Author Archive
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Breaking of the Glass and the Huppah in Jewish Wedding Tradition

The informant is a 67-year-old Mexican-American woman who is a reverend. She is known for tailoring wedding receptions to couples from different cultural backgrounds, and in her words “taking old traditions and giving them new meaning.” Many consider her to be the “guru of new wedding traditions.”

While out to breakfast while the informant was visiting me in Los Angeles, I asked her to describe any wedding ritual or tradition that has stood out to her throughout her time as a reverend. Her response was as follows,

“Well, there are many traditions drawn from each culture, and the couple always gets to choose which they would most like to incorporate. One in particular that is almost always a part of weddings where the bride or groom is Jewish is the breaking of the glass. I’d say 99% of the time if either of the two is Jewish, they’ll do this. Basically, I bless a wine glass, wrap it up in a linen cloth, and place it at the groom’s feet. He then stomps on it. This represents how fragile life is and dates back to the suffering of the Jews. In some weddings, the breaking of the glass is done under a huppah, a cloth that is held up to create a canopy over the bride and groom. The four ends of the cloth represent the four directions, and the couple standing underneath it means that they will build a life and home together.”

On the surface, the breaking of the glass is a lighthearted wedding ritual that is fun for both the groom and all who watch him perform it. Under normal circumstances it is taboo to purposefully shatter a glass, and the ridiculousness of the groom doing so on purpose serves as a source of laughter for the wedding attendees. The significance of the ritual is actually very heavy, representing the ease at which our lives can be taken and the history of persecution that the Jewish people have endured. It is most likely important for the fragility of life to be highlighted at such an important transition in one’s life as a wedding to serve as a reminder to the bride and groom, along with the audience, not to take one another for granted and to make each day special. I asked the informant the significance of the huppah representing the four cardinal directions, and she responded that she was not entirely sure. Since the couple standing underneath the canopy during the ceremony is symbolic of their future life together, it is possible that the four directions provide a physical representation of the permanent connection forged between the newlyweds—no matter where in the world they may be, they are connected to one another beneath their commitment to marriage.

Customs
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Lazo and Arras in Mexican Wedding Tradition

The informant is a 67-year-old Mexican-American woman who is a reverend. She is known for tailoring wedding receptions to couples from different cultural backgrounds, and in her words “taking old traditions and giving them new meaning.” Many consider her to be the “guru of new wedding traditions.”

When out to breakfast with the informant while she was visiting me in Los Angeles, I asked her if there were any Mexican rituals or traditions that she often incorporated in her weddings. She responded,

“Oh yes. The lazo and arras ceremony. Before the couple takes their vows, the maid of honor and the best man take a lazo (a rope) and wrap it around the bride and groom. This symbolizes to the community that the bride and groom are now one. The arras is 13 coins representing Jesus and the 12 apostles. I bless the coins and pour them into the groom’s hands. He then pours these into the bride’s hands. This symbolizes to the community that he will take care of her. Nowadays, because women want to be viewed as equals, often times the groom will pour las arras into the bride’s hands, and the bride will then pour them back into the groom’s hands, showing that she will take care of him, just as he will her, spiritually, emotionally, and financially.”

This ritual, which the informant often performs when marrying an individual with a Mexican cultural background to someone without this background, is symbolic of the spiritual, emotional, and physical commitments that come with marriage. It is typically performed at weddings where one or both partners practice the Christian faith, because of the parallel between the thirteen coins and Jesus and the 12 apostles. However, the informant stated that the ceremony is still sometimes conducted during secular weddings due to family tradition. It is interesting to examine how this form of folklore has evolved over time to reflect the cultural norms in which it is performed, as it was once held that the man is entirely responsible for taking care of his bride, but with the recent push for gender equality across all spectra of life it is now also important for the woman to show she will take care of her groom. The lazo is a public display of a couple’s commitment to one another, and highlights the permanent merging of two individual’s lives as a result of their marriage.

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection

Evil Eye Talisman

For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has kept an Evil Eye talisman hanging from the rear-view mirror of her car. During a celebration for my mother’s birthday, I pulled my grandmother aside and asked her the Evil Eye’s significance, following which she explained:

“Many years ago, two of my friends spent some time in Turkey. When they came home, they brought me an Evil Eye as a gift. All over Turkey, they put them outside of their door or inside of the car, and it is meant to ward off spirits by scaring them away. The superstition is that you cannot throw it away after someone gives it to you, that would be like inviting the evil spirits in. I have been in my car before and had people stop me and give me praise for keeping the Evil Eye visible, then show me where they keep theirs.”

I was somewhat familiar with the superstition surrounding the Evil Eye before talking with my grandmother, and knew that belief in the protection offered by one was prevalent in Greece. Hearing that her Evil Eye is from Turkey and that many other Americans have commented on the object (the informant, my grandmother, is from northern California), leads me to believe that this superstition is present in a great deal of cultures. Offering the object to someone as a gift encourages them to engage in the superstition surrounding it, because the object will remind the receiver of the giver while also supposedly serving as protection. Even if the owner of the Evil Eye does not necessarily have a deep-rooted belief in spirits, the object is significant in that it can offer a sense of comfort for the owner to suppress any worries that the spirits do exist, without the owner having to do anything more than keep the talisman somewhere close by. I myself am considering asking my grandmother for one to keep in my car, just in case.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Phallic Symbolism on Homes in Pompeii

The informant, a 66-year-old American woman (my grandmother), has frequently traveled to Italy for the past several decades. During a celebration for my mother’s birthday, I pulled my grandmother aside and asked her if any particular Italian traditions or beliefs have stood out to her over the course of her travels, and she laughed.

“Oh my, you’re in for a treat. In Pompeii, the buildings were preserved in ash. After they had been dug out, many of the doors had carvings over them that were perfectly preserved. On more than one house, large penises are carved on the door. This would signify that it was a fertile home and would help whoever lived there to continue to have children and ensure success for a family. I’ve also heard that it was a way of bragging. Hey, if I had a large penis to brag about I’d probably do the same thing.”

Since these carvings would have been made in a pre-Christian era, they preceded the more familiar carving of a fish over one’s door, which Christians would use as a symbol to signify that their home was a safe place of worship. It is interesting to consider that in the cultural context of Pompeii thousands of years ago, representations of basic human anatomy were appropriate for placement in the extremely intimate barrier to one’s home–at the liminal divide between public and private. In America today, it goes without saying that a homeowner’s association would be less than pleased at the sight of a penis carved on someone’s porch. Perhaps this change has arisen because in the contemporary United States we no longer view having a fertile home and being able to sustain a family as an extraordinary accomplishment worth bragging about, instead we see it as something rather ordinary, but thousands of years ago during the Roman period it may have been looked upon as much more of an accomplishment worth bragging about to be able to provide for one’s family and maintain a fertile home.

Legends
Narrative

Man With the Hook

The informant (my grandmother), loves Halloween and all things spooky. I remember that as a child, I could always expect to hear a horrific legend or other form of narrative when visiting her house. I asked the informant if she would be able to hold a video call with me over FaceTime, and during the call I asked her which of these narratives was her favorite to tell. She said it was a legend almost everyone had heard in some fashion, called “The Man With the Hook.”

“We would always tell this story on the way to Clear Lake. We’d stop the car and park on the side of the road when we got close to Napa State Hospital, then start to tell the story to whichever kids were in the car. It goes that some teenagers were parked near the hospital the night before doing something they were not supposed to be doing, listening to music and making out. Suddenly, the music stops and an announcement comes on the radio that a mental patient who had a history of murdering young girls just escaped from Napa State Hospital. We chose this hospital because in those days, it was the closest place where crazy people were put, and there was a prison part to it. He was distinctive because he had lost one hand and had a hook. The girl got scared and said she heard something outside, but the boy dismissed her saying that she was just paranoid. She yelled at him, and he got mad so he peeled out from where they were parked and sped away. Right when the car started moving she asked if he heard something, and he said no. When they got back home and stepped out of the car, there was a bloody hook on the door. They never found the man, though, and rumor has it he is still out searching for his next victim.”

This is a classic scary narrative that most Americans will say they have heard in some form. This particular version was adapted to a particular location that was convenient to the informant, so that the fear of the children who heard it was amplified by the supposed proximity of the man with the hook. The legend functions not only as a way to playfully elicit paranoia in children, but also to warn them against misbehaving. It is implied that the teenagers in the narrative are doing something that they shouldn’t be by kissing in the car at a remote location so as to not get caught by their parents, and as a result of this behavior the man with the hook almost gets them. No part of this narrative must take place in a specific geographic location, so it can easily be told by those who know it wherever they happen to be.

Legends
Narrative

Old Miss Hackley

The informant, a 20-year-old college student, attended a private Ivy League Preparatory school in New York, the Hackley School, for grades 6-12. While I was out to lunch between classes with the informant, I asked if she could tell me about her school’s history, and if there were any traditions or narratives related to this history that all of the students know about.

“Well, Hackley is named after the woman who founded it over a century ago, Miss Hackley. Everyone thinks of her as this old, gray-haired, witch-like woman. Deep in the library there are a lot of old books and paintings. The story goes that in this one really old painting of the school, there was a shadowy figure towards the back for as long as anyone could remember. Then, a few years ago, the figure disappeared. So supposedly that was Miss Hackley, and she moves in and out of pictures and paintings throughout the campus watching the students’ every move and making sure that nobody is acting out or being disrespectful.”

This legend regarding the founder of the informant’s school is a way to keep the institution’s history alive by implying that the school’s long-dead founder is still very much aware of whether the students are being respectful and behaving appropriately. The informant said that while she does not believe that Miss Hackley’s spirit inhabits the school, thinking about the possibility still creeps her out. This legend functions to keep the students at Hackley School in line by providing an ultimatum that, while perhaps not entirely threatening, would make a student think twice before sneaking off into empty classrooms or cutting class: if you fail to obey the school’s code of conduct you are disrespecting Miss Hackley, and if she knows of these the potential for her to discipline you exists. The legend is not dependent on students believing that Miss Hackley’s spirit actually inhabits the school, but rather on the slightest bit of doubt that it possibly could. I think that the nature of the institution, as an old, elite private school on the east coast, allows the legend to operate much more effectively than it would at, say, a relatively new public school on the west coast, due to the fact that the older school as a more extensive, and unknown, history that a newer school would lack.

Customs
Foodways
Gestures
Kinesthetic

Eye Contact Following a Toast in Germany

The informant is a 51-year-old international businessman who has frequently traveled across Europe and Asia to meet with clients for the past 20 years.

Over a relaxed nine holes of golf, I asked the informant if there were any dining customs or etiquette that have stood out to him throughout his travels. He went into detail about proper German etiquette when enjoying a drink with friends, family, or business connections.

“It’s always a great time drinking in Germany, especially for a beer connoisseur like myself. Whenever I’m out to lunch or dinner for a business meeting, we always grab a beer and make a toast before drinking. Usually the toast is just to a successful partnership in the future, or to health and happiness. What you’d expect. One thing that’s really important following this toast is that you look whoever it is you’re drinking with in the eye when you ‘cheers.’ It is considered extremely rude not to. They joke that if you fail to look someone in the eye it means seven years of bad sex, but what it would really result in is whoever you’re with thinking that you’ve been dishonest or are hiding something from them.”

This German custom of looking someone in the eye reveals that in German custom, authenticity and personal connection are important. Toasts usually follow a celebration or accomplishment of some kind, and so eye contact can be seen as a way of solidifying whatever the toast was made to. If one man makes a toast to good health and the other fails to look him in the eye, then the ma who made that toast may begin to wonder whether the other is hoping for him to become ill. The superstition that failing to make eye contact will lead to seven years of bad sex is a playful way of reminding Germans of this custom, or of highlighting its importance to foreigners. I thought that this particular folkway made a lot of sense, given the intimate nature of a toast and taking into account the context in which the informant learned of it. Since the informant is often out to eat with business connections and is working to create a professional relationship, it is important that he look his German clients in the eye to let them know that he is understanding of their culture and that they can trust his word and that he will honor their negotiations.

Folk Beliefs
general

Don’t Stand Too Close to the Microwave

The informant is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.

While I was heating up some leftover pasta in the microwave, the informant commented on the fact that I was standing too close to the microwave while it was running. I told her that I’d never heard of this being a bad thing to do, and she replied that her mother has always told her to stand far away from it, or else she will develop a chronic illness and die young. A second woman who was in the room confirmed that her mother has always told her the same thing. The second woman also has a South Korean mother whose parents were immigrants born and raised in South Korea.

While I had never heard of this belief before, I do not doubt that there is some truth to the idea that prolonged or continuous exposure to microwaves can create a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer. However, the risk is most likely rather minimal, considering that microwaves are lined with material that prevents radiation from leaking and affecting anyone in close proximity. It is interesting that both of the individuals who held this belief are of South Korean descent, which may highlight a prominent difference between Eastern and Western views on health and medicine. I asked the informant whether her mother had a specific viewpoint on keeping cell phones in close proximity to one’s body, since they are known to emit radiation similarly to microwave ovens, and the informant replied that her mother did not. This seems, then, to be a belief isolated to microwave ovens as cooking appliances, and may also reflect a more traditional viewpoint on food handling and preparation.

Folk speech
Proverbs

French Proverb

The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. His native language is French, and he did not learn English until after moving to the US.

I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and asked if he could share any French proverbs with me.

The proverb, in French, that he chose to share is: “Qui recherche la lune ne voit pas les étoiles.”

The English translation he provided is: “Someone who looks for the moon misses the stars.”

He said that the proverb is used as a small piece of advice used to let someone know that “if you try to accomplish something that’s near impossible to do, you will miss the things that are possible and that you can do.”

I thought that this proverb was a nice reminder to keep realistic expectations and not worry about factors in life that are outside of our control. It sounds very beautiful when spoken in French, and so I can see how this proverb’s aesthetic quality coupled to its meaning would make it popular among those who speak the language. Following my conversation with the informant, I would love to expand upon my knowledge of the French language and continue to learn more of the proverbs used by those who speak it.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Hans im Glück

The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.

I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a German tale that his mother would often tell him, called “Hans im Glück.”

“The story goes that there was a guy named Hans, who was really poor. After seven years of hard work, he garnered enough wage to see his mom – a lump of gold. So he went on a journey and kept trading what started out as a lump of gold for various things he needed: a horse, then a cow, a pig, and then a grindstone. He loses the grindstone but ends up being happier after, because he’s tired of having to worry about all this trading and keeping track of things. Then he walks to finish the journey to his mother and tells her everything that happened to him.”

This German fairy tale, or märchen, does not follow the traditional story of a poor man working his way up in the world to wealth and success. Instead, it places more value on the connection that Hans has to his mother than his attachment to material items like the lump of gold that he acquires at the beginning of the story. The context within which the informant was exposed to the story, then, makes perfect sense: a mother lovingly telling a tale to her son of a son who is devoted to his mother. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “Hans im Glück” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers, and when told in the English language it is titled “Hans in Luck.”

For the version of “Hans im Glück” published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.

  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans im Glück, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, no. 83.
  • Note that while this tale was not included in the first edition of the Grimms’ collection (two volumes, 1812, 1815), it was added to the second edition (1819).
  • In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 1415.
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