Author Archive
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Foodways

Czech New Years Herring

Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”

Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?

Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!

Proverbs

Respect your Siblings

Informant: “When I went to temple school a long time ago when I was a lot younger, we always learned a bunch of sayings and proverbs, or… I’m not sure what the difference is in English. But a very common one which I’ve had used on me a lot was

‘Anh em như thể tây chân’

which means

‘siblings are like your limbs’

The idea was if you were fighting with you brother or sister, they would say this to remind you that, you know, you’re stuck with your siblings so you might as well get along with them. Like, if you’re angry at your arm you wouldn’t just cut off your arm you just deal with it, or if your leg is hurting you, you just deal with it. In the same same way, if you’re angry with your siblings, you can’t just try to cut yourself off from them.”

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Collector Analysis: According to the informant, Vietnamese culture places an extremely large value on respect and family. This proverb is a clear example of this as it both shows the importance of one’s siblings, as they are just as important as your arms and legs, and it explains the importance of working together with your siblings. In much the same way as you need all of your limbs, you need your siblings and your family in life.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

You Don’t Start Catching Fish Until You Start Bleeding

Informant: “I know I’ve said this multiple times when I’m out fishing with someone, especially if we haven’t caught many fish yet, is ‘Welp, The reason we’re not catching any fish is because I’m not bleeding yet.’ Well, either ‘not bleeding’ or ‘haven’t hurt myself yet’. And if while I’m trudging along hiking to go somewhere fishing and I slip and fall and get all scuffed up or bruised or hurt or whatever, I think to myself, ‘ok, well now I’m going to catch fish because I’ve hurt myself’. And so these are things I’ve said many times over the years fishing, and I’d say that this is actually a true thing…most of the time. And part of the reason why this has ended up being a true thing is that you have a better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing in a part of the river that’s way harder to get to. Because, the average person is probably a little bit lazy, and they’re also not going to take risks. And so if you drive up to some spot and you get out of your car and you walk right down to the river and fish there, that’s probably where like a million people have fished. But if you’re like walking up the narrow steep river canyon, or trying to go down some spot where there’s not a path, and just try to go cross country to get to the river, if it’s really hard to get there, then hardly anyone or perhaps no one has fished there before. When you get to those spots, and I’ve been to a number of those spots in my life, the fishing can be just absolutely fantastic.

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Washington and Oregon (where he hopes to someday retire so he can “go fly fishing every single day for the rest of [his] life”) and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: In much the same way as there is folklore associated with different professions, there is also folklore associated with different hobbies; in this case, fly fishing. This particular proverb is interesting in that it implies a sort of balance in nature, and that everything has a cost. Specifically, if you want to catch fish, you have to prove that you really want them by bleeding a little. Of course, the informant’s explanation as to why this particular piece of wisdom is more correct than not is spot on. Also, humans tend to have an interesting relationship with pain. This collector has experienced independent times in which, when receiving a mild injury while performing a task, will think ‘well, I knew I was going to injure myself while performing this task, and now that I’ve injured myself, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. This particular piece of folklore is very probably just an extension of a similar chain of thought.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

It’s Bad Luck to Walk Under a Ladder

Informant: “I’m pretty sure this game from my Grandad [J] from Boise Idaho, and he was kind of a do-it-yourself-er around his house, and we used to go to his house every year over spring break. He had a ladder propped up against the side of his house, and I was over there and I would have been really small at the time, this would have been before I was twelve. And I was running around in the park next door, and playing in their yard and so at one point I ran under the ladder propped up against the side of the house and that ended up being a whole lecture. I remember I felt like I got in a whole lot of trouble, but the gist of it was that it was dangerous to do, and it was bad luck. So it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, and you never want to walk under a ladder. So, it was less about it’s dangerous, and more about its bad luck so you never want to do that. From that point forward, I never did. I mean, I never did. Even if I would look at a situation where there was a ladder propped up against something and you know that it would be safe to walk under, there’s plenty of space, it’s not gonna be an issue, and there’s no one on the ladder, I would still always kinda go around the ladder.
Anyways, later on in life, I guess I technically violated that because I was putting Christmas lights on the house in Oregon. I was hammering the lighting clips into the roof, and I reach a point where I needed to climb down to the bottom to move the ladder, and I left my hammer hooked on the top of the ladder. I go to the bottom, and I’m moving the ladder, and I think ‘ok, I’m gonna lift it up and move it over here in a way so it’s perched against the wall the whole time. And to do that, and not have it tilt way over, I had to stand under the ladder and use both had to move it. And as soon as I lift it, the hammer falls about fifteen feet and conks me right on the head! And it hurt, like, Heck! I probably have permanent brain damage from that and I had this giant bump on my head, and all because I broke my Grandfather’s rule of never walking underneath a ladder.”

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: For this particular superstition, it is very easy to see where it may have originated. Most likely, at some point in the past one of my informant’s ancestors had an experience similar to his own, and that stuck. At some point, the exact reasoning for it probably changed to superstition based on the fact that in many cases superstition can be stronger than a simple warning. Consider that if one tells a small child not to do something because it’s dangerous, they may still do it based on the fact that many small children seem to have an inherent belief in their own invulnerability, and might be convinced that they will be ‘careful enough’ to avoid injury. On the other had, if you tell a small child not to do something because it’s bad luck, well, bad luck is something that a small child knows that he cannot escape by simply ‘being careful’.

Folk speech
Proverbs

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

Informant: “One thing that I remember my grandfather [S] saying to me multiple times, it was ‘[Informant's name], a penny saved is a penny earned!’ And, so he grew up in the great depression, and that was some really tough times in America, and he saw all the hard things his parents had to do, and he as a kid had to do, and that caused people in his generation to feel like, if you find a way to save money, you know, not spend money you don’t need to spend, then that’s as good as earning extra money because that meant that you had that much money still available to you. I remember when I was little, we would go to California to visit him, and everyday they would be looking in the newspaper, cutting out coupons, looking for what the deal was, looking at the ads… basically figuring out everything for everything they were going to buy, where they were going to buy it from. If they were going to go out to dinner, they would make their dinner decision based off of who had a special, who had a coupon, who had a discount, those sorts of things, with the mindset of if they were going to spend money, but there’s a way to figure out how to spend less, then that’s just as good as making more money at your jobs. I find that I tend to think in the same way, where if I can figure out a way to spend less money, then it’s just like I just made more money from my job.”

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: This particular proverb serves to provide financial advice, in this case the importance of spending money wisely. It is interesting how nowadays this particular proverb has almost a different meaning to it based on the fact that a penny today is considered to be nearly valueless, whereas in the time period where my informant first heard this proverb, pennies were not an insignificant amount of money. In this regard, the proverb may not have aged particularly well, but it is still a valuable piece of advice regardless.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Myths
Narrative

La Befana

Informant: “So in Italy, there’s two things, so there’s La Befana, which is ‘The Witch’, kind of, I don’t remember exactly what it translates to, but it’s whatever the witch is. And then there’s Babbo Natale, and what that means is father Christmas. And so in northern Italy, this is kind of funny, in northern Italy the word Babbo, it’s kind of like saying daddy, but in the south part of Italy, it doesn’t mean daddy, it means like an idiot [laughs]. But that’s like saying ‘dad’ in northern Italy. So Babbo Natale, maybe that’s in the south now too, but mostly it was in the north, you know. And in the south, mostly they had La Befana. So the story was that on January 6th, which was the Epiphany, and they sort of matched it up so the kids in Sicily, they would get presents not from Babbo Natale, and they got presents not on Christmas day, but on January 6th which was when the three kings brought their gifts to Jesus. So La Befana would go around and she would give presents. So the story was that when the three Kings were going to Jerusalem to find the newborn baby Jesus, they stopped at La Befana’s house in order to ask for directions. When they left, they asked her to join them, but she said that she couldn’t because she had too much housework to do, but once they left she immediately knew she made the wrong decision, so she grabbed a bunch of small treats and went out looking for them, but she couldn’t find them, so she gave treats to every child she came across in hopes that one of them was the baby Jesus. So every year on the eve of the Epiphany, she goes out in search of Christ, and gives treats to all of the good children that she comes across. Though when [my sisters and I] were growing up, our parents wanted us to be American, so we didn’t have La Befana, we had Santa Claus [laughs].

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: This is an interesting variant on the Santa Claus story, or rather the ‘mysterious Christmas gift giver’ narrative. It almost seems like it has aspects of an urban legend scary story, as it almost seems like La Befana is ‘cursed to wander the Earth every year on the anniversary of [some event] because of the mistake she made’ which, in any other context, would seem exactly like the ending to some scary campfire story. However, she does it for benevolent reasons, so it’s all ok. It’s also curious to see how the informant’s parents tried to suppress her practicing of this particular bit of folklore in order to “Americanize” her and her siblings. It is also strange how an entity with as non malevolent of intentions as giving gifts to good children is given a name with such a negative connotation as ‘The Witch’.

Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Protection

You Should Never Go Into the Sea in a Month with an ‘R’

Informant: “I don’t remember how to say it in Italian now, but I remember the saying translates to ‘You should never go into the sea in a month with an “R”‘. I remember learning this when I was studying in Florence my Junior year of college, I was in Florence from January to June, but right in the middle, right around March, so spring break time, I went down to Sicily with a bunch of my friends. And it was a lot warmer than in Florence, but it wasn’t super warm, and so all of my friends wanted to go in the ocean, and my relative really had a hard time with that [laughs] because they were like ‘oh no, you can’t go into the ocean, it’s march’, and I said ‘So what if it’s march?’ and they said ‘you can’t, it’s a month with an r.’ And it was sort of a big deal. And I think the origin of this comes from, you know Sicily is an island, and in the past when a lot of people were poor, they didn’t go to school, and they didn’t know how to swim, and maybe it’s different now, but in the past most Sicilians didn’t know how to swim. And so if you go into the ocean when it’s cold, you might get a cramp or something, and you’re more likely to drown, plus in those months it’s colder, so if you think about it, January is cold, March, April… And May is warm, so that’s ok, and June, July, August. And September is starts getting cooler, and October, November, December. My friends ended up swimming anyways, but my relatives thought they were crazy…”

Collector [a few weeks after initial interview]: I was reading the transcript of my interview with you, when I realized that the Italian word for January, ‘Gennaio’, does not have an ‘R’ in it, despite this being one of the months you mentioned. How does this impact your opinion of this saying?

Informant: [short silence, then laughs] “Wow, you’re right! I can’t believe I never thought of that! Wow… that’s weird, I guess I had just always thought about it in English. Is that the only one? Wait… [Informant lists off all the months in Italian]. Yeah, so I guess that’s the only one that doesn’t work. All the other months that have ‘R’s in English also have ‘R’s in Italian except that one… Its so strange because I know when I was first told this, the person who told it to me said it in Italian. I guess maybe they just thought that they didn’t need to worry about January because it’s always so cold in January that no one would want to swim.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: Sicilians, living in a geographical area completely surrounded by water, would of course have a body of folklore concerned with when it is safe to go into the ocean, and when it is not. This saying serves as a mnemonic device to help remember when it is ok to swim in the ocean, and when it is unsafe to do so. For this reason, I would imagine that this originated more as a way to keep children safe from drowning in the ocean during the colder months in the winter as well as the late fall and early spring. Of course, this does not apply to anyone going out on the ocean, as most Sicilians would need to go out on the ocean year-round to support their livelihoods.

Customs
Earth cycle
Foodways
Holidays

Feast of the Seven Fishes (La Vigilia)

Informant: “In Sicily, well in other places in Italy sometimes too, but really in Sicily, on the Eve of the big holidays, so like Christmas Eve and New Years Eve, you’re supposed to eat fish, but in particular on Christmas eve. It was called the Feast of the Seven Fishes, though I actually think in Sicily they called it La Vigilia, for The Vigil. The real tradition is that you’re supposed to make seven types of seafood. So in Sicily, my mom and dad they always did this, so they would start cooking a few days before Christmas Eve. When we were growing up in Los Angeles, we would go down to Redondo Beach and my mom would buy all these fishes very similar to the fishes they would have in Sicily, so she would make calamari, like deep fried calamari. Oh, and one of the things she would buy is called baccala, which is like a dry, salted cod. I’ve actually seen it in some Italian places in St. Paul, they sell it in what looks like a big bucket, and it looks like just dried fish, and so you have to soak it in water overnight, and then you have to drain the water, and then you have to soak it again, and so basically you’re reconstituting the fish. And I think a lot of times people in Sicily have that one because there are a lot of poor people, and that kind of fish was really cheap. And so [my mother] would do that whole thing day after day after day, and then she would make this sauce that she would put this fish in like this tomato sauce, and then she would bake it. So she did baccala, she did calamari, she always did octopus salad. She would never make the kind of fishes that [my family has] like salmon, I never had salmon growing up. She would make these things called sand dabs, they looked like a kind of flatfish and she’d fry them, and anchovies and sardines, and she’d make this pasta with fennel and tuna sometimes… But she had enough fish to feed an army, when there were only six of us, but that’s very typical though in Sicily…What other fish did she make… oh, eel! She would always make eel. And I would have continued this tradition, except that [my children] don’t eat as much fish, that’s why I sort of incorporated it into [my family's traditions], that’s why we always have fish on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, so some years I would make stuffed salmon with crab and so on, but I found that [my family] just really liked crab, so that’s why we always have crab, and I figured, that was close enough.”

Collector: Was the exact number of fishes significant?

Informant: “Well, so it was feast of the seven fishes, though sometime we’d do nine, eleven, thirteen, but it’s always an odd number. I’m not really sure why, but it was supposed to have something to do with luck, like you’re never supposed to do an even number. As for fish, I guess with Sicily being an island, it was really easy for people to just go out and catch fish, and so that’s why they had fish.”

Informant is a retired math teacher, and a mother of three. Her parents moved to the United States for the Italian island of Sicily, and she was born in the United States and grew up in Los Angeles. She still keeps in touch with her Sicilian relatives, and will periodically visit them.

Collector Analysis: This particular piece of folklore is interesting in that it shows how certain folk traditions can evolve when they are practiced in different contexts, in this case, how the amount and type of fish eaten changed when the informant was celebrating this tradition in different locations and with different people, and yet the tradition is still in many ways the same despite these changes. Also curious is the fact that in Sicilian culture, the number 13 is considered lucky, while the number 12 is considered unlucky, which is the opposite of many other European cultures.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Wishing on a Star

Informant: “One interesting thing I remember doing as a kid was wishing on a star. The idea was that you had to wish on the first star you see at night, so if there was only one star in the sky, you would make a wish and not tell anyone, and it would come true.”

Informant’s daughter: “That’s weird, I had always heard the same thing, except it was supposed to be a shooting star, not the first star in the night sky.”

Informant: “Yeah, it was supposed to be the very first star you see. I actually don’t remember where I first heard about this, I don’t think I heard it from my mother. I think it was just something that kids would say. I know my sister and I both did this, and we would always wish for the same thing. We had a cousin who was blind, and we would both always wish that she wouldn’t be blind anymore…She’s still blind, so I guess that says a lot about how well this works…”

Informant is a middle aged mother of three who lives in the suburbs in the Midwestern United States. She identifies as of “American” heritage, which she bases on her admission that she never particularly looked into her family’s European heritage. The informant’s daughter is a recent college graduate.

Collector Analysis: It’s curious to see how for this particular piece of folklore, not only does the informant not know where she first heard it, but the informant’s daughter had heard an entirely different version of the same piece of folklore, making this folklore the inverse of a generational piece of folklore. Yet at the same time, there is some familial aspect to it, as shown by the fact that the informant’s sister had the same belief, and that the two of them would always use their wish to try to help their cousin.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays

Easter Lamb Cake

*Collector note: The Lamb cake in question is a cake in the shape of a lamb, not a cake made from lamb.

Informant: “In my family, we always had a lamb cake for Easter, I think this was a Central European tradition, mostly in Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. When I grew up in Chicago, there were a lot of German people in the neighborhood, and there were always German bakeries full of lamb cakes around Easter. The connection to Easter was that Easter was about Christ, you know, the Lamb of God. And so we would eat these lamb cakes for Easter. My mother would make it, so else sometimes we bought them in bakeries in Chicago. My aunt [M] said that her mother made lamb cakes as well. I always thought it was funny having lamb cake because we would tell people about it and people would say ‘oh, it’s like a meatloaf or something’ when really there was no lamb in it, is was just shaped like a lamb and didn’t have any meat at all. Though I know some people would sometimes hollow out the cake and put strawberry jam inside so when you cut it it looks like its bleeding [laughs]. I know other people would color their lamb cake with red food coloring to make the inside look like meat, but I always thought that would seem a bit to gory for me”

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector’s analysis: This particular tradition is an interesting take on some very core Christian symbolism. In the Christian faith (or perhaps, more specifically in the Catholic faith), there is this idea that the religious figure Jesus Christ was sacrificed for mankind. Because of the old, pre-Christian tradition of sacrificing ‘pure’ animals for religious purposes including lamb, Jesus Christ is frequently referred to as “The Lamb of God”. Thus, there is a connection between the Easter holiday and lambs. As for why the tradition is eating a lamb shaped cake rather than an actual lamb, the most likely explanation comes from the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on religious holidays, to which Easter was no exception. It should also be noted for this reason that the Czech republic, as well as the other Countries that the informant believes this tradition originated from, were all primarily Catholic nations during the period of time in which this tradition originated. As a side note, in this collector’s opinion, these cakes are absolutely delicious!

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