Author Archive
general

Occupational Folklore: “Merde”

Main Piece: “So I did ballet for many years and usually when someone has a performance, at least where I grew up, you would say ‘break a leg!’ to wish them luck. It’s a weird thing. I don’t know where it came from. But…um… in dance we were never allowed to say ‘break a leg’ because that was an actual concern when dancing. So instead we said ‘merde’ which literally means ‘shit’ in French. So…um…before every show we would always whisper ‘merde’ to each other to wish everyone luck”

Background: The informant did ballet for many years in her hometown, Chicago. Whether the expression is specific to Chicago or to the lore of ballet is unclear. The informant is fluent in French but most of her friends in ballet did not speak any French. However, the majority of ballet terminology (i.e. different positions and movements) is French.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table.

My Thoughts: I understand the expression as occupational folklore. Knowing and using ‘merde’ is a rite of passage within the context of ballet and performance. Perhaps “merde” is ballet’s adaptation of “break a leg” used in theatre. I also grew up taking lessons in ballet and performing, but have not heard this term, which leads me to believe it is a term specific to the informant’s studio. Because most of the language in ballet is French, it is fitting that the dancer’s lore would be French as well. Even though “merde” has little relevance to ballet, it is consistent with the linguistics of the ballet studio. According to the informant, “merde” was whispered before each performance, so not only is this folklore occupational, it is ritualistic as well.

Foodways
general

Creole Foodways: Crab Boil

Main Piece: “A big tradition in my family is to have an annual crab boil. So this event is where we all get together and we just celebrate our Creole heritage. And we serve traditional foods like crawfish, shrimp, um crab, corn, and sausage. Um this is another event where my entire family- extended and even family friends- will come to. We have different things that we do that are typical of Creole people, like the second-hand line which is when people will get in a line and sort of dance and walk around like a konga line.”

Background: According to the informant, this event usually happens at the end of July when everyone is more available to come together. The informant notes that the food is “traditional” of Creole dishes- the seafood, vegetables, and meat. She mentions that Louisiana typically has crawfish boils, but her family’s tradition uses more than just crawfish. The second-hand line is a celebration that usually culminates the event. The informant describes it as a type of line dance without real structure. She says people throw and wave handkerchiefs during the second-hand line. Unlike other family-specific gatherings, friends of the family are also invited. She says this event is less exclusive, “like a barbecue.”

Performance Context: I sat across the informant at a table outside.

My Thoughts: The unifying component of the crab boil is the traditional Creole foodways. This gathering seems to be rather fluid, finding meaning in it’s gathering of family and friends unlike an exclusively celebrated holiday. The inclusivity of the event allows for adaptation and interpretation. For the informant, the event is a fun time to see family and friends, while eating, dancing, and socializing. The structure of the event itself is also quite fluid. It is centered around the crab boil and ends with the second-hand line, but seems to be mostly about bringing its guests together. The event’s food is “traditionally Creole,” meaning the dishes use different elements of Creole foodways, specifically the seafood (crawfish, shrimp, scallops). Although other cultures certianly utilize crawfish, shrimp, and scallops, Creole foodways have claimed them as important elements in their recipes.

Foodways
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Creole Foodways: Gumbo

Main Piece: “So culturally my family is Creole and… um… both sides of my family, my mom and dad, are all from Louisiana. So a big traditional food that we eat is gumbo, which is kind of like a soup… um… and it’s filled with seafood, sausage, and it’s served over rice. Um… my family eats it every year for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s the main meal at Thanksgiving versus traditional turkey and stuff. We have both.. but gumbo is like our big thing.”

Background: The informant says that this tradition has been around her entire life. The meals involves her entire family, immediate and extended. For the informant and her family, gumbo is a traditional Creole dish only eaten on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The meal is important to the informant because it involves her grandparents, who speak broken French and English, as well as her parents and brothers, who only speak English. She understands this meal as a unification of different parts of Creole heritage- being black, being white, and/or being French.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It is interesting that the informant describes her family as “culturally Creole”. The informant’s identification with Creole heritage seems to be indicated by her parent’s Louisiana lineage. The informant and her family only eat gumbo on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The context, however, is not religious or patriotic, but rather a special occassion where the entire family eats together. The choice of making and eating this dish on Thanksgiving and Christmas is an interesting time to celebrate a traditional Creole dish. Both holidays seem to be a way to gather the entire family in one setting while incorporating individual tradition and ethnic foodways. The unification of different domains of being Creole (black, white, French) are understandably significant to the informant, whose family has different backgrounds contributing to their identity.

Game
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Passover Game Night

Main Piece: “I think there’s a couple of things my family does on Passover. One thing my dad does every year on one of the nights… because we do a whole seder the first and second night… we hold a game night. And that includes a different game every year. In the past, we’ve done Jeopardy night or… um… the amazing race Passover edition… we have even done American Idol Passover edition. And I think that gives a fun little way for the younger kids at seder to want to come…um…and something I’ve alwyas enjoyed.”

Background: The informant says Passover game nights have been a tradition her whole life. She says her father is quite creative and puts a lot of time into these games. The informant appreciates these games because she says it’s a good way to learn about the story of Passover without it being “too boring.” Trivia, clues, and rewards are used as incentive to make the seder interesting and enjoyable. A “seder” is a Jewish ritual of the telling and celebration of the liberation of the Isrealites from slavery in ancient Egypt.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The informant’s father invests a lot of effort into this game night. His creativity unites cultures and traditions; U.S. games like Jeapoardy, American Idol, and the Amazing Race are combined with Jewish rituals, retelling stories of ancient Egypt and Israel on the holiday of Passover. The game night tradition involves the entire family, which according to the informant, brings together over 50 members of the family. Judaism, like other religions, values tradition. However, this Passover game night adapts tradition to a modern context. I expect the legacy of this game night will live on since the informant notes how enjoyable the seders become when the whole family is involved in the game.

Protection

Afghan Superstition: Feet

Main Piece: “So when you step on the back of someone’s foot accidentally, giving someone a ‘flat tire,’ it’s bad luck if you don’t immediately take your hand and squeeze the other person’s hand.”

Background: This has been a tradition in the informant’s family her whole life. The family is Afghan, but lives in the U.S., and values their culture very much. The informant’s mother told her that stepping on the back of someone’s foot is bad luck. Bad luck is significant for the informant’s family; she notes that Afghan people are extremely superstitious. Her family believes in “jinn,” that demons, ghosts, and evil spirits can inhabit one’s body and mind. The informant believes this superstition is connected to one’s past life, where people are shunned for their “bad luck.” According to the informant, bad luck can be a disease someone is born with, but is punished regarding decisions in the past life.

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: Stepping on the back of someone’s foot seems to be an act of callousness, but squeezing the hand indicates care and respect. The generational superstition has continued through the informant’s mother to the informant; in fact, I have accidentally stepped on the back of the informant’s foot before and she asked me to squeeze her hand. Readings in ANTH 333 touch on the ways superstitions guide daily life and routine. The fear behind something that may compromise one’s luck is obviously a factor in being accepted by others as well as an indicator of future well-being.

Further References:

For another version of this superstition, see: http://weirdrussia.com/2014/08/31/russian-traditions-and-superstitions/ for the Russian version.

 

Folk Beliefs
Tales /märchen

Afghan Parable: Blindness and Truth

Main Piece: “So once my mom told me a story about a group of boys playing near a bridge. So they see a blind kid… um… and they ask why God would make this boy blind? And they feel very sorry for him. So in this story they ask God, ‘why did you make this boy blind?’ and then they tell God, ‘you should give him sight.’ So God does. God gives the boy sight. And then the boys are very pleased with themselves… uh… so they go to the top of the bridge because they have a game of jumping off of it…it’s a low bridge. But the blind boy who now can see has set up sharpened sticks underneath the bridge. So that when the boys jump, they all die.”

Background: The informant’s mother recently told her this story after her grandfather died a few months ago. Her mother had been told this story by her father as a cautionary tale about coming to the U.S. The informant says her mother understood this parable as an implication to not always trust what you think you know. The informant understands it’s meaning to be: “don’t question God ever because purpose is not in our hands.”

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: A generational parable has survived through the family’s telling. The story’s dark nature evokes fear in the receiver of the story. I understand the telling of it as partly religious, partly cautionary, and partly moralistic. I find it interesting that the informant’s mother was reminded of the parable after her father’s death. The symbolism of blindness in terms of truth is a consistent metaphor in moralistic tales. Also important to note is the hesitance to trust American culture as an immigrant. I understand this story as told outside the context of religion, implying more about belief and trust than religion and morals.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Yiddish Jinx: “Kneina Hura”

Main Piece: “So in the Jewish tradition… it’s really a Yiddish term… so I think more of the older generation identifies with it and it’s been passed down my family from my grandparents and, so, the term is ‘kneina hura’. It’s basically what we would consider a jinx and so it’s when you say something in advance and then if something is going well but then you’re like don’t say it… that’s kneina hura. I’m trying to think of an example. So it might be if you have an event coming up over the weekend and you look at the forecast and you say oh what great weather– my mom would say don’t say that, that’s kneina hura because then it may rain.”

Background: The informant heard this term from her mother and grandmother, who still uses Yiddish. The informant has very little knowledge of Yiddish, while her mother knows only what she’s heard from her own mother. Growing up, the informant intepreted this saying as a way to ward off a jinx. Her mother occassionally uses Yiddish informally, but her grandmother uses Yiddish terminology quite often. The informant notes that jinxes are important to her family because they believe that despite the inevitability of things going wrong, there is some higher authority with control over these events.

Performance Context: The informant sat in a chair while I sat at my desk.

My Thoughts: The informant’s piece of folklore has been passed down orally directly through the grandmother, who is the family’s holder of Yiddish terminology. Yiddish is considered a dying, or even dead, language with little contemporary usage. The informant herself rarely uses Yiddish and can only remember a few phrases from her grandmother, so it seems unlikely that this saying will be passed down generationally. The superstition and value placed on the power of the jinx is interesting, as the evil eye (a source of protection against harm) is quite dominant in navigating chance and fortune in Jewish tradition.

general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shrove Tuesday

Main Piece: “Shrove Tuesday is…uh…the last day before Lent. Lent…uh…precedes Easter. Lent lasts about I think a month and during Lent one does not eat as much. So one is more…um…frugal about eating. So the last day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday and on that day, people eat a lot of pancakes. And the pancakes are tossed in a pan and people like to see how high they can toss them. They usually have lemon on them…squeezed lemon…they’re very nice. And that is the only time of the year that we ate pancakes, just that one day.”

Background: The informant, who grew up in the English countryside, began celebrating Shrove Tuesday as early as he can remember, but stopped around age 16, as the tradition was dying out. He celebrated this holiday at home with family. He notes that eating pancakes was the most enjoyable part of Shrove Tuesday. When asked about the name of the holiday, the informant said “shrove” comes from “shrive” which means to “absolve,” and in terms of this holiday, he thinks it means absolving one’s sins. However, the informant says he and his family did not celebrate Shrove Tuesday in that way.

Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.

My Thoughts: The informant understands Shrove Tuesday as a dying tradition. It seems to have already taken on another form when the informant was celebrating the holiday. As the informant noted, the name “Shrove Tuesday” didn’t accurately describe the holiday he celebrated. Most interesting and special to the informant was the pancake meal, since it was a rare meal to have. As the tradition began to be less celebrated by the informant, the foodways were the only particularly noteworthy component of the holiday. I think of the ways “Shrove Tuesday” in England parallels “Fat Tuesday” in the U.S., where the same notions of celebratory eating are present before the culmination of Lent.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Boxing Day

Main Piece: “The day after Christmas is Boxing Day. And…uh…it used to be that the people who had more would, on this day, give some of the food that was left over from Christmas to the poor, so some of the food would be boxed up and taken to places where poor people either lived or went for food. The original purpose of this day was not fulfilled when I was a child. It was probably that way 100 years before I was born. It was a holiday in England where people would get together and have another lunch with other relatives or friends. So usually on Christmas day, one would have…um…lunch with your immediate family and you’d open presents. On Boxing Day, you’d usually go to another relative’s or the relatives would come to you. So two big meals- one on Christmas Day and one on Boxing Day.”

Background: The informant believes that because Boxing Day became a national holiday, people forgot about it’s original purpose. Instead, people like to celebrate because no one has to work on Boxing Day. He says it became insulting to take food to the poor on Boxing Day and there were no longer places to take the food, anyways. The informant’s family would celebrate Boxing Day with relatives and friends. The informant enjoyed “the company, another nice meal, and the spirit of Christmas because the decorations stayed up.” Boxing Day was celebrated with a late lunch of the Christmas Day leftovers and afterwards, he was able to play with the presents he’d received on Christmas.

Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.

My Thoughts: Perhaps since England has become a much wealthier country, its holidays have become financial sources of marketed celebrations. Instead of the original charitable intention of Boxing Day, it is now a reason to use Christmas leftovers for another celebration. I find it interesting that it is actually taboo now to share leftovers with a less fortunate community. Similar to the ways Appurdai explains an Indian interpretation of leftovers as forbidden, England has adopted a culture of impoliteness surrounding leftovers. I remember my own interpretation of Boxing Day as another gift box(!) as it was celebrated in my home. Boxing Day traditions remain as a continued celebration with family and friends, engaging in shared meals and gift exchanges.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ritual: Water

Main Piece: “One ritual that my family partakes in is when we go on long trips or vacations. So basically when you leave the home for an extended period of time, someone will throw a cup of water while you’re walking away from your house, so, to the back of your feet kind of”

Background: This is a ritual for the informant and her family. The informant was born in the U.S. and her parents were born and raised in Afghanistan. The family has been in the United States for about 30 years but still practices many pieces of Afghan folklore. The informant thinks this particular ritual uses water as a symbol of purity for leaving a place with “good and clean intentions”. She notes that this ritual takes place at the doorway.

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: This Afghan ritual uses the symbols of water and the threshold of the doorway. Besides the notions of water as a symbol of purity, I understand the threshold of the doorway as significant as an entry and exit point. It is interesting that the informant and her family continue to practice this ritual, even in the U.S. The informant mentioned how rarely her family takes vacations and trips. I wonder if her family may have a reluctance to go to new places, as the informant noted earlier that their immigration and assimilation to the U.S. was somewhat troubling and disturbing to their culutral beliefs and traditions. I also intepret the ritual as a combination of valuing the past and looking forward to the present. The U.S. is known to have a forward looking mentality, while countries of the Middle East hold the past in high regard.

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