USC Digital Folklore Archives / Life cycle
Childhood
Tales /märchen

Big Cookie Hero

 

My informant is an American from Minnesota, who has ancestors from Czech republic and Sweden, back to 1880.

“My grandmother used to tell me a story of a big cookie that could roll around and have adventure.  Sometimes it was oatmeal cookie sometimes it was a chocolate chip cookie, but they would roll around have adventures, save kids…She may have the story come down from her ancestors. Sweets are big product in Sweden. She may possibly hear this from her mother. It was like a bed time story. The big cookie was the hero. He would roll down the streets and rescue a lot of stupid kids. I think the cookie did talk, say things like ‘you stupid kid, how did you stuck in the mud? how did you lock yourself in the room?'”

“My grandma, who lives in St. Paul now, she still always has a mass amount of cookies and pastry that she baked before we came. So much culture pass down through food. ”

As an animation filmmaker and teacher, Christine loves this kind of tales that she heard from her family, which has also inspired her a lot in her creation.

I think this kind of folklore tales is really playing a positive role in people’s childhood, which could make the children grow up happily and imaginatively.

 

Childhood
Customs
Festival
Homeopathic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red pocket money under pillow

My informant is a student who was originally from China but came to study in US since high school.

“You know, red pocket money is one of the biggest tradition during Spring Festival in China. But in my family, not only we get red pocket money from people much older than us, we also put them under our pillow at night. It’s like really coordinating with the word “压”(push down) in “压(push down)岁(age)钱(money)” (red pocket money). And my grandparents would also put ivy leaves inside there, just for good luck.”

“I know they are many superstitions from Chinese family, especially my family haha. But we still do that, I don’t think the truth matters that much in this case, I like these traditions.”

I think it’s really interesting that in both asian and western culture we have this kind of gift thing for kids during important festivals. Hoping for good luck with ivy leaves inside red pocket money that placed under their pillow to Chinese children, waiting for christmas gift to be put inside the christmas sock for western children, they both serve as a good method to give them hope and believes; as well as for better sleeping quality since they all happen during bed time.

 

Myths
Old age

Vision before death

My informant is an American from New York, whose family originally came from Poland 100 years ago. His grandfather was a baker and his grandmother was a peasant girl.

“In my family, when my relatives are dying, they will always see someone who is dead before them, like they’re calling them. Like when my grandmother died, she saw her husband. (But how do you know about that? They’re dying right?) Yeah, but you know, like, when my grandma was dying, she would say ‘did you see grandpa? Grandpa was here.’ It’s within a few days, that week. And my aunt did that too, ‘I saw Raman’, which is her husband, who died 20 years before. I don’t know, who knows?”

There might be some other scientific explanations on that phenomenon, but I think it also make sense to me that when people are dying their brain uses this way of reasoning to release their fear toward death: there is still a good side about death that you’re gonna meet with your beloved one who has also been dead.

 

Adulthood
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Forget it, it’s Chinatown

JH is a senior at a all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives with his parents in Pasadena, CA.

JH sat down to talk with me about a ritual he and his friends began practicing as early as middle school – taking the train to Chinatown in downtown LA after school.

“Some of my friends started going in eighth grade…our middle school was really close to a Metro station, and we could just say we were walking to my friend N’s house and just go there instead. Tickets were only like $1.50 each way and it only takes like, 15 minutes to get there. I only went once though I think…and we just walked around and looked at stuff, they had those little turtles and firecrackers and shit, I don’t even know if anyone bought anything.

“I went more with friends in high school though, like freshman and sophomore year a bit. We could still take the Metro after school and just told our parents we were staying after school to do homework in the library or had a club meeting or something. My friends would also buy cigarettes at these little smoke shops there, and there was like, always one that kept getting shut down or they kept changing the name…it would pretty much be a different woman every time, like ‘Kim’s’ or ‘Annie’s’ or something. And they wouldn’t ask for your ID or anything, my friends would just like buy whatever their friends bought, like red Marlboros or American Spirits and stuff. They had pieces too [for smoking weed] and bongs, so sometimes my friends would get the cheap glass pipes, they were like $10 each or something. I know some people would go through the markets where they had clothes and knock-off jade stuff, and there was this one little stall hidden behind clothes that sold a whole bunch of weapons. We mostly just went and looked but some people bought things, like ninja stars or big knives…people said these guys supplied the Chinese mafia, or something. One time someone said they saw a warhead…like the kind of thing you put on top of a missile. For awhile one of my friends had like a plywood board in his garage, and we’d take turns throwing the ninja stars at it.”

I asked JH why he thought Chinatown was so popular for younger high school kids, and what it said about their youth culture:

“I don’t know…I don’t know when they built the Metro, but I guess it was probably pretty new. And in like 8th grade, beginning of high school, no one can drive, but you kind of want to start going out and exploring…beyond Pasadena, outside of just your neighborhood and school and stuff. And then the Metro only really has a few stops that aren’t in totally random places, like yeah you could get on different lines and go to Hollywood and stuff but we only had a couple hours after school and going too far was probably too…intimidating or scary when we were only like, 14. And then obviously older kids were doing it and that’s where they were getting dumb things like cigarettes that they had at parties, and I guess we just wanted to see what they were getting into, and it just seemed really cool going to a kind of sketchy place and knowing we were breaking all these rules. Probably just like, typical teenage rebellion, sneaking behind your parents’ backs before we could drive and really start getting into trouble. Plus, in Pasadena I think we all know we’re super sheltered in this really well-off community, and everyone’s had pretty comfortable and safe lives…which I guess adds to the danger part.”

My analysis:

I think this type of ritual is typical among teenagers, especially younger ones, who are just starting to become independent and want to push the boundaries their parents have set so far. The ages of 13-16, 17 really define the liminal period in American culture, when kids start to feel more self-sufficient but aren’t ready to take on all the responsibilities of adulthood; parents struggle with the transition too, knowing they should start preparing older children to take care of themselves, without wanting to kick them out of the nest so fast. Kids toeing the line, and learning to take advantage of their parents is nothing new, and here we see them trying to navigate the larger (and more adult) world using public transportation, coming into contact with drugs and drug paraphernalia, and doing so with an air of secrecy and defiance.

Additionally, it starts to separate “cool” or “mature” kids from those who are happy to obey authority, and some feel pressured to challenge their parents instead of their peers. Sneaking out and experimenting with illicit activities (drinking, drugs, sex, etc.) is a large part of the American high school experience, and this ritual demonstrates one foray into that world.

Adulthood
Initiations

Kairos

JH is a senior at an all-boys Catholic high school in La Canada Flintridge, CA. He lives in Pasadena, CA.

JH talked to me about a school retreat he just went on, which they host every year:

“We have a different retreat every year, but the senior retreat is called ‘Kairos’…we spend like the last week of classes at a center near Santa Barbara, but they don’t really tell us where we’re going…we just left after school one day. It’s pretty religious-based and we talked a lot about God and the Catholic Church and stuff, but more of it was spiritual, like we talked about our personal relationship with God and spirituality and stuff. On the second day they surprised us with letters from our parents, and both of our parents had to write us a letter with stuff they may not have told us or with like, things they wanted us to know…some people got letters from siblings too, and they mostly talked about how we’re at an important transition in our lives, talking about becoming an adult and stuff. And then we all had to share a lot too, and people talked about really awful things that had happened in their past that we had no idea about, and our teachers and the priests did too…I think we all got a lot closer, opening up like that…I wasn’t expecting to really buy into the whole retreat thing, but I think I learned a lot in the end. When we got back, they led us into the auditorium where all our parents were sitting, and they were cheering for us, and we went and sat up on stage where they talked a little about the week, and then we all had to go up to the microphone and talk about our experiences that week, and then we would go and sit with our parents.”

I asked JH if he felt it was more of a religious retreat or a school/class retreat:

“Definitely more about our class than religion. The religion was a big part of it, but even just going to a Catholic school they were never necessarily trying to convert us or anything, and they were really inclusive both at the retreat and at the school like in general.”

My analysis:

A lot of high schools that have the resources put on these “retreats” for their students, especially at the end of senior year, or the end of their high school career. It helps usher these students through the liminal period, or help them slow down and understand the importance of the transition they’re in the midst of, and by emphasizing parental involvement JH’s school highlights the community aspect, where families would play a big role in celebrating the child’s transition to adulthood. This is actually the first kind of retreat I’d heard of that gave parents such a role – usually it revolves more around the school’s influence and presence in the students’ lives.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Envelopes and Marriage to a Ghost

Background: M.S. is a 18-year-old student at the University of Southern California studying Business Administration. While she was born in the United States near San Jose, California, both of her parents are from Taiwan, and Taiwanese culture is thoroughly engrained into her character. M.S.’s family believes in many of the superstitions and legends typical of Taiwan, and they have been passed down in her family from generation to generation.

 

Main piece:

M.S.: If there’s a girl who dies before she gets married or before she has a chance to get married, the parents or the family will often times still hope that she will still get married so they will leave a red envelope full of money on the ground somewhere or in the streets on the girl’s birthday and then they like wills stay there to see who picks it up and if it’s a guy who picks it up then they will like go up to the guy and say “you picked up our daughter’s red envelope, you have to marry her” – yeah – so the concept is like – ok because in traditional or ancient like – so basically in traditional Chinese culture – even now – the women, um, are basically in the family records or family tree like history almost, the women are put under their husband’s family they wouldn’t – because they don’t carry their birth family’s name – right –  it’s like their maiden name – they take on their husband’s name  – they are part of their husband’s family so the parents like because there is also a tradition to I wouldn’t say like worship…there’s a better word… but basically like worship your ancestors – honor – like when they pass – you would still go to the temple or you would have a little shrine to honor your ancestors and like remember them.

 

So basically what parents and/or families would be worried about is that if their daughters don’t get a chance to marry and they pass away, they’re not going to have anyone who would honor them in the future because they wouldn’t be included in their family’s history – in their records.  They are supposed to be in like – technically – her husband’s.  So which is why they want to find a husband for their daughter and so the guy who picks up that red envelope would have to go through this whole process to like marry her even thought she is obviously like dead and have her included in his family records so that in the future like that his family line – someone will still honor her.  Basically it’s the idea that if she weren’t included in one of those family histories and weren’t honored, she would just be this wild, they call it a “wild ghost” and she’s like just floating there on her own without a family or without anyone to remember her basically.  So this is why they want to have this guy like marry her in a sense.  But technically this guy – even though he is forced to marry this ghost girl in the future he is still allowed to marry someone in the future – for real.  But basically the whole purpose is to get the girl in the family tree so that she can be honored in the future and not just forgotten and if the guy who picks up the red envelope disagrees – like doesn’t agree to marry – like go through this whole process, it is said that he will have bad luck for the rest of his life.

 

Q: What happens on the man’s family tree? Is the dead wife and the living wife both written under his family tree?

 

M.S.: Yes – put together.

 

Q: And this has no effect on the living wife?

 

M.S.: Yes – it wouldn’t because it’s not like they would officially go to the government and register that he’s married to this ghost wife – it’s just like going through the actions and then like having her included in the family tree.

 

Q: What would the “actions” be?

 

M.S.: It’s not as like set but it’s like some of the marriage customs like going to the girl’s house and bringing her to his home – but something that would represent her.  This guy would go to the girl’s house and take her spirit to his home. Just whatever they choose to do but the point is that they would just include her in the family book but you wouldn’t formally register that I am married to this ghost girl.

 

But this is superstitious, it is not as common anymore.  It is only certain parents – most parents nowadays would just forget about it.  If this girl has like siblings – like brothers – have the brother’s kids honor her instead.  So nowadays people wouldn’t necessarily be like…So she’s saying the majority of people wouldn’t do this anymore but there would still be a minority of people who were superstitious that would do this if the situation.  Moral of the story is if you were walking along the streets and saw a red envelope or pouch full of money – don’t pick it up.

 

Q: What happens if a woman picks it up?

 

M.S.: If a woman picked it up, the family would say – this is not yours – we are looking for a man and they would take it and put it back on the ground.

 

Performance Context: The placement of a red envelope would be done by the family of a girl who had died before she had the chance to get married. This practice would occur in Taiwan, typically in small villages, and by superstitious families.

 

My Thoughts: This practice of finding a husband for a daughter, even after she has died, shows the importance in Taiwan of honoring your ancestors and also having future generations to honor you. For families who are superstitious, it is vital for them to find a “husband” for their deceased daughter to make sure that she will be honored in the future. Taiwanese society is also clearly patriarchal, given the fact that women’s names are written under the man’s name and on the man’s family tree.

Childhood
general
Legends

“El Justo Juez” – The Just Judge

Background: E.M. is an 18-year-old student at USC studying Cinema and Media Studies. She is Salvadoran but as lived all over the US, so she has picked up folklore and customs from a lot of different places. Her father grew up in El Salvador, so Salvadoran culture has been engrained into her upbringing and has influenced things that she learned from her parents.

 

Main Piece: So growing up in El Salvador, my dad heard this story about this ghostly creature, called the Just Judge. Um so according to the story, he was um he would appear only in the night, and he would be riding a black horse. Um and when you got close to him, you would realize that he had no head, just like um a cloud of smoke coming out of his neck where his head should be. Um so it was said that um that if you approached him, he would say to go back inside your house. You would only see him very late at night when no one else was around. And he would say that the night belonged to him, and that you shouldn’t be there. My uncle actually claims that he saw him, and that when he tried… and that he saw this figure. He saw like this cloud of smoke on the street when he was walking out at night on like a very deserted street, and when he went through it, he claims he saw that figure in the cloud of smoke, and that it walked right through him, like the horse walked right through him like it wasn’t made of anything. Um so he panicked and he ran back home. Um but since that day, he’s kinda rationalized it by saying that it was an optical illusion or that it was a cloud that was really low, so he doesn’t actually believe in it. But it’s always fun to entertain the idea.

 

Performance Context: This tale is usually told from parents to children to keep them from staying out too late. It was probably a cautionary tale, so they came up with this frightening creature to keep kids from staying out past their curfew.

 

My Thoughts: I think it is interesting how people have come up with such legends in order to precaution their children against doing certain things, yet these stories become so integrated into society that people believe they have seen or heard the characters described in these legends. This legend almost seems reminiscent of the Sleepy Hollow Legend with the headless horseman.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Magic

Hilots in Filipino Culture

Background: Y.G.M. is a 49-year-old Filipino woman who works at Nye Partners in Women’s Health as the office manager. She was born and raised in Quezon City in the Philippines, and lived there until she was 25 years old. Y.G.M. self-identifies as Filipino, and as a result of her upbringing, Filipino culture is very engrained into her personal beliefs. She attended college at Mirian College, and received a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. Y.G.M. then immigrated to Chicago, Illinois with her family in 1997, and got her first job working at Citibank in River Forest, Illinois. She now lives with her husband in a suburb of Chicago.

 

Main piece:

Y.G.M.: So Filipinos also have superstitious beliefs like um a person called Hilot [hee-loht] which is an expert woman who can deliver um deliver a mother in labor so they are supposed to have supernatural powers to just deliver a woman without any problems and they are blessed you know to be in to help women in labor without any problems – kinda like midwives.  So it’s like they have supernatural powers to do that instead of taking women to the hospital.

 

Q: How are the Hilots chosen?

 

Y.G.M.: They say, like “oh I have that special gift from above to perform such a miracle,” like a special gift from God.

 

Q: Is it from a specific God or just all the gods?

 

Y.G.M.: All the gods. And up to this moment, they still believe in that.

 

Q: So they just self-proclaim themselves as Hilots?

 

Y.G.M.: Yes yes – uh huh.

 

Performance Context: Hilots would be used to help women during childbirth in the Philippines.

 

My Thoughts: I think that it is interesting how the Filipinos relate childbirth to a religious and magical process with the use of Hilots’ god-given powers to help women in labor. Instead of using “medicine” in the general sense to help with childbirth, this practice shows that Filipino culture believes more in religion and magic to assist with everyday life.

Childhood
Life cycle
Proverbs

Un hombre con pelo en el pecho vale dos

Background: E.M. is an 18-year-old student at USC studying Cinema and Media Studies. She is Salvadoran but as lived all over the US, so she has picked up folklore and customs from a lot of different places. Her father grew up in El Salvador, so Salvadoran culture has been engrained into her upbringing and has influenced things that she learned from her parents.

 

Main piece: “Un hombre con pelo en el pecho vale dos,” “A man with hair on his chest is worth two”

 

“So this is a proverb that my father told me- he’s from El Salvador. To me as a joke-it’s not something he believes, just something he heard growing up and he thought it was funny so he decided to share it with me.

 

Basically what the proverb means is that you are more of a man if you have chest hair! It’s a parody of the more recognizable proverb that exists in both Spanish and English since It’s a comedic take on the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

 

It was something he would hear a lot growing up from his dad and brothers, as well as something that got repeated a lot and is all boys school. It was usually said to tease boys who didn’t have facial hair yet as that was seen a sign of immaturity or weakness. My dad says that to get revenge, sometimes the boys who were teased would shave their bully’s’ chests in their sleep! It was all in good fun though – this wasn’t a proverb that was taken very seriously or meant to be truly insulting.”

 

Performance Context: This proverb would be told usually among men, from older men to younger boys.

 

My Thoughts: I think this proverb better reveals Latin American society’s attitudes towards boyhood, masculinity, and coming of age. It is definitely used in a way such that growing chest hair makes a person part of “the group,” as the person now has something that all of the other members of the group have.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Delivering a Baby Using a Vacuum

Background: E.N. is a 58-year-old obstetrician gynecologist who was born in Boston, Massachusetts to two attorney parents. She stumbled upon medicine in college as a psychology major when she took a biology class and became aware that she had an affinity for science. E.N. currently practices full time in the Chicagoland area delivering babies and performing gynecological surgery.

 

Main piece: So when I deliver a baby and we get towards the end of the labor and she’s about to deliver, sometimes I will have to think about assisting the patient with delivery with an instrument called a vacuum. So if the fetal heart tones are down or the mom can’t push or is running out of steam or something like that, I will take the vacuum out and put it on the side of the delivery table and I will say out loud “I’m putting this here to ward off evil spirits.” Which I suppose is kind of silly but we’re also superstitious that if we feel we can take this out and put it on the side and the patient actually won’t ever need it but we have it just in case she does need it.

 

Q: Do you say this phrase out loud?

 

E.N.: Yes – absolutely. Out loud so EVERYONE in the room can hear it.

 

Performance Context: E.N. would do this when she feels that there is a possible chance that she would have to use the vacuum to help with the delivery of the baby.

 

My Thoughts: I think it is interesting how medicine and superstitions tie into each other, though in the western world and in western medicine, superstitions are frowned upon as they are not always based in actual fact. Though medicine is not typically based on luck or on the speaking of certain things, I think it is curious that superstition and what you say is believed to help in some western medical scenarios, even by the doctors thoroughly trained in western medicine.

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