Author Archives: Juliette Kaplan

Festival – Philippines

All Souls Day of the Philippines:

This is celebration of the dead that happens in November and was described by the informant as such: “I think it is similar to the Spanish, Day of the Dead thing.  All it is, is everyone goes to the cemetery and has a big picnic and everyone goes around saying, ‘ooohhh how aaarrre you, how long as so and so been dead now?’ It is a time to honor the dead but also for those still living to visit eachother. We would go either to Abukay or in Manila… it was usually Manila after my brother died and was buried  to go visit his grave.  We would all get in the car after packing it with food that had been prepared for days before and then go there and… I’m telling you, it’s really just like a big picnic.  And yes there were candles, and flowers, enough to where as a kid I was aware that this was aware of the honoring of the dead part, I didn’t just think it was a huge picnic.  And towards the end, all of us kids would go around to all the candles and collect the melted wax to try and build up the biggest wax ball.”

In Filipino culture, there is a very distinct comfort with the dead.  I am personally familiar with this simply by observing the differences between my mother and father.  My Filipino mother—an it is the same with her whole family–, will freely laugh and joke about the prospect of dying, she will bring up at dinner the precise actions she would like her children to take upon her death, she will talk about the death of her relatives as if it was any other life time occurrence.  To all of this, my Russian-Jewish father will respond with, “don’t say that!” or, “why are you talking about that!?”.  My mother has always been very comfortable with the idea of death while my father is terrified of it.  This story, which she had never told me prior to this interview, simply shed more light on the origin of her nature.

The Philippines is a very Catholic country, and my mother had a very catholic upbringing.  With Catholicism, comes the belief in a heaven and thus a nearness to God and a generally positive situation to look forward to.  Now that I have mentioned him, it is interesting to compare this with my father’s upbringing as the son of two scientists in communist Russia, for whom death is then end, the stopping of a heartbeat, the cessation of cell reproduction.

This celebratory practice, shows the people of the Philippines interacting with the dead, they are not spooky or distant.  Indeed their souls are still remain, and the living go to them to seek them out and honor them.  What’s more, those who are living enjoy themselves on this day.  It is not a day wrought with misery and pain, but quite the contrary to remember and honor the dead in a positive light, and to interact with them in a merry and festive way—eating with the dead and chatting among them and about them as if they were physically present.  They are not seen as  dead, they are simply in a new life, and this ceremony invites them back into their former life as best they can.  My mother told me this story, as to be expected, without a hint of sorrow. For her this was like any other holiday celebration, it might as well have been a birthday.


“What’s worse than a dead baby?

…a pile of dead babies”

“What’s worst than a pile of dead babies?

…a live one on the bottom”

“What’s worse than a live one on the bottom?

…the live one on the bottom eating his way out.”

“What’s worse than eating his way out?

…going back for seconds.”

After the last line, and in response to the wide-eyed, open-jawed expression of sheer shock upon my face, the informant closed by saying, “and that’s the joke.”  The informant confessed that the audience for whom he would perform this joke, or anyone with whom he would share it was a folk group he defined very precisely as “only people who I know wouldn’t be utterly offended.”  The informant explained that he could not remember where he originally heard the joke, but answered generally with a shrug of his shoulders, “friends?”

The “Dead Baby Joke” is not a recent phenomena, in fact Alan Dundes wrote an entire article on their prevalence among teenage boys in the ‘60s and ‘70s (Dundes, 1979).  But as with many other things, there has been a recent resurgence in their popularity among a particular with the internet as such a readily available source of exchange.   Naturally, there are webpages upon webpages, exclusively dedicated to them– a google search brings over sixteen hundred hits.  There are forums of internet cult groups who do nothing but share, discuss and create this genre of humor.  The informant seemed to believe that the dead baby joke was a new and budding genre that grew in direct relation with its internet popularity— it is quite likely he never would have been apart of this folk group should it not have been for the internet.

This joke does not have a punch line.  There series of question seems to set up an incongruity without anything incongruous.  The incongruity comes from the absurdity of the question.  The listener is left to expect some kind of clever pun, or play on words that he or she perhaps did not foresee, but in the end the answers end up being a perfectly logical, sequence—which is completely unexpected.  It was for this reason that the informant felt the need to confirm to me that the joke was over.  Ultimately, there was no joke, but the absolutely shocking nature of the degree of ridiculousness creates such a sense of disbelief in the audience that a “joke” is effectively created.  I believe the informant’s summarized his own, similar analysis by telling me, “people will most likely think [dead baby jokes] are completely unfunny.  But I think they’re funny.  They’re just so grotesque and over the top that its beyond reality! So all that’s left is it has to be funny!”

Annotation: An pre-internet age analysis of the Dead Baby Joke can be found in the following article:

The Dead Baby Joke Cycle

Alan Dundes

Western Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3. (Jul., 1979), pp. 145-157.

Stable URL:

Story – Philippines

Ghost Story

“Biata is the ancestral home of my mom’s grandparents.  The family still lives there but no one in the village ever wants to come near it.  Everyone would say that there was a ghost lady appearing there, that it was haunted by the old owner of the house… she was an old, rich lady at the turn of the century in the late 1700s.  She died there and everyone still thinks she haunts it.  Even my family—no one will sleep alone in a room when they are there, even my cousins have stories where they swear they have seen her.  Tita Ada has to pay TONS of money, even now, anytime she wants a carpenter to come and fix something because no body wants to go over there.”

The informant began this story with the disclaimer, “Filipinos are really into ghost stories, people are always seeing faces or a reflection or something… every now and then Biata would show up, then my dead grandmother was seen walking around.  I never saw them, but as a child was still wary of the prospect.”

As far as the general Filipino trend and preoccupation with ghost sightings… I am not sure.  But in this particular case I think there are legitimate reasons for imagined haunting by this particular ghost.  Abukay is not a terribly big village, and Biata is one of its oldest and largest homes.  I do know that that side of the informant’s family has quite the lineage of old, unfriendly women.  Throughout many generations now there have been more daughters than sons, and especially with  the absence of these sons due to various Wars and conflicts.  For at least the last century, this house has been filled with women, who become old maids, and have very long-living genes so they whither in that house until they two are dead.  Even now, the current generation is three old sisters who occupy Biata.  I would imagine, that after a first sighting of a ghost long ago, this story was simply perpetuated by image of the living occupants.  Who would doubt that the ghost of an old lady is there, when the majority of people who live there are a bunch of old crones.

Legend – Hong Kong, China

Chinese New Year Story

“So, um, a long time ago, there was this really scary monster that lived on a mountain called… like, I guess you would translate it as Year Monster.  On the last day of every year this Year Monster would come down from his mountain to the nearby village and would terrorize this village… and so all the villagers were very scared every time it was new years eve.  And so.. on year, um, the villagers were, you know, getting ready to like run away from the village for one day in preparation for the coming of the monster.  But this old woman who could not move was left behind… and so she was really scared and so she was sitting in her kitchen and then at that time there was an old beggar who, in passing, asked the old woman for something to eat.  So this old woman gave him something and the beggar asked “why isn’t there anyone in this village? That’s really strange.” And this old woman told the beggar about the Year Monster and so after this beggar listens to her story, he laughs and says, “haha! Don’t worry! I have an idea” you need to prepare some red cloth and red paper to paste on the door and light as many lights as you can.” And so night fell and the Year Monster came to the village and the beggar sat in front of the door and burned bamboo canes which made piercing noises and the Year Monster was scared and he was rolling about on the ground and saw this red light that hurt his eyes and he cried, “oh this is so painful!” and he was so scared that he just went back to his home in the mountains.  The next day the villagers went back to the village and they were surprised to see the old woman still there.  The old woman told her what had happened and so in celebration of scaring away the Year Monster, everyone started calling the day that the monster was supposed to come down in the village, “passing of the  year.” And so since then as a tradition, every year people would set off fire works and paste red spring festival cutlets on their doors.

This is a story told to the informant around the time of Chinese New year when she was growing up in Hong Kong.  She said that both her grandmother told her this tale, and they were also read a lengthier version in school.  We can see from the telling above that there are moments of hesitation where the informant is trying to piece together the sequence of events and details of the story.  The informant is in a transitional stage of life where she has not quite reached the status to be a teller of the story, but also has not been young enough to have it told her for quite a few years.  She expressed an excited nostalgia when recalling this story and quickly recalled more details… “Oh and then after they would read to us, we would all make red spring festival cutlets! And we would decorate them and write our calligraphy on them.”

The Year Monster in contemporary form: Chinese dragon

The other pieces of the story also serve as an explanation for other traditional elements of Chinese New Year celebration. The essence of the burning bamboo canes clearly remains with the rampant tradition of fireworks.  The informant could not emphasize enough the prevalence of the fireworks, “they’re going off ALL the time.  Everyone just gets used to it, it’s like the sirens of the emergency vehicles in Los Angeles except ALL the time.” Although in the actual practice of lighting the fireworks, there is no longer mention of the scaring away of the Year Monster.  The Year Monster itself remains in the form of the dragon and dragon dancing that is also a traditional part of celebratory practices.

It is interesting to note the unlikely heroism in this story.  The old, disabled woman and the beggar seemed to me a very unusual pair to be in the business of warding off terrorizing monsters.  When I inquired about this to the informant, she was struck for a moment as she had never thought of this before but was eventually able to recall an interesting parallel in Buddhist culture, she explained, “yeah that’s strange isn’t it… yeah actually now that I think about it, I remember there is something about in Buddhist culture, the Chinese equivalent of… spirits? No I guess more like angels, come down and pretend to be beggars to test people and see if they were kind.”  It seems the philanthropy of this old woman serves as model Buddhist behavior, whether the beggar was an angel or not, he repaid her generosity by saving her life along with offering future protection to the rest of the villagers.

Folk Belief – Bengali, India

“Never sit on a pillow, because creatures will grow in your butt”

The literal translation of this proverb is, “On the pillow, if you sit, creature pimples will be.”  In India, more often than not, one is sits on the ground.  Typically there are mats on the ground, and a top the mats sit pillows.  Although, the purpose of the pillows are not to cushion one’s rear, rather, they are to cushion one’s back:  the pillow is to be placed against the wall so a person my comfortably rest against it while sitting on the ground..  This little saying, is quite clearly recited between anyone, but particularly to children to remind them that the pillow is not for sitting on, but against.  The informant admitted that even now, he will never sit on a pillow under any circumstances.  The image is fantastically unpleasant, particularly because a pillow is, quite literally, a very plausible nesting area for bugs and creatures and anything that may have been crawling on the ground beneath it.  This, in conjunction with that perfect plausibility of a creature of this sort crawling up one’s behind, is a thought unpleasant enough to discourage anyone from taking this risk.

I think it is also to note that the translation is “creature” rather than bugs or insects.  The ambiguity leaves the recipient of this warning to the no limits but his own imagination. There is a certain, mythical element here, the creatures could be anything horrible, appealing to anyone’s idiosyncratic phobia.