Author Archives: Cameron Steurer

The Pink Tutu

When his granddaughter Lauren was a little girl, she was the biggest tomboy in the family. She was entirely devoted to sports and bugs, and hated girly things, especially the color pink and the ballet lessons her mother tried in vain to make her take.

As a joke for her 12th birthday, he got her a pink tutu. Because the entire family, including other aunts and uncles and cousins, lived nearby, the whole family was there when Lauren opened her grandfather’s present. Naturally, everyone including Lauren was incredibly amused.

Lauren ended up regifting the tutu back to her grandfather that very Christmas (again, in front of the whole family), which kicked off a new family tradition. Each gift-giving holiday (Christmas, Easter, any family member’s birthday), the tutu passes to another family member. The gifter always attempts to regift the tutu in a creative fashion. Some have put it on stuffed animals, others opt for more of a surprise regifting by hiding it inside another present or wrapping it in a box specifically shaped for a different gift. It’s always a challenge for each subsequent recipient to figure out a new and funny way to regift the tutu.

The tradition has been going on in his family for a little over a decade now, and it’s well-known even to family members who live too far away to participate as frequently as the group who lives in North Texas. It’s a way to keep the family close to one another, even as grandchildren graduate and go off to college or even move out of the house to start their own lives in new cities. The family always looks forward to seeing who the next recipient of the tutu will be, as it has become a main event during family holidays and gatherings.

Holiday Mashed Potatoes Recipe

Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, the informant’s grandmother would make mashed potatoes from an old family recipe. “We Irish love our potatoes,” she said. The recipe isn’t written down anywhere. Her grandmother only passes it down on her side of the family, and in order to memorize the recipe correctly, one must memorize how the potatoes taste when they’re made correctly. Anyone who wants to learn the potato recipe has to spend several holiday seasons making the potatoes alongside someone who already knows the recipe and correct balance of ingredients by heart. The learning process is like an initiation ritual for that side of the family. Almost everyone descended from that side knows how to make the potatoes. The informant says that she got her grandmother’s permission before giving away the recipe. “My grandma doesn’t think anyone would be able to get the flavor balance right anyway, even with the ingredients list,” she said. The ingredients are as follows:

Fresh and hot batch of mashed potatoes, made from scratch, sour cream, plain cream cheese, butter, heavy cream, salt, and white pepper. Her grandmother says it’s important that the potatoes be tangy, but not too much. “It’s a season to taste type of thing,” says the informant.

The informant and her grandmother have been making the potatoes together for several years. They only make them during Thanksgiving and Christmas when the members of their extended family are around to enjoy the potatoes.

Texan Proverbs/Sayings

The informant says she grew up in Texas, and naturally picked up some Texan proverbs during her years there from neighbors, friends’ families, and teachers. However, she finds that they don’t always translate well to others.

Take, for example, the saying “They tried to hang him, but the rope broke.” It’s a saying that means someone has been incredibly lucky, but the informant recalls saying that to a new friend at college and getting a weird response. “I said this to her while we were talking about one of our friends who forgot to study for an exam, only to have the exam pushed back a week that same day. My friend looked at me, kinda horrified, and asked if we really still hung people in Texas. I had to laugh because I didn’t know how else to respond.”

Interestingly enough, this is one of a handful of colorful Texan sayings that were published in Anne Dingus’ 1994 article about Texan speech in Texas Monthly. The article was published in the magazine itself a day after it ran online. Here is a link to the online article:

Another saying that the informant recalls using with frequent confusion is “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” which essentially advises people that if you can’t accomplish something one way, then you should try doing it a different way because it might be successful. “My friends had practically the same response to this proverb that they did to the one about the hanged guy being lucky,” she said. “It took me the longest time to convince them that Texan proverbs are very… metaphorical in the most colorful way possible.”

Swedish Årsgång: The Year Walk

The informant heard this particularly sinister and magical ritual from a Swedish friend from Malmö when she was studying abroad a few years ago in Europe.

The pseudo-pagan ritual of Årsgång, which, when translated to English, means Year Walk, was meant to reveal visions of the future to a person willing to perform the walk. In order to perform the ritual, the walker would have to make several sacrifices and meet multiple requirements. The first requirement was that the ritual be performed on a certain night, most often Christmas or New Years’ Eve, sometimes at the winter solstice, but always at midnight. For an entire day before taking the Year Walk, the walker must sit inside a dark room, and is not allowed to eat or speak. This was meant to disconnect the walker from the physical world, and open them up to the spiritual world before the ritual. The walker was to emerge from the room exactly at midnight and head to the town church, where he or she would walk counterclockwise around the building. The walker would then go up to the door of the church and blow into the keyhole, renouncing their faith temporarily. This would fully open the walker up to the world of the spirits and visions of the future, but it also invited great danger. Year Walking was full of risks.

One could expect to encounter many terrifying Swedish entities, such as the brook-horse (bäckahäst) and the huldra.  The brook-horse took the shape of a normal horse, and it would invite children to ride on its back. Each time a child mounted the brook-horse, its back would lengthen to accommodate yet another rider. When the horse felt it had enough riders, it would jump into a body of water, drowning all of its riders and taking their souls for its own. The huldra was a deceptively beautiful female entity, who often had bark and treelike features growing on her back instead of skin. Said to be the forest guardians, they would lure people to their homes to either marry them or kill them. Either way, the victim would be lost forever.

The walker’s ultimate goal was to look into the windows of the church (or to reach the town cemetery, depending on the locale) in order to receive visions of the future. If the walker encountered any of the Swedish entities, including the two mentioned above, the walker could escape with his or her life if he or she was able to resist the entity’s temptation. Visions of the year to come would appear in the cemetery or in the windows of the church, and the things the walker saw would symbolize the events to come that year. The Year Walk would end once the walker made it back to the church to reclaim his or her faith.

Årsgång was more commonly performed centuries ago, when magical beliefs ran much deeper in Scandinavia. The ritual was a feared one; not all walkers returned with their lives, and others went insane upon returning from the walk. Of course, the steps of Year Walking vary, as it’s a very localized ritual, mostly passed down by word of mouth.

In his doctoral dissertation on magic in Swedish black art books, Thomas K. Johnson, Ph.D. briefly discusses the ritual of Årsgång. I found a PDF version for free online directly at this link:

How To “Cheers” Properly on New Year’s Eve

In the informant’s family, it’s unacceptable to clink glasses at a New Year’s Eve celebration without making direct eye contact with the other person for the duration of the toast. She says the tradition – and the superstition behind it – come from her mother.

“My mom always used to remind me to look people in the eyes when we raised our glasses in a toast,” she says. “She believed that avoiding eye contact would not only prevent good luck, but would actively invite bad luck upon the topic of cheers.” So if, for instance, someone made a toast to good health, her mother feared that avoiding eye contact during the toast would most certainly result in the death or illness of someone at the gathering.

The informant says her mother got the belief from someone she met in college. That person’s belief stemmed from a personal belief that looking into one another’s eyes connects people, and that it is this connectedness and positivity during a toast or a wish that determines that toast’s or wish’s success.

The Ghost of Lake Bella Vista

The informant and her family used to live in Rockford, Michigan next to Lake Bella Vista. She says she grew up with the legend of the ghost of Lake Bella Vista, hearing it from neighbors and family members. She says she first heard it from her father.

According to the legend, a man who used to live on the lake went swimming late (well past midnight). He dove down under the water, and got his foot caught between some rocks at the bottom of the lake on accident. Without anyone around to help him, the man drowned, leaving his family behind. Years later, a group of teenagers (a horror story trope many will recognize) went swimming in the lake late at night. one of the girls started screaming that something had grabbed her leg, and before her friends could get to her, she was pulled under. Her friends swam to shore as fast as they could to get away from whatever it was that had pulled her under. They found the girl’s body floating in the water the next morning with a black handprint encircling one calf.

The informant says that the story is one usually told to kids at family get-togethers with neighbors and guests. Whoever tells the story usually pantomimes along with the narrative, and involves the audience by grabbing someone in the front row and pulling on their leg just as the ghost in the story had done. The informant says that the most performative part of the legend is when the storyteller puts a big, muddy handprint on the leg of the front-row “victim”.

Treehouse in the Woods Legend

One of the older members of her neighborhood back home in Yorktown Heights used to tell the neighborhood kids about a treehouse that she and her brother built together years ago when they were just children. The elderly neighbor claimed that the treehouse was in the woods just outside of the town limits.

All the children wanted to find the treehouse, and spent months searching as deep into the woods as they could without getting lost or hurt. As far as she knows, no one has found the treehouse yet, but to this day kids still go looking for it as older children pass the legend down to their younger siblings. Some of the parents even join in, some out of curiosity and others to make sure the youngest kids don’t get hurt when they join in the search. While the legend hasn’t been proven false, the treehouse has yet to be found. Unfortunately, the elderly neighbor who supposedly built the treehouse has since passed away, so it’s up to the neighborhood children to keep the legend going.

Los Angeles Tunnel System Legend

The informant heard this legend from a friend who has lived in Los Angeles for her whole life.

Underneath Los Angeles, there exists a system of tunnels that runs the breadth of the whole city. Some say it’s because Los Angeles was modeled after Paris, and the Paris Catacombs inspired Los Angeles’ tunnels. The tunnels existed during the prohibition era, and the legend says that corrupt policemen and officials would smuggle alcohol into and around the city to those who were willing to pay. Apparently, the tunnels were declared an earthquake hazard later on, and the city closed them off to the public.

There is some variation in the legend from person to person, she says. One person she asked about the tunnels said that there was an entire network of criminals still living underground in the tunnels.


Lavender and Other Folk Remedies

The informant listed off several folk remedies she learned from her parents and grandparents:

For colds, she said her mother and grandmother would always give her echinacea, and for nausea they would use ginger to calm her stomach.

Her father always uses peppermint for nausea. She says you’re supposed to inhale the peppermint because the aroma is good to settle the stomach and aid digestion.

Lastly, her father uses lavender for earaches. As a child, the informant always used to get earaches. She had developed an immunity to most mainstream antibiotics because of multiple illnesses earlier on in life. Because of this, the bacteria in her ears couldn’t be treated with antibiotics. Her dad would boil lavender, let it cool to a slightly warm temperature, and then pour it in her ears to flush out the bacteria. She says the treatment worked wonders, and got rid of the infections when antibiotics couldn’t. Her father learned this remedy from his own father, who used to get earaches often as well.

Kicking the Flagpole

The informant cites a well-known tradition here at USC: kicking the flagpole on the way to the Coliseum to cheer our football team to victory. Students, their families, professors, and many other USC fans flock towards the Coliseum in a group. Those walking from the direction of campus (usually most of the students, their families, and professors) pass by a group of flagpoles. In passing, each person in the crowd sticks a foot out and kicks the flagpole to bring victory for USC. He remembers the first time he ever kicked the flagpole as a freshman in 2011: “I was excited. It felt good to be taking part in such a huge tradition. I think it was that moment that really solidified in my mind that I was a part of the Trojan Family, that I was allowed to take part in this tradition because I belonged.”

The way he speaks about kicking the flagpole shows that it’s more than just a long-standing tradition meant to show school spirit and bring good luck to the team; it’s also a rite of passage. The moment a new student kicks the flagpole, they’ve crossed a liminal point; they’ve taken part in an important and exclusive USC ritual for the first time. They become a part of the tradition, and a part of the USC family.