annual calendar occurrences that might or might not have a religious connection. These periodic celebrations take place in one of several contexts, in the setting of the family, in a particular community for community members, or in a community for members and outsiders. Expected behavior includes a number of activities and traditions such as music, dance, dress, and food. Thus, festivals present a time of celebration and feasting, a periodical season of entertainment and recollection.

Family festivals are often annual events enjoyed by the exclusive intimacy of a nuclear family or an expansive, extended group of relatives. New Year's Eve, Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Fourth of July, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and family reunions might not be thought of as festivals. Nevertheless, analyses of activities at these gatherings, including the assembling of the relatives, an invocation or prayer, traditional foods, games or sporting events, and ritualized behavior, show that they are, in fact, mini-festivals. The underlying role of these small-scale celebrations is to reinforce the importance and continuity of family values.

Community-based festivals have come to traditionally mark calendar events or recognize historic milestones that distinguish a particular group. Meanings conveyed at these occasions are only recognized by members of that community, strengthening the ties between them. They serve to reinforce an identity based upon a shared faith or history.

"Community" can be defined by several different factors that shape the types of festivals supported. National origin is one significant community backbone. "Ethnic" festivals, emerging from this context, have gained popularity in the last half of the twentieth century as pride in origins, customs, and traditions have risen to the fore. Events in an annual cycle, commemorated for years by members of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, provide a reason for celebrating. Religious rituals, as well as foods, music, dancing, and other festivities, are shared, fostering and expressing a sense of ethnic culture. The December celebration in the name of the Virgin of the Guadalupe at Oklahoma City's Little Flower Church is an expression of the Mexican immigrants who founded the church. A much younger event of this nature is the annual New Year, or Tet festival, celebrated by the Vietnamese who settled in Oklahoma City in the twentieth century's last decades.

Other ethnic festivals are not associated with religious activities. The semiannual Kiowa Black Leggings dance recognizes the role of warriors and soldiers in the tribe. At a traditional site, music, dance, and the exchange of gifts honor the men and women who have served the Kiowa people and the United States. The Black Leggings is a celebration that faded and was revitalized. The essence of these festivals is that they are organized for community members by other members.

Another type of community is a locality, defined by the geographic area where a group of people reside. One evocative gathering that arises in such a context is the annual county fair. Marking the end of the agricultural season, harvest festivals have been celebrated by folk communities around the globe and in Oklahoma as well. Here the culmination is the twin state fairs, the Tulsa State Fair and the Oklahoma City State Fair, both held in September. Livestock is judged, and foods, crafts, and other home-based skills are presented. The midway, alive with rides, games of chance, and freak shows, also is highlighted. Music concerts and horse races or rodeos are also associated with these annual agricultural festivals.

One particularly quintessential pioneer festival in Oklahoma combines the family celebration with the local agricultural holiday. The shivaree, or marriage festival, is a family-centered life cycle event. One such happening was dramatized in 1931 by Lynn Riggs in the play Green Grow the Lilacs, later popularized as the Broadway musical Oklahoma! The wedding of Curley and Laurie was set at the time of the annual harvest festival, marked by such traditions as the community center's fund-raising box social and other activities.

Other community-based festivals are held within a given locale but target an audience comprised of outsiders. Such festivals serve as vehicles to inform others about the values, customs, or traditions of the hosts. Synagogues in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa are the locations of festivals that are intended to familiarize the general public with Jewish culture and celebrations. Temple Israel's annual Shalom Fest in Tulsa was modeled after an older, similar, and highly popular event held in Oklahoma City. The purpose of this festival was to introduce non-Jews in eastern Oklahoma to the traditions, customs, and foods of their Jewish neighbors. Mock weddings, temple tours, Klezmer music and Israeli dancing, and a wide variety of foods made by community members mark the day.

Other examples of ethnic festivals aimed at the outside world include Tulsa's Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. This group actually creates a mock Greek village to transport visitors to their homeland. Months before the festival, church members bake copious amounts of cookies and sheets of baklava. Dancers perform in recreated costumes reflecting the wealth of Greek traditional dress. Oklahoma City's St. George Greek Orthodox Church hosts a similar event. Yukon and Prague also hold community-based festivals. In 1952 the Prague celebration, named for a Czech baked delicacy, the kolache, was first held. Oklahoma's other Czech heritage festival was first celebrated in 1966 to commemorate Yukon's seventy-fifth anniversary.

Yet another type of local festival aimed at nonmembers arose from interest in multicultural diversity. These events sometimes grew out of celebrations originally by and for an ethnically diverse community. In Krebs, where several nationalities lived and worked in the local coal mines, the Italian festival started as the annual July Festival of Mount Carmel. Along with religious services, a barbecue and fireworks display originally distinguished the day. As the town's population dwindled, the festival too began to fade. In the late 1980s it was revived and focused on bringing tourists to rural Krebs. Traditional Italian activities such as bocce ball games became a popular feature. This annual summer event was transformed eventually into the Krebs Ethnic Festival.

Two vastly popular multiethnic gatherings in Oklahoma take place in Lawton and at Rose State College in Midwest City. With exhibits and displays, music and dance performances, and food sales, the general public is introduced to the culture and history of the region's ethnic groups. The Lawton event is so well established that it is a significant annual tourist attraction for this southwestern city.

Festivals are celebrations that include many traditional expressions, including foods, music, dance, prayer, costume, and games. They are vital parts of family and community for a number of reasons. Festivals internally build group identity. They serve as a way to bring affiliated individuals together, either for solidarity or to educate children and to share a variety of traditions. Contemporary festivals often have an important economic dimension as well. Churches have long used them as fund raisers. Local chambers of commerce also see them as sources of revenue and tourism dollars. Each of these family and community-based festivals continues to express an appreciation for the fiber of Oklahoma.

Annette B. Fromm


Susan Auerbach, "The Brokering of Ethnic Folklore: Issues of Selection and Presentation at a Multicultural Festival," in Creative Ethnicity: Symbols and Strategies of Contemporary Ethnic Life, ed. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1991).

Jan Harold Brunvand, The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction (4th ed.; New York: Norton, 1998).

Robert J. Smith, "Festivals and Celebrations," in Folklore and Folklife, An Introduction, ed. Richard M. Dorson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

Victor Turner, ed., Celebration, Studies in Festivity and Ritual (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Annette B. Fromm, “Festivals,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=FE017.

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