Author Archive
Gestures
Initiations
Kinesthetic

Break a Leg with associated gesture.

AC: “So we have this thing where we bite our thumb and, okay you gotta do it with me or else I’ll look like an idiot! So you bite your thumb, then link pinkies, and say ‘break a leg.’ So we mainly do it backstage like right before the show, and you go around and do it to people, and all the freshmen would be really confused, because we didn’t tell or show them it until right before the first show, and then they’d find about it and we’d go up to them biting our thumb with our pinky out expecting them to do it, until they saw other people doing it and figured it out. But then I was done with high school and we stopped doing it since it would be weird.”

Was this localized to your high school theater community, or do you know if it was more widespread?

AC: “I’ve heard of versions of it, but as far as I know my high school was the only one that did that specifically.”

So was this like a rite of passage or a form of initiation into the group?

AC: “We did it before every show, but on opening night it was the most important and was a bit of an initiation ritual.”

AC: “So imagine you’re a scared freshman on opening night and someone comes up to you like (demonstrates) and you’re confused, then eventually you figure it out.”

At some point, were you the confused freshman trying to figure out what was going on?

AC: “Yeah I remember looking around and then seeing this one girl do it and was like, oh.”

To do the gesture, one holds their hand with pinky and thumb outstretched, bites the thumb with the nail pointing down, and goes up to another person. They mimic the gesture, then hook pinky fingers together and say, “break a leg,” around the thumb. It comes out sounding slightly muffled.

Background:

AC knows about this gesture, along with its ritual aspects because of her own participation in it. She learned it from older actors and crew in the process of more generally being initiated into her high school theater community, and continued to carry out the gesture and tradition throughout her high school theater experience. Her participation was partly due to the gesture being a symbol of in-group membership. Knowing how to respond to someone else doing the gesture signifies that one has at least some experience with theater, has been part of at least one show, and as such, is part of a community.

Context:

AC demonstrated the gesture in response to my questions about the folklore of theater communities.

Interpretation:

In addition to the gesture being a marker of community membership, the learning of it is an initiation ritual. From AC’s descriptions, the first show of the year is more generally overlaid with elements of initiation rituals for freshmen and other new members of the theater community. The entire process of preparing for a performance, particularly in the days surrounding the shows, can be an ordeal of sorts, albeit an entertaining one. By taking part in the same ordeal, new members and established members of the theater community can bond through shared experience. The “Break a Leg” gesture itself is a small element of this; new members share the experience of once being confused and having to figure out the gesture with those approaching them.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

God Fears Too

Hindi: भगवान भी डरता है

Phonetically: “bhagavaan bhee darata hai”

Direct translation: “God also fears”

Full translation/English counterpart: “Even God fears hard work”

AG: “So my dad always says, like, even god is afraid of hard work. I don’t know why, I think it’s just, like, to encourage me to work hard, and like, not really, I guess, worry about anything hindering me as long as I put in my effort, I guess? And like, he always tells it to me whenever I’m going through a rough time, just like, oh, I’m putting in a lot of effort, and putting in a lot of work, and it’s not working out, and you just gotta keep working, because even God’s afraid of hard work! So it’s always, like, kind of inspiring and stuff.”

Does he tell you this in English?

AG: “I mean, it’s like in half and half. Like sometimes he’ll tell me in English and sometimes he’ll tell me in Hindi, but it’s the same kind of concept. It’s not like a direct translation, but it’s pretty good of a translation, so…”

Can you tell me what it is in Hindi?

AG: “I think he said ‘bhagavaan bhee darata hai’ which is like ‘God fears too,’ but in English he adds the hard work. So in Hindi it’s like a little bit more generic. But when he uses it in the context, it’s like God is afraid of hard work as well.”

Is it used outside your family? Is it a common saying?

AG: “No, like, I haven’t heard it at all. I think, like, my dad’s the only one I know who ever says it. He just started saying it sometime and we’ve just been like, ok yeah, makes sense, and we haven’t really heard it outside my family.”

Background:

This proverb is significant to AG because her father tells it to her when she is struggling. She finds it inspiring and reassuring. AG is Indian, born in the United States, and raised bilingual.

Context:

We were discussing family mottos and sayings.

Interpretation:

AG often expresses that she feels familial pressure to work hard and do well in academics. She says that her success in school comes less from raw talent and more from her work ethic. This proverb is a way to reassure her and comfort her that it is understandable to be stressed sometimes. From what AG said, this proverb might not exist significantly outside her family. She says she has never heard of it outside her family, and her father just started saying it at one point. Because of its bilingual nature, it is difficult to find any exact matches.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Ghost Lights (Theater)

AC: “Ghost lights are really common in theater. So a bunch of theaters have ghost lights, which is like a light that’s always left on at night, in the middle of the stage, it’s usually just a lightbulb on a pole that’s exposed, so they always plug it in and turn it on after every show and at night when the theater’s abandoned. And it’s said to be, like, so the ghosts won’t come out at night if you leave the light on, and it’s the only light on in the theater, but really it’s a safety thing, for like when you come into the theater at night. But it’s like common knowledge that it’s the ghost light, because, like, it keeps the ghosts away.”

Does every theater company or venue you’ve been with do that?

AC: “Do a ghost light? … Bovard [auditorium] has one, the ballroom has one, both theaters that I worked at at home had one, we had one for my high school. So yeah, so far all of them had ghost lights, from what I’ve seen.”

“Well, I learned about them in like middle school, at the Little Theatre of Alexandria. And the Little Theatre of Alexandria is in like a part of my town where, it’s like old town, so it’s considered haunted, and it’s the oldest part of town so it’s like creepy or whatever, it’s historical. So I think that’s- they had such an emphasis on the ghost thing there, which was really weird, I guess it was the house manager who told me that when I first went to take classes there. And I was like, oh that’s cool. And I didn’t think it was a thing at all the theaters, but then at every place I’ve gone there’s been a ghost light. And now I learned it’s mainly for safety obviously. But back then I was like, wow, it’s for the ghosts! And theaters have different perspectives on it. Like I’ve heard from some people that, it’s like, it’s so the ghosts can come out at night, and go into the theater, and play on the stage, but others are like, it’s so the ghosts will stay away.”

How much do people actually believe in the ghostly part of it?

AC: “I mean, obviously we all know it’s, like, not real, and it’s more for safety, but it’s fun. And we always refer to a solo light that’s on as a ghost light.”

Background:

AC has been involved in theater programs for much of her life. She learned it from the Little Theatre of Alexandria, Virginia, and this tradition has occurred in every theater community she has been part of, although there is significant variation in the story surrounding it. It is part of a more general set of theatrical folk knowledge, and in addition to its practical purpose signifies community membership.

Interpretation:

The ghost light folklore is a set of superstitions which surround a feature of theaters which exists for safety’s sake. For practical purposes, the light is simple enough; it is a single exposed bulb, usually an energy-efficient LED or CFL these days, in the center of the stage, in order to provide just enough light that anyone walking around the stage can avoid running into the set or falling off stage. Because most of these theater rooms are blacked out, with no way for outside light to get in, some form of lighting is necessary at all times, at least to help the first person in the room reach a light switch.

As for why the ghost beliefs sprung up around the safety light, there could be multiple explanations.  One is simply that theater communities have generally superstitious tendencies, and such traditions come about easily. Another is the mysterious nature of the light itself. Pitch darkness and loneliness tend to be intimidating due to their uncertainty, and this single bulb in a deserted theater is the one thing preventing the stage from being completely black.

There are two main ghost beliefs which AC mentioned here. The one she mentioned first is that the bulb keeps the ghosts away. Theaters, particularly older ones such as the Little Theatre of Alexandria in her hometown, are prime grounds to be inhabited by ghosts, who might seek to cause harm to the theater company. The second ghost belief around these lights is a sort of inversion of the first. Rather than keeping the ghosts away, the light is meant to allow the ghosts to play. Perhaps the ghosts are those who were actors in life, and to allow them to play onstage is to appease them and keep them happy. Both beliefs share the idea that unhappy ghosts around the theater will harm theatrical productions, causing things to go wrong.

Customs
Game
general
Holidays
Magic

Elf on the Shelf

“Around Christmas time we would decorate the house, and one of the decorations was this little elf, and it was supposedly watching for Santa, and it would move every morning, or every week or so, to a different spot in the house. I believed in it at first but then I started becoming the one who moved it, because my parents stopped. I don’t know how to word that right, but I became God. I’ll probably do it again for my kids because it’s fun. And not at all religious. My best friend also did it and we bonded over how we used to think it was real. And I know it’s a pretty common thing where I was and probably in lots of the rest of America.”

Background: My informant, AB, likes Elf on the Shelf mostly because it is innocent fun. She picked it up from her parents and family, who in turn found it either from friends or from the physical elf product.

Her comment that she would carry on the tradition not only because it’s fun, but because it’s not religious in her view, is interesting.  She made this comment in part because, although AB was raised Christian, she has become agnostic and disillusioned with organized religion. She takes more interest in astrology and various magical traditions than in any institutional faith. However, though the Elf on the Shelf tradition may not be explicitly religious, and certainly is not biblical in the manner of many other Christmas traditions, it is nevertheless connected with a primarily Christian holiday.

However, even Christmas has roots in other, “pagan,” winter traditions, including the celebration of the solstice. Traditions which disregard the official, Biblical elements of Christmas and incorporate informal games are common around this time, including the Christmas Pickle and various forms of gift swap events.

general
Legends

Little Mikey, Killed by Pop Rocks

JC: “Alright, so one of the most common and commonly repeated commercials on television when I was a child, in the 1970s, was a commercial for Life Cereal, in which three boys are depicted, basically at table height. And the first two boys are clearly friends, and a little older. And one of them asks the other, ‘what’s this stuff.’ And the other kid says, ‘dumb cereal, is supposed to be good for you’ (dismissively). And the one kid says, ‘well, you try it.’ And the other kid says, ‘nah, I’m not gonna try it, you try it.’ And then one kid says, ‘yeah, let’s get Mikey. He won’t eat it, he hates everything,’ his little brother. They slide the bowl of cereal  over to his little brother, and he just starts chomping it down, just like shoveling spoonfuls of it into his mouth. And then the kid who’s basically trying to punish his brother and get out of eating the cereal says, ‘He likes it! Hey Mikey!’ So Mikey, even though it wasn’t a common name, became a thing we said like all the time.

“And then we heard, maybe ten years later, that Mikey died from, um, eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda. Yeah, it was a shame. And it was one of those stories that, like, came both with people who would say, like, “I know somebody who knows somebody” or whatever attestations, and it also came, like, pre-marked as fake. But then there’d be like weird spin-offs, like ‘it wasn’t really Mikey but it was this other kid’ or, like, the actual urban legend-ness of it didn’t die, it was a real weird vibe. There was a fear underlying it, that this would happen to you. And I think at some point Pop Rocks stopped being sold for a while, and so we attributed it to the death of various children. Like some marketing decision a candy manufacturer makes turns out to be, ‘they’re killing children with Pop-Rocks and Soda!’ The Pop Rocks and soda challenge wiped out a whole generation of Midwestern boys. Yeah we all tried it. Dude, when Pop Rocks were around we put them in everything, of people’s unsuspectingly. Put them in their cereal, you’d put them on your tongue and have to like go to class with it and not open your mouth and have to let the stuff come out your nose and that was really awful. Um, yeah, Pop Rocks… the candy of death.”

So, did you have any other traditions you did involving Pop Rocks?

JC: “I mean, not really? I mean we poured them in people’s food at lunch and stuff. So we definitely messed with people with them. And we tried various things. We all, like, threw a handful of Pop Rocks in and then, like, took a swig of Mountain Dee or whatever… Mello Yello, just to see what would happen.”

Was the messing with people, was it limited to high school or middle school, or did it continue through college?

JC: “Ohh, it totally continued through college. You have to remember, our college coincided– our college years coincided with the great sort of peak in American prank phone calling culture. Like, the Prank Yankers show was on television with puppets reenacting prank phone calls. And, like, people thought this was the peak of humor. So we messed with a lot of people.”

Background:

JC grew up in Ohio. He remembers the commercial because he watched a lot of television as a child. The urban legend about Mikey and the other shenanigans involving Pop Rocks, from JC’s description, were just part of the middle American zeitgeist during the 1980s and early 1990s. The legend has no particular significance to him, other than as a memory.

Context:

The story of Mikey (or some other kid) dying from eating Pop Rocks and drinking soda is an urban legend which would be told in many situations.

Interpretation:

The story of Mikey dying has variations involving other kids, but generally involves the same story: a kid eats Pop Rocks and drinks soda, and the combination causes his stomach to inflate, somehow killing him. Among JC’s circle, the story was entirely recognized as fake, to the point where they fearlessly tried the combination which allegedly killed Mikey. It may have been the type of story to scare older, more gullible people while younger people either knew better or did not care.

Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Rise, Run, and Dip

LC: “So Rise Run and Dip was a tradition at Hotchkiss. At orientation your first year, one of the first mornings, everybody had to get up at about 6 in the morning and go for a run, and the run would be, I don’t know, 2 or 3 miles, and it would end by running down the hill, sort of from the top of campus to the bottom where there was this big lake, Lake Wononskopomuc. And you would run run run down the hill and just keep going into the lake and go for a swim. And this was in the foothills of the Berkshires, so it was generally very crisp. And then people also did this for various sports teams, like when you go for preseason practice. It, you know, it was one of those rites of passage, it was definitely difficult, and cold, and particularly unpleasant on the way back up the hill. But it was also kind of beautiful, and peaceful, and very memorable. It was meant to be a bonding exercise, something that everybody did, and that everybody at Hotchkiss had done at least once, in their time there.”

Background: Hotchkiss is a boarding school in Connecticut which LC went to for high school. This tradition has been going on since long before she went there, and continues to this day. She remembers it as a significant rite of passage that was both strenuous and beautiful.

Context: This tradition took place during freshman orientation, as well as at various points of the year for members of different sports teams.

Interpretation:

Rise, Run, and Dip is a fairly clear-cut rite of passage and initiation ritual. Through a shared ordeal, suffering in the brisk mountain air, freshmen and teammates bond with each other. The ritual is seen as important to becoming a real member of the Hotchkiss community, and becomes a shared memory of those who went through it. Additionally, LC mentioned that at the most recent high school reunion she went to, one of the scheduled events was Rise, Run and Dip. When calling back to high school days, the community recreates this event which marked the beginning of their high school experience.

Humor
Proverbs

Win if you can – a family proverb

JC: “The proverb is, ‘Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat.’ And I believe this was something that was said by a television character, but it had become–my father had adopted it as a life philosophy, ironically, because, while he and his father had their… tensions, at the very least, they are both stern moralizers, and so the idea that either of them would sanction any kind of cheating was inherently ludicrous. My grandfather was a by-the-books Marine; my father, while not that, was certainly not, like, a person without rules that you had to abide by. I think it might have been some sort of wrestling thing though?”

Background: JC and his family are all from Ohio. He learned this proverb from his father. On its own, the content of the proverb is not particularly significant, but the context of it and the inversion of its meaning are; they reflect the strong moral compass of his father, along with a dry, deadpan sense of humor.

Interpretation:

The proverb itself, upon further inquiry, has been attributed to various pro wrestlers, notably Jesse Ventura. He performed as a heel, deliberately playing as a villainous character meant to attract viewers’ ire. And just as Ventura the man was certainly not the villain that Ventura the wrestling performer was, JC’s father’s actual beliefs are nothing like this proverb would suggest if taken at face value.

The concept of an inverted proverb as a sort of parody of a family motto also has been passed down. My own family has said that our motto is “If you fall behind, you get left behind,” lifted from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The actual quote from the movie, as part of the fictional Pirates’ Code, is “any man who falls behind, is left behind.” Again, this is an entirely ironic adoptation of a proverb–just as JC’s father was the type of man to never cheat, my own family would never leave one of our own behind. In both cases, the proverb is acknowledged to be words not to live by.

general
Legends
Magic

Gravity Hill

JC: “Gravity Hill is a place in Mentor, Ohio, which is upa round the Lake Erie shore, north of Cleveland. And I have no idea why, how we planned the trip that got us all the way up there, four and a half, five hours up from Dayton. But we had heard about it, and I believe we had even seen it on That’s Incredible, which was a TV show that sort of anthologized folklore and weirdness and Guinness Book things and so on. So we drove up to Mentor Ohio, a group of us, in high school. And the road it’s on, I don’t remember what the road is called, but we had to look it up on a map–a paper map, cause there were no Internets, and we got to the place on the road where it was, and we had to take the car, and put it in neutral, at the bottom of what looks like a hill, and then the car slowly goes up the hill and gathers a little bit of speed. Apparently, somehow, it’s just an unbelievably convincing optical illusion, but it really feels like your car is being pulled uphill. Like it looks like it’s uphill, it really does look that way. So that’s Gravity Hill.”

Background: JC is an Ohio native. He and his friends likely heard about this Gravity Hill, or a similar phenomenon, from television.

Interpretation:

The Gravity Hill phenomenon is fairly common, and dozens of these stretches of road exist around the world. The conditions required to maintain the illusion come about naturally or unintentionally in many places in the United States, and most of these places likely have their own set of stories surrounding them, with some similarities and more variations. JC had no further information about this particular hill with regards to any stories surrounding it. This particular feature was considered just an illusion by JC and his friends.

Interestingly, there is a Gravity Hill nearby in Altadena, California, which has further folklore surrounding it. A range of ghost stories involving crashed school buses or cars of cheerleaders claim that this particular hill is haunted, and perhaps the “magnetic” effect is ghostly hands pushing your car to ensure you don’t meet the same fate as they did. A common practice of “ghost hunters” is to put baby powder or flour on the front or back of their car, and see if handprints show up while rolling “uphill.”

 

For more information on Gravity Hill in Altadena, see another local account of this gravity hill: http://folklore.usc.edu/?p=34587

Game
general
Holidays

Christmas Pickle

LC: “So every year that we would celebrate Christmas at my grandmother’s we would have all the grandkids gather around the Christmas tree and try to find the pickle on the tree and I think it was for Jesus or good luck or something. And one year I found the pickle and that was cool! But we haven’t been to my grandparents’ house in so long now, so it’s just a fond memory.”

Is this just a tradition in your family, or was it a regional thing, do you know?

LC: “I feel like other people do it as well, but I haven’t really met anyone else who does it. I feel like it’s a Southern thing maybe?”

LC: “Really it was just a game for kids to play in the family. You know the thing with the wishbone where you pull it apart and whoever gets the big piece wins? It’s sort of like that except only one person wins out of the like 9 grandkids or so.”

Background:

LC picked up this tradition from her family, who live and have lived in both Florida and Texas. It is not particularly significant to her, and serves more as a fun game than a serious tradition. She remembers it fondly; it has no positive or negative ideological significance, only nostalgia.

Context:

LC mentioned this custom during a discussion of family holiday traditions after we had Easter dinner with friends. The tradition takes place only during Christmas, and is associated with other physical aspects of the holiday; it piggybacks on the larger, more general tradition of decorating the Christmas tree.

Interpretation:

I tend to agree with LC that this tradition, wherever it might be practiced, is almost certainly a lighthearted game played for fun among families. She mentions that it might be for Jesus or good luck, but her uncertainty and lack of concern about such significance suggest it has no particular ideological or religious role. As for the extent of the tradition, LC is right in that other families also have Christmas Pickle ornament traditions. However, its history is fairly uncertain. A brief search suggests that it could be a German tradition, or could be a fabricated tradition by 19th-century glassblowers to sell ornaments. Either way, it seems to be a moderately common Christmas tradition, similar in some ways to Elf on the Shelf. Both are unconnected with the more religious aspects of Christmas, and both involve adults hiding an object from children. Furthermore, both might be created to encourage product sales.

For another description of the Christmas Pickle tradition given by a seminary employee, see here

 

 

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Signs

Dropped silverware summons guests

LC: “What we always said when I was a kid was that if you dropped- when you dropped a knife on the floor, somebody would say, ‘oh, that means a man is coming for dinner.’ And if you dropped a fork, that meant, ‘oh, a woman’s coming to dinner.’ It was my job to empty the dishwasher, and to set the table with silverware and stuff. And I don’t know if anybody ever told me this, but I sort of extrapolated that if you dropped a spoon, it meant a kid was coming to dinner. I would drop spoons now and then in hopes of generating some visitors. It worked.”

Was this just your family or was it a more widespread belief?

LC: “I don’t feel like it- it wasn’t just us. It was definitely something I feel like other kids did. I would think it was regional, I don’t think it was like a family thing, like from one side of the family or the other. I feel like it was something that came from my sisters rather than my parents. You know, a lot of things in our family came from my dad and his Boy Scout stuff, but I don’t think that did.”

Background: LC grew up in Connecticut. This belief was held by many of her peers, including her older sisters. She does not hold this belief anymore, simply due to outgrowing it.

Context: This ritual, as it were, is performed when setting the table for dinner, or otherwise handling silverware.

Interpretation:

This belief both reflects a superstition about dropping silverware having seemingly unrelated consequences, as well as an intentional ritual which takes advantage of this superstition to try and invoke the consequences. I find it interesting that in this superstition, clumsiness is connected to a neutral or even beneficial consequence, rather than to a negative consequence. For example, spilling salt leads to bad luck, unless you negate it by throwing salt over your shoulder. Because the clumsy act in this case leads to a consequence which LC saw as positive, she was motivated to intentionally drop spoons from time to time.

[geolocation]