Big, Hairy Beast Wanders Northeast Ohio's Streets, Looking to Chase Away Winter

Old Man Winter better get out of the way of this guy!
Old Man Winter better get out of the way of this guy!
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When Jure Zmauc was a kid in his homeland of Slovenia, he recalls being scared by a towering, furry monster that wears a belt of big, brass bells as part of a festival called Kurentovanje. Today, he lives in Cleveland as the Slovenian Consul General, and smiles at the memory.

JURE ZMAUC: If you are ten-years-young, you’re a small boy, and they’re running with these big bells behind you --- it’s really scary.

I visited the Slovenian National Home on St. Clair this week to see preparations for this year's Kurentovanje Festival. Here we see Gerri Hopkins and Nicole Kusold help Michael Fleming into the Kurent costume.

Kurentovanje is the Slovenian version of Mardi Gras --- a mid-winter fertility celebration that anticipates the coming of Spring. The central figure in this ritual is the Kurent --- a seven-foot-tall pagan god that looks like an abominable snowman, wearing bells and a headdress of feathers and colorful streamers. Its mission is to chase away winter.

MICHAEL FLEMING: So, he could be considered our own Punxatawney Phil, right here in Cleveland.

Michael Fleming directs the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation, where he and his staff work in the historic Slovenian neighborhood on the city’s east side. He says suburbanization took away a lot of the community’s population, leaving a legacy of abandoned homes and buildings. Looking for a way to bring people back, the St. Clair Superior staff stumbled across the ancient festival through modern technology.

MICHAEL FLEMING: I don’t know if you know about your Outlook calendar, but you can do a Chinese calendar, a Russian calendar --- whatever you want. And so, we looked on the Slovenian calendar, and sure enough, there’s this festival called Kurentovanje. And a quick search on Wikipedia talked all about it, and you look at this mythical beast that was the center of the whole thing and you just knew immediately that we had to do this.

It turned out that the local Slovenian Museum and Archives had an actual Kurent costume in a display case. It was made by a specialty shop back in Slovenia that sews sheepskins together into a heavy coat. Add some clanging brass cowbells and a fearsome headpiece made of leather and feathers, and you’ve built a beast ready to affect seasonal change. For the first Cleveland festival in 2013, the organizers used that original costume and ordered three more, so that there were four of these hairy creatures lumbering down the street in a parade that features marching polka bands

After the parade, participants leave the streets and head into the Slovenian National Home --- an historic social hall, decorated with murals that depict scenes from the old country, and a recently renovated dance floor

Gerri Hopkins and her husband Bob run the hall and act as cultural shepherds, preserving the history, which today involves helping a volunteer try on the Kurent costume. Hopkins says there was a bit of a learning curve in organizing the festival that first year, especially when it came to the brass bells that are supposed to dangle from the front of the costume

GERRI HOPKINS: We went to Slovenia, this year, to where the guy made Kurents, and his grandfather started it. And he noted from the pictures that we had sent them after the parade that they were all on backwards! [laughs]

A new business on the block called the Upcycle Parts Shop is preparing a crafting workshop in the basement of the Slovenian National Home, where kids and adults alike will be able to make their own Kurent masks and other festival items out of old plastic bottles, cereal boxes, ribbons and yarn. Kurentovanje has attracted 2-3000 people the past two years, and St. Clair Superior’s Michael Fleming says they’re expecting even more this year.

MICHAEL FLEMING: It’s growing so much now, it’s going beyond what one building can hold.

Slovenian Consul Jure Zmauc says he’s thrilled that the city has embraced Kurentovanje, and he hopes that this year’s battalion of big, hairy beasts will be up to their task.

JURE ZMAUC: I hope that these guys --- I think almost ten --- will really do their job and push this winter and snow out of Cleveland!

The forecast calls for 20-degree temperatures, so here’s hoping those bells are really loud.

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