Events like the annual Burns Supper remind people of their traditions, especially when those traditions start to fade.
The Kern Scottish Society hosts its annual Burns Supper on Saturday evening, celebrating the birthday of Scotland's national poet-hero, Robert Burns. The event includes traditional foods, songs, poetry and other customs, and the wearing of traditional dress -- kilts in the tartan patterns of the various clans representing the organization's membership.
"The society promotes cultural awareness," said Tony Urzanqui, out-going chieftain of the group. "Part of it is we're trying to preserve that culture and traditions."
Urzanqui said with each new generation, the traditions get watered down.
"There's not too many in the Scottish community who are 100 percent Scottish anymore," Urzanqui said. "I'm more Basque than Scottish.
"Kern County really is a melting pot."
This year's celebration actually lands on the actual anniversary of the poet's birth -- Jan. 25. As is the custom every year, the evening starts with the gathering (cocktail hour). The dinner begins with a prayer, then, for the Kern Society at least, a three-course meal, including "tatties and neeps" (potatoes and turnips), prime rib and haggis, which is brought into dinner with great ceremony and a reciting of Burns' poem "To a Haggis." The Scottish staple, associated with the poor since it uses every edible scrap, is made of oatmeal, suet, onions and spices and cooked in a sheep's stomach casing. Some would say it's an acquired taste.
"Robbie Burns kind of made a mockery of it and that's what's celebrated at the dinner," Urzanqui said. "Most people would rather eat the lamb chops, the good parts."
The dinner includes music, readings and good cheer, and concludes with the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," the words of which were written by Burns.
The Burns Supper kicks off a year of activity for the organization, including the Scottish Games, the Celtic Music Festival, the Kirking of the Tartans and other events that celebrate Scottish culture, sometimes in conjunction with Irish and other Celtic groups. Incoming chieftain Karen Abercrombie said the annual games have been growing in attendance steadily over time.
"We've been doing it for a long time, but it surprised me how many people don't know about it," Abercrombie said. "But when they learn about it, interest grows."
Moving events to more visible venues, such as the CSUB Amphitheater and the Kern County Fairgrounds, have raised the profile of the society's activities.
"We're more recognized as a group and people ask us questions," said Abercrombie, who noted that genealogy is a major interest for the society and its membership.
"A lot of it is looking for the family. During the games we bring in genealogists to help everyone look up their ancestors as far as they can."
Abercrombie explained that each family, or clan, is supposed to be led by a chieftain, if it is to stand alone; otherwise, it is aligned under a related clan that has a chieftain. "It's normally hereditary, through the sons," Abercrombie said.
The family line is most famously expressed in the tartan patterns worn in the clan plaids -- the large pieces of cloth (plaid in Gaelic means "blanket") worn pinned over the shoulder and in kilts and other items of clothing. Traditional clans are tied to their ancestral lands and are identified by officially approved and registered tartan patterns. A new pattern is approved only if it can be demonstrated it is substantially different from any existing patterns.
"Some clans have a lot of plaids," Abercrombie said.
A single clan can have plaids for formal occasions ("dress" plaid), hunting, to denote family, to commemorate an event. Old plaids are those made with traditional, plant-based dyes; new plaids are usually made with modern dyes and therefore have a greater variety of colors and hues.
"We have a California plaid; it incorporates the colors of the golden poppy," Abercrombie said.
By many standards, Robert Burns was what the Scots would call a "ne'er-do-weel," a philanderer often living in dire straits, leaving behind debts and broken hearts when he died at the age of 37. His true success was as a poet, capturing the Scottish soul in such a way as to not only reach the high- and low-born in Scotland, but creating an international following and helping to usher in the Romantic Movement.