Yule cat blues

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This is a tourist shop version of Iceland’s infamous Yule cat. It has a lengthy almost unpronounceable name, but all you need to know about it is that it comes to homes on Christmas Eve to see whether the residents are wearing new clothes. If they are not, it eats the children. (A less grisly version of the tale states that it will eat the children’s Christmas dinner instead).

Apparently there are similar stories about a goat in Norway and a bull in the Baltics.

The Yule cat may have been nothing more than an incentive for children to behave, similar to the threat of coal in a Christmas stocking. Or it may have been a reference to desperate times when the sheep sickened and died and there was no woolen yarn for making garments. Such times in Iceland’s history were marked by famine and high childhood mortality.

I had never heard of the Yule cat until a few years ago; certainly it played no part in our Christmas traditions. But my Icelandic mother always insisted that each of her six children had something new to wear on Christmas Eve. I thought it was just a family tradition. Now I wonder if it were not more of a cultural one.

Culture defines and shapes  families  and family life in ways that can sometimes be obvious, sometimes not so. But whether obvious or hidden, they are equally important.

Charlotte Shoup Olsen (associate professor and family systems extension specialist at Kansas State University) and Linda Skogrand, associate professor and family life extension specialist at Utah State University) note in an online dissertation that “educators need to have an understanding of the role that culture plays in family life among potential participants from their communities, especially if the targeted audience has a background different from the educator”.

Being unaware of one’s own cultural framework creates the “potential for both personal conflict and interpersonal misunderstanding in multicultural environments”, said P.M. Greenfield and L.K. Suzuki in the 1998 paper “Culture and human development: Implications for parenting, education, pediatrics, and mental health”.

Sharing of cultural backgrounds and traditions both within and outside the family unit can therefore be an effective way of increasing that necessary awareness.

And what better time for sharing than at this time of year when so many cultures have their own ways of celebrating and so many cultures do not celebrate at all?

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