Author Archives: Claire Birnbaum


“If a woman cuts her hair on a full moon, then it will grow back very quickly”

Joe is a friend of mine who works in my dad’s office. He is 20-years-old and was born and continues to live in Los Angeles. His mom, who was raised in the Tongan Islands, raised him with many superstitions, which he still follows today. Joe knows many superstitions, most of which I have never heard before. This one, about haircuts on full moons only applies to women. Joe and I had discussed that this is probably because the moon and all lunar activity are closely associated with women. Joe shared this superstition with me at my dad’s office and consequently other employees overheard our conversation. Not one other employee had heard of anything like this superstition, and neither had I. Joe takes these generational superstitions very seriously. Joe and his siblings were taught by his mother, who was taught by her mother, and so on. He wasn’t sure how many generations back this tradition went, but he was sure it was ancient.

Joe chose to share this superstition because it was something that  he grew-up with, his grandmother, mother, aunts, and sisters all based their hair cuts on the moon’s cycle. Though it doesn’t apply to him, this superstition has affected him his whole life.

This superstition is significant because it shows a long tradition of women being associated and affected by the moon. Joe explained that in the Tongan Islands, there are dances and songs dedicated to the moon usually performed by women. Sometimes the moon is negatively associated with madness, which is where we get the word “lunatic” from, but in this case, this superstition simply shows a correlation between the moon’s cycle and women. As the stages in the moon change, the length of hair changes.


“My mom always told me not to go outside with wet hair or I would catch a cold”

Shauna was born and raised in Encino, California. She now attends CSUN in Northridge California, where she lives with her boyfriend. Shauna’s mother has a history of scare tactics. She would constantly warn Shauna about her actions, like going outside with wet hair. As a little girl Shauna always believed that the combination of cold weather and wet hair would result in a cold. She wouldn’t ever dare go outside with wet hair once her mother instilled that fear. Her mother wasn’t trying to traumatize her or forbid her from going out in the cold, but she wanted her daughter to be mindful of her actions and her health. The intention of the tale is good and many other people have heard it, used it, or believe it. As Shauna was telling me this old wives’ tale, her boyfriend Jon starting laughing at how seriously she believed it. So Jon interjected, explaining that according to MythBusters on the Discovery Channel, the catch a cold myth was a fake. All of a sudden there was a debate… was the saying true? Or false? For Shauna, because it came from her mother, she took it has a fact and there was no doubt about its authenticity. Shauna’s reliance and trust of her mother was extended to the old wives’ tale, which her mother told her. This shows that a tale’s importance and significance is relevant  and directly related to who passed it along.

Shauna shared with me because it is something she has followed since she heard it at 5-years-old. She did not want to acknowledge that it could be wrong because for her, doing so would discount other things her mother taught her. The reason that those sorts of old wives’ tales are still around is because people do believe them, or believe the person that told them and so the tradition carries on.

The myth was discussed here:

“Science Snippets.” Tenerife News 9 Apr. 2007. 22 Apr. 2007 (Canary Islands Spain)


“’This is how to start a thumb war, and both people should say it simultaneously…

1, 2, 3, 4 I declare a thumb war… 5, 6, 7, 8 Try and keep your thumb straight…’

This is the official thumb war starter, I always pronounce this rhyme before a battle! With the rhyme also comes hand gestures though, the competitors hands should be interlocked and then as the rhyme is said, the opponents cross their thumbs back and forth until the song is over and then the battle begins.”

Shauna was born and raised in Encino, California. She now attends CSUN in Northridge California, where she lives with her boyfriend. Shauna was taught this thumb war rhyme by her father when she was 3-years-old. Her father was always engaging Shauna with games and riddles and make a point of  always teaching her the “official way of doing things.” Shauna explained to me that thumb wars or thumb wrestling “is a serious sport, there are rules, and cheating is not tolerated!” The game is always started by the song and then two thumbs proceeded to battle until one thumb pins the other one, some variations have a specific number of seconds that the pinning must last, like in wrestling, but for Shauna, “a pin which lasts more than a second or two is legitimate.” The game itself is a common childhood game and Shauna remembers it being a game her parents used to suggest on road trips or plane flights when it was hard to carry a board game or other forms of entertainment.

Shauna demonstrated the rhyme and how to play the game when we were out to coffee, after learning the rhyme and the rules such as not using other fingers to help pin the other person’s thumb, we played. The idea of the game is obviously to play with another person, so not only was she a performer and taught me, I then became an active participant and could now teach someone else. I was a passive observer and then became and active participant.

Practice – Chinese

“Its Feng Shui- which I try to follow as best I can means literally translates to wind and water I think. Feng Shui is a set of guidelines to help harmonize your life. It correlates with nature and provides for a wonderful home. I recently learned of a rule regarding single women of all sorts whether they be divorced or widowed or whatnot. The rule explains that a single woman looking for a mate should have no pictures in her house of another single woman, meaning no women photographed alone should be displayed.”

Pamela is a native Californian, though she has traveled throughout the world, and even lived for short periods in other countries like Germany and Japan, she could never leave California. Her mother was born in Arkansas and her father in Minnesota; they raised Pamela and her two brothers in the Hollywood Hills. She learned about Feng Shui from a friend she met at a class who was practicing it. “I remember inviting her over when you were really little and she physically showed me where beds should be placed and where to hang crystals.” Pamela has always looked to other cultures to aid her in her own life because she values and is interested in what other cultures do in their daily lives. She has been practicing Feng Shui for about 20 years and follows as many rules as she can ranging from how a bed is arranged in a bedroom to designing staircases in the homes she has built. As my mom, she has passed many of the Feng Shui rules on to me to better my life. “There is a rhythm to life and Feng Shui helps me harness positive energy to ensure a steady rhythm in my own life.”

My informant uses Feng- Shui everyday and likes the results that she sees from following the ancient Chinese practice. The tradition of Feng Shui has probably continued around the world because of the “correlation with nature” and the easy to follow and understand rules. My mom considers herself a “very spiritual person” and Feng Shui fits perfectly into her ideal lifestyle. Most of the people I know who practice Feng Shui or read about Feng Shui are Americans and that shows the hybridization of globalization because we have taken American lifestyles and homes and added Chinese elements that we feel improve our lives.

Folk Remedy

“Everybody has their own cure for a hangover, but I swear by mine: cranberry juice like Oceanspray because the sugar made it easier to drink and a plain bagel- not toasted.”

Paula was born in Northridge, California and has three older sisters. She learned of this hangover remedy from her eldest sister, Susan, who had learned it from their mother. Paula and her sisters grew up in a household that avoided taking medication whenever it wasn’t absolutely necessary. So on the occasion that the girls had a hangover while still living at home, they always drank “an ice cold glass of cranberry juice” and ate a plain bagel. The logic was “that if we drank something sugary we would have a better chance of finishing it and it would better hydrate us. The bagel was to absorb the alcohol.” Now she still follows the same remedy, but for different reasons, when she needs it and she also passed it along to her children. Paula now explained that she still drinks cranberry juice because although it does hydrate her, the sugar also balances out her blood sugar. As for the bagel she explained, “I think my mother was just trying to get us to eat something, she always thought it was best to start out the day with something light. But I do feel like a bagel actually does serve as a great remedy for a hangover!”

Folk Medicine is a universal thing because everyone gets sick with the same illnesses and tries to find their own relief. Though certain parts of the world may grow a certain plant that is unavailable elsewhere and so their remedy is isolated, the idea that people search for remedies is a frequent thing. Who doesn’t have a hangover remedy? The notion that everyone creates their own concoction for a hangover is a powerful notion, it says a lot about people’s constant and persistent drive to find cures and better our lives. It’s a great accomplishment to say that everyone has a remedy because it diffuses power equally. People trust their friends and family and when it is possible to utilize those sources for a health concern rather than a multi-billion dollar corporation it is a nice change from the normal top-down system. The notion of folk medicine truly emphasizes how folklore is a horizontal method of communication.

Proverb – Tongan

“Koi Kulee oko kalo, oku ekai ke kalo”

This Tongan proverb translates in English to the American proverb that “The dog that barks, doesn’t bite.” Joe is a friend of mine who works in my dad’s office. He is 20-years-old and was born and continues to live in Los Angeles. His mom, who was raised in the Tongan Islands, raised him with many proverbs. Joe first heard this proverb when his mother was trying to teach him to be an ambitious and active member of society. “She had told me that simply talking about my goals wasn’t enough until I tried to reach for them. She would remind me that sitting idly was not utilizing my skills to their full potential.” Proverbs as Professor Mieder explained can be very powerful and motivational. Examining the proverb with Joe mom’s intended meaning is evidence for how proverbial speech can be used to accentuate a point and educate.

“The dog that barks, doesn’t bite” can also be interpreted to mean a person who threatens is not going to act on it. Both meanings deal with talking and not acting like the proverb “talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.” The origin of the proverb is uncertain, but it is probably not from the Tongan Islands even though it is used there quite frequently according to Joe. The meaning is the same in America, in Tonga, in Spain etc which shows a general agreement between countries about particular proverbial speech.

Folk Medicine – New York

“If you drink a glass of warm water mixed with mustard you will vomit… this drink’s combination is an emetic ”

Neil is a personal chef in Los Angeles, California. He grew up in New York and moved out to California for college. After graduating, Neil remained in the city managing restaurants and then settled into a career as a personal chef. He lives in Hollywood with his dog Jane. Neil explained to be that he had to use this emetic on his dog when she accidentally consumed some aspirin. Neil learned this remedy from his mother who taught it to him before he moved across the country for college in case of an emergency. Neil had researched the emetic before giving it to Jane and learned that is was not harmful to big dogs if given in little doses. Jane recovered well from the incident.

Folk Medicine is a universal thing because everyone gets sick with the same illnesses and tries to find their own relief. Though certain parts of the world may grow a certain plant that is unavailable elsewhere and so their remedy is isolated, the idea that people search for remedies is a frequent thing. There are manufactured and purchasable emetics but the use of a homemade remedy may be less intrusive and toxic. By transferring and sharing folk medicine through horizontal mode of communication, people can learn a lot about other cultures and other culture’s remedies. The notion of folk medicine is sustainable because of the acquisition of new information is beneficial for everyone.

Folk Practice

“Cut flowers last longer if you put sprite or aspirin in the water”

Michael was born and raised in Northridge California. He has three brothers all still living on the West Coast. Michael studied horticulture at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and then opened his own business in Beverly Hills. Michael is extremely knowledgeable in regards to plants- he knows all names both common and scientific. He has mastered how to care and maintain plants. Michael taught me how to prolong the life of cut plants in my house like a vase of flowers. The simple procedure  of adding a dash of sprite soda or an aspirin into the water will keep flowers alive longer. Chemicals in the 2 additives keep the flowers healthy. Michael remembered investigating this folk remedy at school, “sometimes people even add a small amount of bleach in the water for the same effect. There are many little tricks to maintaining cut flowers, scientifically I’m not sure which have been proved but I know what works for me and my clients.”

Alan Dundes claimed Americans have always been a society to further advance science and this remedy falls in line with that claim. People tend to invent and experiment with improving their surroundings and this is a popular remedy for quick dying flowers. Michael explained that “he always adds a splash of sprite” when he has some in the refrigerator. He explained his remedy to me as he prepared some flowers for his house, pouring about 1.5ounces of sprite into the vase before he added his freshly cut flowers.

Legend – Beverly Hills, California

“The Witch’s House”

I grew up in Beverly Hills and it has been a tradition to visit “The Witch’s House” on Walden Drive. The house was built for the movies originally and was then transformed into a private residence. The house is a landmark, it’s a Beverly Hills destination, the only one not consumer driven unlike Rodeo Drive and others. The house itself looks like a stereotypical witch house straight out of a fairy tale. The house has a magical aura. I first learned about the house when my mom and I drove by it when I was a toddler and she explained that it was a magic house with fairies as residents. As a toddler it seemed perfectly logical that fairies would live in a house that looked like that, with this wave-like undulating sides, pointy roof, and moot. As I got older though and learned the reality about the house it still remained somewhat legendary to me and still does (along with all my friends who underwent the same sort of transformation).

My mom remembers that “The Witch’s House was put on the market about 10 years ago and the hired real-estate agent bought it.” The agent bought the house in order to preserve the house so that no one would tear it down- it’s a historic piece of the city. The Witch’s House is a legend of Beverly Hills and all the residents know the house and its story. It is still around and talked about because generations of residents feel a connection to it.


“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”

“Since I was a little kid I’ve always heard the saying that an apple a day keeps the doctor away… I’m sure my mother or father told it to me at some point. I don’t use the proverb much myself anymore since my kids are older now but I used to and I think the message of eating healthy is valid and important.” The rhyme would be used to convince children to eat their fruits and vegetables by scaring them with a doctor’s visit. The proverbial message is a sort of legend because children do believe it to be true but the rhyme itself is also legendary because it is so well known and used.

Because the proverb rhymes, there is an indication that the main audience for it would be children. Its short, easy to remember and rhyming. In a way, this proverbial scare tactic is folk medicine as well because it is a practical and daily exercise of doing something good for your body to prevent illness. The proverb could say “Eat Vitamins and avoid illness” but that doesn’t even compare to the power of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away!”

Proverbs that teach a lesson or impart wisdom are sustainable because they tend to be passed down because a valuable lesson can be taught very simply and accessibly. Parents can share this proverb with their  children without having to go into detail about vitamins and sugar content because for children this proverb explains it in a straightforward and undemanding way.