You can find traces of Cleveland’s late 19th-century/early 20th-century wave of Eastern European immigration around town in its churches, restaurants, and ethnic community centers. And as those generations recede into history, some younger Clevelanders are looking at strengthening the area’s connection to those roots.
In recent years, a couple of new festivals have sprung up to honor old traditions by creating new ones. One of them is the post-Easter Dyngus Day festival, taking place in the Gordon Square neighborhood, honoring a Polish tradition. It began in 2011.
The other was started just last year in the once heavily Slovenian St. Clair Superior neighborhood. Kurentovanje (koo-rahn-toh-VAHN-yay) — somewhat akin to Mardi Gras — revolves around a furry costumed folk character known as the “kurent,” who comes to chase away the winter. Cleveland should be more than ready for the second annual kurentovanje!
“The festival itself is relatively young,” says Michael Fleming, executive director of the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation. “But it comes from much older traditions.”
It actually started in the Slovenian town of Ptuj in 1960 and, unlike Dyngus, had never been celebrated anywhere else, although it’s a big deal (and a tourist attraction) in Ptuj.
Fleming says the idea to do it here sprang from discussions about launching the Cleveland Flea, a monthly artist-oriented bazaar that started last year. He and Flea organizer Stephanie Sheldon decided they needed a holiday to kick it off, and when they looked at a Slovenian calendar of events, they spotted kurentovanje.
“We thought it was a great idea,” says Fleming. “ We engaged the Slovenian community and they wanted something to celebrate. There are still a lot of Slovenians who live in the neighborhood. More come in from the suburbs for weddings and events at the Slovenian National Home.”
“The neighborhood has deep Slovenian roots,” says Nicole Kusold, one of the all-volunteer team who organize the event and herself of Slovenian descent. “In his role [Fleming] is trying to understand where the neighborhood has been and revitalize where it’s going to go in learning about culture of the neighborhood.”
The parade steps off at noon from St. Vitus Church at 60th and Lausche, and terminates at the Slovenian National Home at 64th and St. Clair, headquarters for Kurentovanje. There pre-parade refreshments including traditional Slovenian donuts, crafts for kids, and shopping courtesy of Collective Upcycle will be available starting at 11, and post-parade food, drink, music and dance will be happening from 1-6 pm. From 6-midnight the party moves over to Sterle’s on E 55th Street, where the bier garden will be open all day and evening, and the polka music will be nonstop. Visitors are encouraged to dress up either in ethnic costumes or something wacky.
Unfortunately last year’s parade ran afoul of the weather. Fleming says only a handful of the scheduled marching units showed up. He’s expecting a much bigger group this year.
“We invited a number of groups — either traditional Slovenian groups or other eastern European groups — to come in their traditional outfits,” he says. “We have the kurent, of course, and St. Martin de Porres marching band and High Steppers. We have the Slovenian Beekeepers Association, the Alpine Sextet, the St. Vitus Slovenian school. If you bring your kids, we will have kids’ crafting tables in basement of the Slovenian home.”
“DJ Kishka is working on a float,” adds Fleming. “He always has a float at Dyngus. Another interesting thing that’s come out of this is that we’ve decided to collaborate on these two events. Ours is pre- Lenten and theirs is post-Lenten, so they book-end each other nicely.”
Despite last year’s inclement weather, the festival attracted several thousand people.
Fleming says, “I think it will double this year. Clevelanders love their ethnic festivals. And people are just itching to get out.”