Author Archive
Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Name Day

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about one Polish holiday that he and his family celebrated when he was younger. This is his account:

“In Poland, there’s a tradition called Imieniny, which means Name Day. Just like how we celebrate birthdays here, uh it’s like a special day for everyone—but primarily kids and young people—and it’s just like a day where you’ll get chocolates and small gifts. The gifts are really cheap stuff from your family. Because even though you celebrate birthdays too, they’re not like, quite as big of a hullabaloo as they are here. And it’s just like, a nice day that is about you. So every traditional Polish name—and they’re constantly adding new ones, once they become popular—they get added to the calendar, so if you buy a calendar in Poland, each day has names at the bottom of each day. You get candy and sweets, and maybe a small toy. The gifts aren’t as big or expensive as the ones you might get on your birthday. So one year, just like I usually would, I got nice boxes of chocolate, and my mom cooked my favorite traditional Polish dish: kashanka, which is basically sausage. As I got older, we kind of stopped celebrating Imieniny in my family.”

Analysis: My informant’s description of this particular holiday seemed to bring back fond memories for him. As he said, it was a special day during the year that was “about him.” He got to enjoy special attention and receive gifts from loved ones; in those ways, it is quite similar to a birthday. Yet, I think, this holiday was not only “about him,” but also about Polish pride on a larger scale. This holiday celebrates people with traditional Polish names, thereby commemorating their historic ties to Poland. People have to consult Polish calendars if they want to find their name day, and then they will only find their name if it is considered to be traditionally Polish. For an immigrant family in America, Imieniny might have induced a sense of nostalgia; they were able to spend a day commemorating not only one member of their household, but also the culture that they came from. I would imagine that this kind of celebration would be comforting to immigrants who may feel homesick from time to time, and who value the ties they have to the country they were born in—and where most of their family still resides (as is the case for my informant’s family).

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Rakhi

My informant was born and raised in Fresno, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from India. He described the traditions his family has to celebrate the Indian holiday of Rakhi:

“Rakhi takes place in late August, and it basically resembles protection from one sibling to another sibling, mainly from a brother to a sister or a sister to a brother. I personally have a sister, and every August we celebrate Rakhi. What happens in Rakhi is we pass each other bracelets made of twine, sort of like friendship bracelets. And it’s not even just to my sister. My cousins from Canada, India, and like other parts of the U.S. like Chicago and New York, they always send us little bracelets in envelopes every single year. And um, we… My sister and I, we tie them on each other. We select a few and tie them on each other. And my parents do the same thing too, it’s not just for people our age. My mom has three or four siblings, and she always gets bracelets form her brothers and sisters, and same with my dad. Rakhi is really nice because it just shows the love between a brother and a sister, and it shows how much a brother protects a sister, and the love that a sister provides. And usually the guy gives his sister money, and the sister gives the brother some gifts.”

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are widely celebrated holidays in the United States, but in the U.S., the relationship between siblings is not commemorated in the way that Rakhi celebrates it. My informant is glad to have the chance to specially acknowledge his younger sister and to honor her in a traditional way. The actual actions involved seem relatively simple; the bracelets and gifts exchanged between siblings are not fancy and the phone calls shared between relatives would not take a huge amount of effort. Even so, it is wonderful to have a special day reserved for these small gestures that can make a big impact. It is interesting how this holiday perpetuates gender roles in a subtle way. The males are expected to protect the females; my informant says part of the reason the holiday is important is because it commemorates the way brothers protect their sisters. The females are expected to support their brothers in return. Even so, the underlying message of the entire holiday is the love siblings have for each other, and that is what my informant focuses on.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Diwali traditions

My informant was born and raised in Fresno, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from India. He described the traditions his family has to celebrate the Indian holiday of Diwali:

“What Diwali basically is, is actually the festival of lights. Me and my family, we celebrate it every year around October. It’s always towards the end of October but the actual date changes every year. So this year, it was actually when I was away at college. So what we did is I ‘webcammed’ with my mom, and the webcam was right there, and I saw all the rituals they were doing. And there’s actually two days of it. So we light candles, and the candles are supposed to represent purity and they’re supposed to guard us from all the impure things that happen in our house, like greed and dishonesty. And by lighting the candles, that gets rid of all of that. So the first day, they light up twelve candles, and the second day, which is the main day, they light up twenty-one candles. There’s twenty small candles in a circle and in the middle is one bigger candle. By candle, I mean something called a diya, which is like a wooden pot, so to speak. The bigger candle is supposed to be lit all night, and my mom usually stays up all night to like, protect it and see if it’s lighting up. And usually, our tradition is we stay up all night and play games and invite some family friends over. What we do on the second day is, after we’re done with the prayers and stuff is we eat. My mom always makes really good food. It changes every year based on our preferences, but it’s always our favorite food. So it’s a really huge deal for us and other Indian families. And three, four weeks before and after Diwali there’s always parties—Indian get-togethers—where everyone wears Indian clothes. And it’s always a big deal. We always call our relatives in India, wish them a happy Diwali. We light fireworks. Decorations include lights around our whole house—like Christmas lights—so usually our lights stay up from Diwali until Christmas.”

Diwali is a holiday rich in rituals that have been around for centuries, but my informant updated it in a way by participating in the rituals via webcam. They used new technology to perpetuate their old traditions. Like many folklore traditions, Diwali is unifying for my informant’s family; they make an effort to call each other to wish each other happy Diwali despite being thousands of miles away. It is interesting how one element of the holiday—the lights strung around the house—carry over so seamlessly from Diwali to Christmas. Despite the vast differences between these two holidays, they both incorporate decorative lights. Yet as my informant explained, the lights for Diwali are integral to the significance and meaning of the holiday in a deeper way than they are for Christmas. He said that the lights around the house and the candles lit inside the home are believed to protect the family from impurities. It is a pretty literal symbol, with the light combatting the darkness in the way that pure virtues should combat evil ones, but it is a beautiful one nonetheless. The beauty of the holiday paired with its religious and cultural significance as well as its unifying nature make it a very special one for people all over the world.

Customs
Foodways
Material

King Cake

My informant moved around quite a bit when he was younger; he spent a couple years in Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. In his adolescence, his family moved to Louisiana. Because that is where he went to high school and is therefore the last place he lived before coming to college, it is the place he considers his home. He is proud of being “from” the area near New Orleans. Here is his description of a traditional cake he ate around Mardi Gras:

“A King Cake is a circular cinnamon-roll like cake with green, purple, and yellow icing, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. It’s named after the three kings from the Bible. Growing up, I consumed King Cake at school with my classmates as well as at home with my family. The cake is consumed during the season of Lent and contains a small plastic baby, which represents baby Jesus. The person who gets the baby in their slice of cake is obligated to bring the King Cake for the following week. So we had King Cake every Friday at school during Lent, since on Fridays you’re allowed some reprieves from the strict Lent rules. The King Cake is very symbolic of one of the most festive times for Louisianans, and it brings all of the community together in celebration of the season. However, while delicious, the cake also serves as a reminder of the obligations one has during the season of Lent.”

This cake became such a significant tradition for my informant that when he went away to college, his grandma mailed him one. Mardi Gras is not nearly as big of a deal in Los Angeles—where my informant attends university—as it is in New Orleans, so he greatly appreciated the gesture. It reminded him of his home and the traditions he spent years celebrating, so it does make sense for him to be sentimental about a cake. What may seem like a simple dessert to an outsider actually has quite a bit of symbolism. As my informant said, even the colors of the frosting have meaning: they are the festive Mardi Gras colors. Food is often intrinsic to special celebrations, and Mardi Gras is the biggest celebration of the region my informant lives in. It is comparable to a birthday cake in that it is a cake eaten at a special time with family and friends, but the King Cake has an added community-building element. The fact the person who eats the piece with the little plastic baby in it has to bring the next cake means that the King Cake itself perpetuates the gatherings of those people. It provides a kind of assurance that they will all come together again in a short time to share the same food and celebrate the season. Therefore, one of the functions of this folklore is the guarantee that those people will meet again.

Customs
Game

Oh, Hell

My informant told me about a special card game that is unique to her family. This is her explanation of the rules of the game and the context it is played in:

“Okay, so this family tradition is  a card game that we play, and my grandparents brought it to the family. It was my grandmother’s grandma who taught it to her, and then my grandma taught my grandpa, and now it’s a big part of that side of the family. So whenever we get together for family traditions or for weddings—even if it’s not for everybody, even if it’s just my parents getting together with my grandparents—we always play this game. It’s called ‘Oh, Hell’. Everybody starts with ten cards, and you work your way down. The first round is ten, then nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, and you go back up to ten. And so every time you have your cards and there’s a card that’s trump, so that suit is trump, and you bid on how many cards or how many tricks you will take. It’s kind of like you’re bidding on how many you will get, and you want to get that many tricks. But then, sometimes you’ll get too many or too little, and there’s a point system that goes along with that. And we made our own score sheets for it. And it’s very much so a family thing, because it’s not a common card game that many people know of. We have taught other people, but nobody knows it right off the bat. Um, and… yeah. So I just went to wedding in Arkansas for a cousin on my mom’s side of the family, and all our relatives were there, so of course we played ‘Oh, Hell’. And we had—like we always do—we had multiple tables playing the game. And then, I guess we had two tables going, and then the top winners at each table created a winners table, and the losers at each table created a losers table. Um, and it went form there. So we had the big winner, and then the winner of the losers, and all that stuff. So it is a big thing, definitely on just my mom’s side of the family. We don’t play it on my dad’s side; it’s just a [name redacted] family tradition.”

My informant’s description of ‘Oh, Hell’ indicates how important this card game is to her family. It signals to them that they are all members of this family, because the people that immediately know how to play are all related. This is one activity that unites all the relatives, and as my informant said, it is especially meaningful when played at large family reunions or weddings. It brings all of the extended family together. My informant’s relatives live all around the country, so I can see that traditions like this are quite valuable in the way that they unify everyone. My informant is extremely close to her parents and to her brother; she is used to growing up in a very tight-knit family. ‘Oh, Hell’ allows her to grow closer to all of the people she is related to on her mother’s side. It is evident that one of the reasons her family stays so close is because of games like these that they can bond over. Thus, it is evident that one of the many functions of folklore is that it can be used to strengthen family bonds and build connections between relatives.

Customs

Family dinner prayer

My informant comes from a Christian household, and she told me about the prayers she and her family said before meals together:

“So what it is, is we have a family prayer that we say before every meal, but specifically dinner, when we’re all eating together. Um, and it’s something I learned from my parents because they both growing up as kids had their own family prayers that they said before meals, so when they were raising my brother and I, they came up with their own for our family. So my mom typed it up and cut it out with these fancy scissors so it looks nice, and she put it in a frame and hung it up right by our dinner table. So, whenever we sit down to have dinner, we always say it before we eat. And we say, ‘God is great, God is good, and we thank God for our food. Amen.’ And that’s something that when we get together with our other relatives—with our extended family—it’s something that they now say as well, because it’s been a tradition for our family so it carries over. And they have their own prayers that they say that we all say now too, so we have like, three small prayers that we go through as a huge family before we eat.”

Christianity was very important to my informant when she was growing up. She went to church every Sunday, and she says religion was extremely influential on her worldview and morality. Since coming to college, she actually stopped going to church. She is part of a Christian youth group on campus, but she says that her religiosity has waned since high school. Even so, when she returns home from college for vacations, she and her family still recite this prayer before every meal they eat together. She appreciates that they have this tradition. It not only reminds her of her Christian foundation, but also of the closeness of her family. This short prayer is a way for my informant’s family to give thanks for what they have and reflect on what they see as God’s impact on their lives. It also commemorates the beginning of a special time: family dinner. Because of all these reasons, this simple tradition has great significance for my informant. One thing that intrigued me about my informant’s account is that she says it’s a prayer that her parents thought up together before spreading it to their children and other relatives, as well as whoever joins them for dinner. Yet despite my informant’s assuredness that this prayer is entirely her parent’s creation, I remember hearing something very similar to it before. One of my good friends used to say a prayer much like this one before she ate with her family. My informant’s parents might have gotten the idea for their prayer from other similar variants, and then made it their own by writing it down and spreading it to their own family. The development of this prayer is one that reminds me of the way other folklore spreads: it is learned from one or more sources, and then spread in a slightly new way.

Game
general

Remyk

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about a card game that a Polish visitor taught him. This is his account:

“Okay so, the game is Remyk. You can play it with anyone you want, because it’s a card game. I learned it from my great-aunt, who came to visit us from Poland. It’s often played by middle-aged people who basically tailgate the parking lot after church. So you play this game with two decks, that’s important. The game is, you get thirteen cards, and you draw from the pile to get fourteen. And you want to get a sequence—so like, 2, 3, 4—or you want like three of a kind of four of a kind. And they’re all worth points; face cards are all worth ten. And to start off, you need to get 52 points before you can, like, lay any cards out. And if you can’t, you have to discard one, so you go back to thirteen cards. And eventually, you’ll have a combination of sequence, and like three of a kind or something, so it all adds up to 52. And then you drop that. So let’s say you drop nine cards, because you have like a 7-8-9 and like, three queens and three jacks. And then you still have, what, 5 cards left? And you discard one and you have four. So then from there the goal is to get rid of all your cards, and you can do so by like, adding on. So you have three queens and you pick up a queen, you can add it, because it’s like the same. Or you can add on to like a sequence. And if it’s like three queens, it has to be the fourth kind. And you just play until you’re done—until the last card is discarded.”

Analysis: My informant associates this card game with Polish culture for a couple of reasons. First of all, he learned it from a Polish relative. Secondly, as he said, the adults who he saw playing this game were all Polish, and they typically played in the parking lots of Polish churches. Yet he also admits that this game is basically gin rummy, a card game enjoyed by all nationalities of people today. A quick Google search of “origins of rummy” yields answers ranging from New York City to “the orient.” This game, then, is yet another example of the dissemination of traditions, and how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly which culture can “claim” something as their own. For my informant, this game connected him to the country his parents grew up in as well as to the various groups of people with whom he played the game. He said he usually played Remyk with his family, so the game was something for them to bond over. Therefore, Remyk is not only culturally significant to my informant, but it is important to him on an individual level as well. It connects him to his family. It is fascinating how something as simple as a card game can have more impactful implications when explored more deeply.

Myths
Narrative

Syrena

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about some of the similarities and differences between the ways that Christmas is celebrated in America versus in Poland. This is his account:

“Okay so, there’s a mermaid, and the Polish word for mermaid is Syrena. I don’t think she has a name. She’s just, like, “the mermaid.” And she frolics the world’s seas, and like waterways, I guess, with her mermaid family, because her dad is the ruler of water. He’s like, the king of water. And then one day she’s just swimming around, and she almost gets caught in a fishing net, and she needs to swim to shore to seek refuge because she’s hurt. And when she gets to the shore, she asks the river—because she can talk to all the waters—she asks the river, “Where am I right now? What’s going on?” And the river’s like, “Oh, you’re in Poland.” And the mermaid is like, “Oh. Okay.” And then the river offers to like, show her the lands, basically. She’s like, “Yeah, just swim upstream, and I can show you the beautiful lands that Poland has to offer.” And the mermaid’s like, “All right. That sounds awesome.” Um… so then they’re swimming, and eventually they swim towards like, a village. It’s called Mazowsze, and she just starts talking to the people there, and they’re all really friendly and hospitable. And she likes them and she decides to like, live with them. So then one day, the tribe is doing a hunt in honor of the prince, for whatever reason. And… But the prince has these golden arrows, and he’s on his last one, and he lost it, and he’s looking around for it on the banks of the river, and he meets up with the mermaid, because the mermaid, it turns out, had the arrow. And so she points him in the right direction of where she saw the reindeer that he was like, tailing. And then they get to this hut of the guy named Mr. Warsz, and he’s very hospitable and gives them food and shelter for the night. So they’re very grateful. And they’re in this beautiful clearing that this guy had like, set up. And then, because the prince was so grateful to this dude, he named the clearing Warszowa, which later became Warszawa, which is the Polish word for Warsaw, which is now the capital of Poland. So that’s the story of how Warsaw came to be.”

Analysis: My informant remembers this story from the times his mother told it to him when he was younger. He thinks she must have learned it from her parents; as he explained, “I mean, it’s a very culturally significant story, so I’m sure she heard it growing up.” This story is classified as a myth because it takes place essentially “before” or “outside” the real world. It has a sacred truth value because it is supposed to be an account of the formation of a nation’s capital; the mermaid likely did not literally exist, but she is accepted as “truth” and as an integral part of the narrative. It can be categorized as an origins story, for, like many myths, it explains how something came to be. These stories are, as my informant says, “culturally significant” because they provide an explanation for why the way the world is the way it is. The fantastical elements—golden arrows, talking mermaids—make the story intriguing, especially for children. Indeed, my informant was a child the first time he heard it. Yet it is also a story for people of all ages; children may be fascinated by the prince and the mermaid, whereas adults may take nationalistic pride in the fact that it is a story about Poland and its capital.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polish Christmas Traditions

Nationality: Polish-American
Primary Language: English
Other language(s): Polish
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, California
Performance Date: April 22, 2013

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about some of the similarities and differences between the ways that Christmas is celebrated in America versus in Poland. This is his account:

“In Poland, little kids are told that Santa Claus comes in early December. On the 6th, you come home form school. And there are gifts under your pillow. I don’t know why Santa puts gifts under your pillow, but he does. So they’ll be like, chocolates or little toys. Like small-scale gifts, like Pokemon cards or a Gameboy game. And the Polish tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve, not on Christmas Day. These are the gifts from family members, not Santa. And then we would sing Polish carols and stuff. Some of them are the same as English songs, but just in polish, like it’ll be “Jingle Bells” sung in Polish.”

Analysis: My informant’s broad descriptions of some of the differences between Polish and American Christmases seem to indicate that many of our traditions are the same. Some noticeable changes are that Santa visited my informant’s family on December 6th, whereas December 24th is his usual visitation date in the United States. My informant also mentioned that he didn’t understand why Santa put gifts under his pillow—instead of in stockings, as is common in the U.S.—but to me, stockings seem stranger than under pillows. This is one example of how certain traditions can develop seemingly arbitrarily; placing presents under pillows did not really make sense to my informant, but his family did it ever year, and putting presents in stockings seems somewhat silly to me, but my family keeps this tradition alive. Despite the lack of concrete explanations for these habits, they still certainly have meaning. Christmas in particular is especially ritualized because of its religious and cultural significance. And although these rituals may differ from Poland to the United States, the fact that citizens from both nations make efforts to sanctify this holiday show that these cultures both see Christmas as an important holiday. This common ground seems more significant to me than the specific differences in how it is celebrated; essentially, Christmas is a unifying celebration for multiple cultures.

Folk speech
Proverbs

“The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.”

My informant is from Washington, D.C. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia. This her explanation of a saying she has heard her father use:

“So since my dad is from like, the rural area of Ethiopia, he knows a lot of Ethiopian sayings. Some of them are based on like, stories. Um, I don’t know most of those. But my dad will just kind of throw them in random situations and they don’t really make sense to me. So one time was when this guy was like, doing something that my dad thought was selfish. We were at Costco and this guy didn’t put his shopping cart away after he used it. He just left it in the middle of the parking lot. So my dad looked off into the distance and said, ‘Well, you know what they say.’ Then he recited a saying in Amharic and then he translated it for us. And basically the meaning was, um, ‘The goat doesn’t get to keep the grass when he dies.’ It didn’t make any sense to me, but apparently it means, “Don’t be selfish about things just because you’re not using them anymore.” Sort of. At least, that was my understanding of it. It’s not a phrase I’m going to be using, but my dad thought it was important to share.”

My informant is someone who has somewhat of a language barrier between her and her parents. Her mother and father are fluent in Amharic, the language most commonly spoken in Ethiopia, but my informant does not speak or understand this language. Therefore, some things get lost in translation. This particular saying is one example of those miscommunications. My informant’s father is trying to relate to her, but she has a hard time understanding exactly what reference she is making. She’s had an urban American upbringing, whereas her father grew up on a farm on Ethiopia. She is not used to interacting with goats or observing goats’ interactions with grass. Sometimes, the places she and her father grew up seem worlds away. Despite the many cultural differences, my informant is ultimately able to understand the gist of what her father is trying to tell her. The literal meaning of her father’s saying may be confusing to her without the context that her father learned it in, but the important part—the message he is trying to convey—remains. In this way, this folk saying helps my informant’s father communicate with her, even if it is in a somewhat indirect way.

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