USC Digital Folklore Archives / Signs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

White Spot in Hair

Informant: Joshua is a 24-year-old student living in Southern California. His father is from the Philippines and moved to California before Joshua was born.

Main Piece:

Josh: “My sister, underneath the brown of her hair, has a spot of white about the size of a quarter. And so the thing is, when you are born and somebody else dies, the white spot is where the dead person touched your hair and it died with them”

Interviewer: Is it an omen for anything? Is the baby cursed?

Josh: “I don’t think so, although my sister might be cursed. He laughs. I think it just changes the hair, though.”

Background Information about the Performance: The informant was told this by his father when he was younger. His father had noticed the white spot in his sister’s hair and pointed it out. When she asked why it was that way, this was his explanation.

Context of Performance: This piece was performed when trying to explain a white spot of hair to a child.

Thoughts: For me, this piece almost seems like a scary story, since it involves the dead. However, since nothing bad happens to the child, it’s less scary. This might be due to a difference in the perception of death.

 

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Chew on a Piece of Thread

Informant: B is a 20-year old born and raised in Southern California. He and his family are Jewish, and are all involved in theater.

Main Piece:

Informant: “Something my mom always told me is: if you’re wearing a garment of clothing that is actively being sewn or mended or stuff of that nature, you need to chew on a piece of thread.”

Interviewer: What happens if you don’t?

Informant: “Well, bad luck. There are all sorts of associations to death shrouds and dying, so it’s pretty bad to do.”

Background Information about the Performance: The informant’s mother told him this superstition when he was younger. The family frequently sews clothes due to their involvement with the theater.

Context of Performance: The piece is told as a warning against bad luck, mostly during situations in which people are mending clothes.

Thoughts: The informant noted that although he is not very superstitious, he very much believes this superstition. I was not aware of this superstition, but was aware of other sewing-related superstitions, such as knotted threads signifying an argument in the future, or not leaving something unsewn through New Years.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Don’t Bring a Feather into the House

Informant: Dr. Çulik-Baird is a 27-year-old professor. She was born and raised in Scotland, and moved to Los Angeles at 21. She recently moved to Boston for a job.

Main Piece:
Hannah: “When I was little, my mother would always warn me not to bring a bird’s feather into the house. My dad didn’t believe it, but my mother would always warn me against it.”

 

Interviewer: What would happen if you did?

Hannah: “Just bad luck, really. She never told me much more about it.”

Background Information about the Performance: The informant lives away from her family now but still practices this superstition that her mother told her. She said that doing so reminds her of home.

Context of Performance: This piece was told in the household of the informant when she was younger.

Thoughts: I have never heard of this superstition before, and the informant noted that it might have just been her mother’s belief. Nevertheless, I enjoyed learning that the piece kept the informant connected in some way to her family, despite living so far away.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Baseball Superstition: Haircut

Type: Superstition/Folk Belief

  1. “Apparently it’s good luck to get a haircut before a baseball game. Having a clean haircut and fresh look gives good luck for the game. Helps your chances while batting.”
  2. I obtained this piece of folklore from my older brother, Noah. Noah is three years older than me, and he is incredibly passionate about sports. All throughout his life, Noah played basketball, football, soccer, ultimate Frisbee, but more importantly baseball. My brother played baseball throughout his life, and he had many different teammates and coaches. One of his coaches, who also happened to be a family friend, told him this superstition about getting a haircut before the game. Ever since he heard this he has tried to get a haircut before ever baseball game, but it only happened every so often. He was not consistent with his folk belief but he tried.
  3. In sports, there are a lot of superstitions, and especially in baseball. This piece of folklore circulates around baseball players, although probably non-professional players. Noah does not think that this is believed among professional players but him and his teammates, friends, and peers all knew about this haircut superstition. Every athlete has their own superstitions according to Noah, but this is the only one that he knows of that is considered “universal.” Noah does not play baseball now, and so he does not currently believe in this superstition. Nor does he tell his friends about this superstition anymore, it seems as though it was meant for younger baseball players.
  4. I really do not like this piece of folklore. I am superstitious but I a) believe superstitions are unique to the individual and b) I don’t believe in sports superstitions. I don’t think that the way you look or the clothes you wear can affect your performance, however I do believe in other superstitions, making my beliefs inconsistent.
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Good Luck Butterflies

An old woman told my friend that seeing seeing white butterflies is good luck.

Lindsey: I was working on a community service gardening project and this old woman started talking to me. She said that if a black butterfly lands on you, it means you or someone you are close to will die or get very very ill. By the same token, a white butterfly indicates good luck.

Me: Had you ever heard of this before?

Lindsey: No, but I told my mom, and she said that a white butterfly is only good luck if the first butterfly you see in a year is white.

Analysis: In many cultures and religions, butterflies can be a symbol of rebirth. At first, one is young, and then they go into a sort of hibernation, and then they break from a cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. White is an auspicious color as well, in that white often symbolizes purity, goodness, and untarnished youth. To see a white butterfly, an animal which is relatively elusive and fast-moving, is to glimpse at a special gift that feels as though only you were meant to see it.

Signs

The Devil in the Wall

Okay I was really upset about something maybe it was something that happened in school or dance, I don’t know but I was like crying in my room, it was when we had the bunk beds and I was on your bed crying, crying, crying umm… for like an hour or something and you know how we used to have that umm.. The wall used to have like some sort of texture to it. What is that called? Oh no that was the ceiling but it was the wall. The wall had a crack and I was crying, crying, crying and I looked to my right and I swear, it was the lighting and there was a crack in the wall and it looked like the devil’s face like for sure and I told dad and he, I mean you saw it too right? And it was creepy because I had never seen it before, I had never noticed it before until that moment and then uhh… so he ended up just knocking a hole in it and then like re-plastering it to get rid of the creepy devil face.

My informant experienced this piece of folklore and traumatized her to this day. She informed me about this story as everyone was talking about weird ghost stories or satanic stories over dinner. This piece of folklore scared me when I heard it because the informant was talking about the room I used to sleep in every night and I had no idea about the crack in the wall.

general
Signs

Mexican Flag

Informant:

Mario is from Mexico City, Mexico, who said himself that he is “extremely interested in his Mexican roots and traditions.”

Original Script:

“So the story goes, like, there was a man who was walking through the forest, taking in the beautiful nature of Mexico. Many people think Mexico is just, like…um, a barren desert, but, like, theres a lot of really beautiful parts. And then the man looked up and saw an eagle eating a snake on top of an old cactus. I’m honestly not sure why that scene is so significant, but that is how it went down (laughs).”

Context:

The Mexican Flag is obviously flown whenever or wherever someone is feeling patriotic towards Mexico.

My Thoughts:

What’s most interesting to me is that Mario, someone who is so truly invested in the history and traditions of his home country, does not know why Mexico chose the scene that the man saw in the forest as the one that they would put on their flag. I know why the American flag has the thirteen white and red stripes and the fifty white stars. This illustrates how patriotism is put forward in different ways by the citizens of different nations.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Signs

Chinese New Year’s Shoes

Barbara is a Chinese-American who graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from the University of California, Riverside. Her parents are from Hong Kong and immigrated to the United States, before giving birth to her in Baldwin Park, Los Angeles. She recently received her Master’s in Clinical Psychology and is currently working at a clinic in downtown Los Angeles. Her hobbies are baking, exploring hipster cafes or restaurants, and reading thriller novels.

Original Script

So, um, for Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year, there’s a tradition that my family likes to follow. In addition to giving red envelopes to the youngsters who have not married yet, um, every year we like to, um, get some new clothes for the New Year, new shoes of course. And, the morning of Chinese New Year, we do a little ritual where we put on the new shoes and we kind of stomp around to step away all the bad juju and all the bad people or bad luck that will come our way for this year. And we just keep stomping, and during that time, we would chant, “Chai-siu-yurn!” Literally, it means like, “step away all the little people—the little people go away.”

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

Ever since she could remember as a little girl, she performed this ritual with her family on every Chinese New Year’s. She enjoyed stomping on the ground and making a lot of noise for the sake of having good luck.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Many Chinese people believe that purchasing and wearing a new pair of slippers on Chinese New Year’s would expel the negative energy from their household. By stomping on the ground of their homes, they are metaphorically stepping on the bad luck and the people who have treated them badly.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I was surprised to hear of this superstition, because my Chinese parents told me it is unlucky to buy a new pair of shoes on New Year’s Day. They said new shoes would bring me unluckiness and invite evil spirits to plague me for the coming year, since “shoes” in Cantonese is a homonym for “rough” and it sounds like the word “sigh.” Since the informant and I both have Cantonese backgrounds, I find it interesting how we have different superstitions regarding purchasing new shoes on Chinese New Year’s Day.

Folk Beliefs
general
Signs

Three Times Japanese Superstition

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

If it happens twice, it happens three times. So for instance, if you drop something twice that day, the third time you drop an object it’ll be a much more valuable object such as glass or your phone.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first heard of this superstition from her mother one day when she was in elementary school. She had dropped her phone twice that day before her mother warned her what would happen for the third time. She was so scared of what would happen in the future that she handled her phone like a precious diamond.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

Although the Japanese believe the numbers, four and nine, are unlucky, they have superstitions where the penalty for committing a taboo action is three years of bad luck. There is also the superstition that sneezing three times means someone is talking unfavorably about you. This superstition told by the informant also calls upon the number three as a connotation for bad luck.

My Thoughts about the Performance

When I heard about this superstition, I thought the informant’s mother told her daughter about the superstition to scare her into treating her phone with care. In a broader context, this Japanese folk belief may have been created to encourage people to be more cautious about their possessions. It seems that one of the functions of folklore in most, if not all, cultures is to scare people into performing an action.

Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

O-mikuji

Aubrey is a Japanese-American currently attending ELAC. She plans to transfer to UCSD to pursue a bachelor’s in Marine Biology because she intends to protect the marine environment with her university education. She enjoys drawing, watching anime, attending sports games with her dad, and playing with her dogs.

Original Script

So every morning on New Year’s Day, Japanese people would go to a shrine. They would toss in yen in this, like, designated area where you’re supposed to toss yen. And then you ring this large bell, bow, clap your hands twice, and you pray for good luck…And also some people choose to buy these small papers with messages called o-mikuji and some papers have really good luck, some papers have really bad luck. The papers that have good luck you’re supposed to keep so that the good luck will stay with. And the papers that have really bad luck, you’re supposed to tie them on a tree that’s in the shrine area so that the bad luck can stay away from you.

Background Information about the Performance from the Informant

The informant first performed this ritual at a Shinto temple during her trip to Japan on New Year’s Day in elementary school. She remembered this custom because she enjoyed fortune-telling practices and the concepts of second chances and casting away bad luck on a tree.

Context of the Performance

I interviewed the informant in my house.

In Japan, people perform these actions—ringing the bell, bowing, clapping twice—at temples for various reasons. The three main reasons are to draw the god’s attention, to ward off spirits, and to express their gratitude and respect for the god. Found in various temples and shrines throughout Japan, o-mikuji are strips of paper that grant fortunes ranging from a great blessing to a great curse. They predict one’s chances with various aspects of life: health, love, success, etc. However, when the prediction is bad, it is custom to fold the strip of paper and attach it to a pine tree. This custom originates from how the Japanese character for “pine tree” (松 / matsu) sounds like the characters for “to wait” (待つ / matsu), with the concept being that the bad luck will wait by the pine tree.

My Thoughts about the Performance

I found the Japanese custom for praying at a Shinto temple interesting, because I never knew what the reasons were for people ringing the bell, bowing, and clapping. I also thought the idea of placing bad luck in the form of strips of paper, or o-mikuji, on pine trees amusing. I did not realize that this custom was built on a sound pun, but I appreciate the fact that the custom provides several chances to a person for good fortune.

[geolocation]