USC Digital Folklore Archives / Gestures
Customs
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Magic
Protection
Signs

1960s Elementary School Hand Gesture

AH is the informant, my mom, and PH is myself.

PH: Do you have any folklore for my project?

AH: I don’t think I know any folklore…
(She then mentioned some stories that are told by other family members, but wasn’t comfortable telling herself.)

PH: You know so much folklore and you don’t even know it! It’s not just ghost stories, it’s sayings or games or hand movements you do, anything that you were taught in an unofficial capacity… Like, when you were younger, didn’t you put your hand up in a C or something?

AH: Oh yes, how do you know about that?

PH: You’ve told me before!

AH: How do you remember this?

PH: I just remember! Now, can you explain this to me as if I’ve never heard it before?

AH: When I was a kid in the ‘60s, and someone called you a name on the playground, teasingly or not…and now [current day] maybe you’d say “same to you, or something”…

PH: Like, “I know you are, but what am I?”

AH: Oh, yes, we had that too… So, then we would hold our hands up, and form our hands in the shape of a C with the thumb on the bottom, and curve it in the shape of a C, and so that whatever they said would zoom around the curve and go back to them like a boomerang

PH: Okay, anything else to add?

AH: Well then they would put their hands up and do the same thing and it would go back (laughs)

PH: You said “their hands”? Plural?

AH: They, as in people in general, but just one hand…. So that would’ve been the late ‘60s when people started to say “cool” and “man” and stuff like that

PH: Do you remember how you learned that?

AH: No, it was…I don’t know if it was made up in our school or if it was something everyone did at that time

PH: What age would you do this?

AH: I’d say.. Probably second through fifth grade

PH: Do you think it was an age thing, that everyone at that age was doing it, or a time period thing, as in people from different age groups were all doing it at that time…?

AH: I doubt if high schoolers would do it… It might’ve gone to middle school..

PH: Does this have a name?

AH: Ohh… shoot. I don’t know.. “Back to you?” I don’t know.

PH: So there was a name?

AH: No probably not.. I wonder if it had anything to do with Star Trek, which was around that time too! (laughs)

PH: Really? Just because it’s a hand movement?

AH: No, I don’t know! (Laughs)

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Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Flight Ritual/ Superstition

In a conversation about upcoming travel plans, Lida brought up a ritual of her own:

“Before I get on a plane I touch the outside of the plane with a flat palm and if can, I touch the first window with a flat palm. I also walk on only with my right foot.”

 

I asked, when did you start doing that?

“I am really not sure when I started. I must have seen someone do it and then that was it. I did it every time and now I can’t fly unless I do it. I’m not sure if it’s a superstition but it’s kinda like a comfort thing. It’s a habit or like a routine that makes it seem like everything is gonna be like it always is when I’m flying.”

 

Background: Lida is a twenty-year old born and raised in Boston, MA and currently living in Los Angeles, CA attending USC as a sophomore. Her parents are divorced and she has two sisters.

Context: Lida brought up her ritual when we were talking about the upcoming trip she had the following weekend to fly home from school.

Analysis: This story totally resonated with me because I feel like I do many things that have become a “routine” simply for the sake of comfort and safety. I’ve always been an okay flyer, but my mom on the other hand, is a really nervous flyer. If I am on a plane with my mom she will always hold my hand for the entirety of the take-off and then again for the landing, but will be totally fine while we’re in the air. She has done this since I was a little girl, so now it has become instinct whenever I fly with her, and definitely a gesture of comfort. It is interesting to analyze how a gesture that will realistically not change any outcome of future events can create peace of mind and a calm disposition. I think the concept of folkloric “habits” in regard to beliefs or superstitions is an intriguing concept of study as they dramatically vary person to person and can be very uncommon or seem weird to others.

Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Protection

Ambulance Superstition

A conversation with a female friend went as follows:

Me: “I am not a very superstitious person at all. I don’t feel like those things ever do anything.”

Response: “I don’t have a a lot, but there are a couple that I do religiously. I don’t even think about it anymore”

Me: “Really? I would NEVER think that about you.”

Response: “Yeah… they are so subconscious at this point I don’t even think anyone else would even notice. I don’t even notice haha. But like…let me think of one…. Oh, every time I see an an ambulance I have to touch something red”

*(as she responds, she reaches her right hand to her left hip)*

 

 

Background: She is a twenty-year old born and raised in Boston, MA and currently living in Los Angeles, CA attending USC as a sophomore. Her parents are divorced and she has two younger sisters.

Context: This conversation took place as we were walking from class back to my apartment building.

Analysis: As my friend was telling me about a superstition of hers, she subconsciously reached her right hand across her body towards her left hip. At first I laughed, wondering why she did that, and when I told her why she was laughing she realized what she was doing. She explained that she typically would see an ambulance with its lights on while she was driving or in the car, and therefore, the closest thing to her to touch would be the red base on seatbelts. This superstition and “touching something red” has become so second nature to her that she literally acts like she is touching a seatbelt even when simply talking about the superstition itself. The fact that she didn’t realize what she was doing demonstrates how embedded folkloric beliefs can become in our worldview and within our daily actions. I was very intrigued by this interaction and loved gaining more insight into the depth of her superstitious beliefs as our conversation continued and developed.

Game
Gestures
Life cycle
Magic
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Turning of the Class Ring

Title: Turning of the Class Ring

Category: Ceremonial Object

Informant: Lisa L. Gabbard

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: 58

Occupation: Housewife

Residence: 5031 Mead Drive/ Doylestown PA, 18902 (Suburban Home)

Date of Collection: 4/8/18

Description:

High School class rings are ordered in the fall of Junior year of high school and delivered to the individual in the spring semester. Class rings are worn exclusively by either Junior or Senior class standing individuals of the institution. Class rings generally tend to include: The individual’s year of graduation, a colored jewel, the institution’s name, the individual’s last name, and/or a significant activity important to the individual ordering the ring.

Once the class ring is delivered to the student, the student must then go around the school getting other students to “turn” their class ring. When turning the class ring, the individual asked will rotate the ring clock-wise in a full circle on the owner’s finger. The owner of the ring will then ask the participant to give their signature on a list in a notebook (or other recording device) with the other individuals who have turned their ring.

The number of times that the ring must be turned is indicated by the last two digits in the year of the student’s graduation. Example: Class of 2019 must get their ring turned 19 times. Class of 1977 must get their ring turned 77 times. The last person who should turn the ring is the student them-self.

Context/Significance:

Turning of the class ring is meant to bring the individual good luck and prosperity their senior year of high school as they round-out their high school education. The people who may be asked to turn someone’s class ring mostly include close friends, relatives, or significant teachers. Students in other grade levels are invited to turn people’s class rings since they the pool of people allowed to turn class rings is not exclusive to the Junior class alone. The names are meant to be collected and held on-to by the individual gathering the information.

Personal Thoughts:

The turning of the class ring is symbolic of a variety of things. The turning of the ring is representative of the end of a cycle. As these Juniors are in the late spring semester of the year, they are preparing for the final year of their pre-college education. It symbolizes the end of a significant part of their lives and the number of times it is turned is specific to the year of their graduation and the year that everything will change. This experience can be backed up by the phrase “coming full circle.”

The people who turn their rings is significant as well. These are the people who have generally held significant roles in the individuals life and have helped shape their character up to this stage of life. Of course, the last person turning the ring is the student them-self as they are acknowledging this change and recognizing the end of their informal education.

Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Magic
Material

St. Joseph Figurine

Title: St. Joseph Figurine

Category: Folk Object/ Ritual

Informant: Kurt A. Gabbard

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: Upper 50s

Occupation: Princeton Seminary—Vice President of Business Affairs/Financial Consultant/CPA/CFO

Residence: 5031 Mead Drive/ Doylestown PA, 18902 (Suburban Home)

Date of Collection: 4/08/18

Description:

The St. Joseph figurine is used primarily by Catholic home owners when looking to sell their house. The figurine is buried at the corner of the property and must be buried upside down facing the entrance to the home. The figurine is often sold along with a prayer card which the user must say the prayer on the card after burying the figure and then everyday after until the home is sold.

The figurine is meant to bring good luck and will help to sell the property faster if used correctly. After the property sells, the miniature sculpture is dug up and placed on the mantle of the next home the person moves into. The figurine should be kept on the mantle until the next home is meant to be sold and the ritual repeated.

Context/Significance:

The Saint. Joseph figurine is a Catholic saint that is known in the religion as the patron saint of workers. Saint Joseph figurines (approximately the size of 3” tall) are sold in St. Joseph home-selling kits and are sometimes even included by realtors along with “for sale” signs and newspaper ads.

The figurine and ritual grew in popularity in the late 1980s and 1990s due to the housing crisis and re-arose in popularity during the 2008 housing crisis as well. People who participate in the ritual claim that their house that had previously been on the market for months or years, sold within weeks or even days after burying the saint.

Personal Thoughts:

My family has participated in the St. Joseph figurine ritual in every occasion where we’ve sold our house. My family is Catholic Christian and my father is the main family member who instills our religious traditions and practices. During my lifetime, my family has sold two houses, but moved six times. In both of the times that we’ve sold houses, my father has planted St. Joseph figurines and our properties sold within a month or two of the figurine being buried. My father and mother both believe strongly in the ritual and we have the figurine sitting on our mantle beside our family clock and horseshoe.

Annotation:

For another version of this practice, see:

https://www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/mystery-st-joseph-home-selling-kit/

MLA Citation:

Rabiipour, Nick, et al. “The Mystery of the St. Joseph Home Selling Kit.” Get Fed, 6 Aug. 2015, www.catholiccompany.com/getfed/mystery-st-joseph-home-selling-kit/.

Gestures
Humor
Initiations
Life cycle
Material
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

The Red Lady

Title: The Red Lady

Category: Folk Object

Informant: Julianna K. Keller

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: 20

Occupation: Student

Residence: 325 West Adams Blvd./ Los Angeles, CA 90007

Date of Collection: 4/09/18

Description:

The “Red Lady” is a large red bong used by a select group of the theatre community at Trinity Valley High School in Fort Worth Texas. None of the students know the exact origin of the object, they believe that it was purchased by the school’s theatre department for use in one of their shows many years ago. The “Red Lady” has been passed down from senior to senior in the theatre department as the years have gone by. The “Red Lady” is given to a trusted member of the group and it’s their responsibility to care for and keep the secret of the object— While still maintaining its hiding place on school property.

Context/Significance:

Ms. Keller was fortunate enough to have earned the “Red Lady” her senior year of High School and was abel to share this story with me. She said she earned it because she was known for smoking marijuana and for being an excellent “chill” actress of her senior class. When it cam time for her to graduate, she then passed the bong down to a rising upperclassman.

 

Personal Thoughts:

We had something similar at my high school on the cheerleading team. The senior captain was in charge of the “spirit stick” all throughout the year and for maintaining the level of excellence that our team had achieved that previous year. I wound’t say a “sprit stick” and a bong are extremely similar, but they could be used as motifs to describe the same sort of seniority earned possession.

Folk Beliefs
Gestures
Material
Narrative
Protection

Ullr Skiing Medal

Title: Ullr Skiing Medal

Category: Magic Charm

Informant: Judith Keller

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: Lower 70s

Occupation: Hospital Research Receptionist— Homemaker, Nurse, etc.

Residence: Fort Worth, Texas

Date of Collection: 4/09/18

Description:

An Ullr medal is a tiny figure of an Scandinavian God known as Ullr that protects skiers from harm. The medal is worn around the patron’s neck and under the skier’s jacket.

Context/Significance:

Judith Keller says that she used to wear the Ullr medal when she skied as a young girl. Her Uncle made her wear it under her normal ski clothes along with her cousins.

According to some historic accounts, Ullr was unbeatable on skis, never losing a race.  Some believe the Aurora Borealis is the snow flying off the tail of his skis.  In Germanic mythology Ullr is the main ski god of the 19th and 20th century; his character helped to establish a feeling of common identity among skiing pioneers in Norway and Central Europe, who prayed to him to insure the earth will be covered with snow, protecting it from winter’s harm.

In the United States, ski towns throw parties and parades in his honor.

Ullr medals have been popular with European skiers for over 100 years; they wear them for protection from harm while on the mountain. These medals have become highly collectible.

Personal Thoughts:

The medals are used by skiers as a token to ward off bad luck and bring protection to the wearer of the medal. The medals are apparently only produced “authentically” by one company and therefore exhibit the producer/consumer model we’ve studied of modernity in class. The medals claim to have a magical power that can protect winter sport enthusiasts. Mostly, these are used as an almost tourist item from the time spent skiing.

Annotation:

For additional history behind these medals, see:

http://www.ullrskimedals.com

MLA Citation:

“Ullr Ski Medals, Unique, Collectable, Custom Made Ski Medals. Ski Medals to Commemorate Ski Events – Ski Resort Events and Ski Resort Openings!” Ullr Ski Medals, Unique, Collectable, Custom Made Ski Medals. Ski Medals to Commemorate Ski Events – Ski Resort Events and Ski Resort Openings!, Ullr Ski Medals, www.ullrskimedals.com/.

Customs
Festival
Game
Gestures
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Homecoming Mums

Title: Homecoming Mums

Category: Clothing/Object

Informant: Rebecca Reinehr

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: 21

Occupation: Student— Food Service Industry, Medical Group Volunteer, etc.

Residence: Austin, TX

Date of Collection: 4/14/18

Description:

Homecoming mums are worn by high school students and differ from person to person based on status, gender, relationship, etc. The practice is most common in Southern high schools- Texas in particular.

Homecoming mums are meant to be received as a gift from someone significant to the person wearing the object. An individual might receive a mum from the following persons: A friend, an organization, a parent/relative, a significant other (boy friend/girl friend), homecoming date, etc. A person is not limited by the number of mums they can give or receive and some people (women in particular) will often even make them for themselves if they want to be sure to have one for the day.

Typically, the age of the recipient and grade level will determine the size of their mum. Women’s mums are always larger, but Seniors mums are also usually larger than underclassman mums. Seniors mums are also sometimes made will all white ribbons, decorations, and flowers.

Mums are ornamental fake flowers that are usually around 6-8” in diameter and are attached to a back that has ribbons surrounding the flower on top, and dangling ribbons with  decorations and letters. High schools in the area will have custom ribbons made with the high school logo or mascot as well. These ribbons and materials can be bought at craft stores in the region and even larger nation-wide craft stores will seasonally carry these items in their fall season. An example of stress that sell these items include, but are not limited to: Hobby Lobby, Michaels, Grocery Stores, etc.

Mums worn by women typically have ribbons extending to a yard in length and are worn via safety pin over the heart. Men’s mums are approximately half a yard in length and are worn on their arm attached to a ribbon garter. These objects will often include materials that make them distracting and challenging to wear all day. Attached items may include: bells, whistles, mini-LED lights, trinkets, stickers, etc. Sometimes a person may receive more than one mum and will either attempt to pin them all to their shirt, switch them out during the course of the day, or pin them to their backpacks.

Homecoming mums are worn on the day of homecoming to class and then later to the game. These flowers are also usually worn to a pep-rally that day before the homecoming game. Each mum is expected to be personalized with inside jokes, hobbies, or resemble the receiver’s/giver’s personality.

Mums may also be given by a parent’s club of an activity or sold in smaller forms by a student organization. Examples of smaller mums are: Finger mums, hair mums, children’s mums, etc.

Mums are usually kept and hung on bedroom walls by high school students. Women will often compare mums in class and use it as an almost competition to see who can get the most.

Mums can add up in expense quickly. While all of the items individually are fairly cheap— the main flower only costing around a dollar or two. But as is the slogan for Texas, “Everything’s bigger…” the more trinkets, ribbons, and bells that can be fit on are better and considered more impressive. Small, simple mums usually cost around $40 where larger and more intense mums can range in the $100-$200 range.

Context/Significance:

Mums are a very specific tradition, popular only in Texas (and parts of Oklahoma) and are huge, ginormous corsages. The NCAA recognizes the University of Missouri as the official place of birth of homecoming. In 1911, Mizzou athletic director Chester Brewer encouraged alumni to attend the game, and he gave them incentive to attend by having a huge celebration around the game that included parades and rallies.

At some point not too long after this first homecoming celebration in Missouri, the tradition of a boy giving a chrysanthemum to his homecoming date as a corsage was born in Texas. For decades, mums were simple, comprised of just a small flower with perhaps a few ribbons.

In the 1970s, homecoming mums became more elaborate and have continued to grow to the mammoth size they are today. Now they include a huge flower (albeit a silk flower has replaced the real chrysanthemum as the centerpiece), tons of large ribbons, charms, bows, bells, cowbells, stuffed animals, perhaps the high school mascot, and even LED lights in some cases! Even guys have their own version of the mum, called the garter – an elastic band worn around the upper arm that has the same features as the mum only on a much smaller scale.

Personal Thoughts:

Mums are also not only worn for homecoming. Mums are sometimes given as decorations for the home. Before coming to USC, I made a USC themed mum to hang on our common room door in my dorm room. Expecting mothers may also receive baby shower mums that will hang on the door of the delivery room. These are often themed for either a girl or boy and have baby trinkets and ribbons attached (sometimes even baby toys or pacifiers).

My cheerleading team sold mums the week of homecoming and provided a service for gentleman to order mums from our organization to be delivered the week of homecoming. At the game, each cheerleader also received a mum to wear on their leg for the game as athletes are not allowed to wear mums on the field. The football team will often wear a small carnation pinned to their uniform. The presented homecoming court will also remove their mums during the half-time ceremony.

Personally, I also just love them. Upon graduating high school, I tallied up a total of around 12 large mums and a few other smaller mums that I pinned to a bulletin board. They’re a fun way to remember that year’s homecoming celebration, friendships, and interests over the past four years.

Image:

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Annotation:

For additional history behind homecoming mums, see:

https://www.themumshop.com/history-of-mums/

MLA Citation:

“HISTORY OF MUMS.” The Mum Shop, www.themumshop.com/history-of-mums/.

Folk Beliefs
Game
Gestures
Humor
Legends
Magic
Material
Old age
Signs

MS College for Women: Old Maid’s Gate

Title: MS College for Women: Old Maid’s Gate

Category: Curse/ Conversion Magic

Informant: Lieanne Walker

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: Upper 60s

Occupation: Blue Collar— Homemaker, stockman, Home Depot Employee, etc.

Residence: Columbus, MS

Date of Collection: 4/21/18

Description:

The Old Maid’s Gate on The Mississippi College for Women’s campus has a curse associated with it. Women entering campus on foot from a certain drop off location will sometimes purposefully avoid the gate in order to not have to go through a charm of reversal in order to undo to curse. The gate is on the corner of campus in a  central location (making it a nuisance to avoid or have to follow through with), and appears to look like any other marble statue. However, if a woman is entering campus through the gate (and there are only a limited number of gates that one can enter the camps through), then she has to walk backwards under the gate all the way down that sidewalk of campus until she reaches the statue at the end of the park, turns around, and kisses it— This statue is known as the “kissing rock.” If the woman passing under the gate fails to do this, then she will grow up to become an old maid.

Context/Significance:

The “W” as the college is known, is famous for a few ghost stories and superstitions. This one in particular is special since there is a way of reversing the outcome of the curse. Since the “W” is a women’s college, its not surprising that this story would revolve around something bad that could happen to women in particular. Becoming an “old maid” is an irrelevant but somewhat universal fear shared by a majority of women, and the “W” being a location that houses a large number of women at a young age, it’s not surprising that a common fear at that location would be ending up alone.

Also, during the time that this tradition was probably established, in earlier years it was more common for women to have to rely on men for a sustainable lifestyle. Marriage held more importance and it was something you’d never want to be cursed from if possible.

Personal Thoughts:

My Aunt attended the “W” when she went to college and I remember her telling us the story of the old maid’s gate. When my mother tells the story she say s what happened was that her family was taking Aunt Chris back to school one semester and everyone was piled in the car to drop her off. When they arrived at the College my Grandfather prompted her to get out of the car. Aunt Chris refused and asked to be dropped off at another open gate to the school. My grandfather was refusing until she told him the story of the Old Maid’s gate and how she didn’t want to have to go through the ritual in order to carry her things back to her dorm. While they sat in the car, they actually watched another girl go through the conversion as they watched— They then agreed to drop her off at another gate.

Annotation:

For additional history behind MS College for Women’s Old Maid’s Gate, read an exert from:

Golden Days: Reminiscences of Alumnae, Mississippi State College for Women

MLA Citation:

Pieschel, Bridget Smith. Golden Days: Reminiscences of Alumnae, Mississippi State College for Women. Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2009.

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Russian “Foot-stomp” Tradition

Melanie Holpert studies History and Film at the University of Southern California. She is originally from Chicago, Illinois but now lives in Los Angeles, California while she attends university. Her parents are both Russian and practice Judaism—they have strong ties to Russia and are very committed to preserving their heritage. As such, Melanie’s parents and extended family imparted a number of Russian traditions to her and her older sister. Of these, Melanie most vividly remembers the superstitions. Below, she recounts one of the conversion rituals she learned as a child:

Melanie: “Well, I’m Russian… and especially Russians Jews are like this… if somebody steps on my foot, well if its in a big crowd I won’t do this… but I have to step on them with the same foot that they stepped on me with.”

Isabella: “What happens if you don’t reciprocate the gesture?”

Melanie: “I have no idea. Nobody really knows, but it’s supposed to be bad luck.”

Here, Melanie describes a conversion ritual that is supposed to preemptively prevent bad luck. Though Melanie admits to not understanding why she practices this tradition, she practices it nevertheless and feels uneasy if she does not reciprocate the gesture.  There is often an inexplicable quality to superstitions and this conversion ritual typifies that aspect of them.

This particular conversion ritual is interesting because it has the potential to evoke poor reactions from people that are unfamiliar with it. One might be upset if their foot is stomped on, simply because they made a mistake and stepped one someone else’s foot. Unlike other conversion rituals, this one demands participation from both parties involved.

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