USC Digital Folklore Archives / Holidays
Festival
Holidays
Myths
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Durga Puja

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore, particularly about holidays and celebrations.

Piece:

We have another festival that is very… what should I say? It’s the main festival from West Bengal, which is where I come from. And that’s called Durga Puja. Puja is any kind of celebration that involves some kind of religious prayer ceremony. So let me start off with Dussehra. So what happens is, and as you know, our Indian calendar is a lunar calendar, not a solar calendar. So the date of this celebration varies from end of September to end of October, depending on the lunar cycle. It’s actually a nine day festival, but the main days of the celebration are days six, seven, eight, and nine. And on the tenth day, so the story goes like this:

There’s this goddess, Durga, she lives in the Himalayas with her husband Shiva. And she has two sons and two daughters. One of her daughters is the goddess of wealth, Laxmi. Her other daughter is the daughter of knowledge, Saraswati. The other son used to be the sons of fighting battles, Kartik. And then there’s the elephant god, the youngest of her sons, Ganesh.

I’ll tell you a little story about Ganesh. His mother was taking a bath and she told him that, “You know what, I’m taking a bath, don’t let anybody come in here, because I don’t want anybody to come in.”

In the meantime, his father, Shiva, comes to visit, and Ganesh says, “You can’t come in,” because, apparently, he’s never seen his father before.

His father, also a god, says “Of course I can go in, that’s my house.”

And Ganesh said, “No, you cannot go in! My mom said I’m supposed to be guarding the door and I won’t let you in.” The father gets very upset and looks at Ganesh with so much anger, that his head falls off his shoulder.
The mother comes out and sees what’s happened, and is like, “Why did you just do that to our little boy?”

So by that time, his anger has kind of subsided, and he’s like, “Oh my god, we can’t have him without a head. We have to find a new head!” So apparently, he sends people all over the world, saying, “Go find me the first living creature who’s sleeping with its head facing the East. Cut off its head and bring it to me.” So everybody goes everywhere and can’t find someone, because, apparently in India you can’t sleep with your head towards the East, since the sun rises in the East. They go all over the world, and they find this elephant. So what they do is, they cut off its head and they bring it.

And the mother goes, “What the heck! I can’t put that head on my little baby!”

The father says, “Well, I can’t change the rule, I said the first living being with its head facing the East,” so he puts the head on the child, and the child is alive.

The mother goes, “No one is going to worship him! Everyone will make fun of him! Nobody is going to respect him.” So now it is written that, before any prayer or any celebration, – anything – you have to first pray to Ganesh before you can do any official celebration. So now in every part of India, before prayer, or any celebration – a wedding, anything – you must first pray to Ganesh. Ganesh is also the God of removing obstacles, so he’s become a very popular symbol. I have a Ganesh in my house; I think your mom has a Ganesh in your house, too.

So, that is Ganesh’s story, but that is also the youngest son of Durga when she comes to visit. And so the art is her parent’s house. So she comes for those few days, with her children, and on the tenth day, she goes back to the Himalayas to be with her husband. So what happens in West Bengal where I come from, is those days are… it’s a lot of fun, all the schools, offices, colleges, everything is closed. It’s hard for me to explain. They put up all these temporary structures on the streets and stuff and then have these celebrations and, it’s like all over West Bengal. And there is food, there is music, there is lighting. So that is the story behind one of our festivals.

RB: We call it religious, but they are more social religious than just religious, because it all involves inviting people, having dinners, lunches, dressing up, having music and dances. There’s a lot of culture that is associated with these festivals, so it is not that you’re just in the temple, reciting hymns or chanting. That is a very small part. It’s all about dressing up, looking good, and eating food. That is how we keep in touch with each other. At these festivals, at these religious ceremonies as we call it, we go visit each other. We keep in touch with each other and socialize with each other. I think we use it more for socializing and less for religion, which is how it should be.

One thing I want to clarify is that Hinduism is not a religion. It is mostly a way of life. And that is why you can’t be converted to Hinduism: because, either you are born one or you’re not. And if you are born one, you are taught the way of life since you’re born. But, you can still marry into it. We do not require people to change their religion when you marry, because we just think that when you come to a Hindu household, you will learn the way of life. Hinduism does not require that you go to a temple everyday, or pray everyday. They just teach us that everything should be a part of your life: that you clean your house and take care of each other, etc.

Analysis:

It was very fascinating to hear about how many of the primary holidays in India/West Bengal have elaborate creation myths of their own. It seems that many of the holidays are tied in directly with the events of the religion’s mythology, celebrating anniversaries of the Gods’ actions and locations in the mythologies.

It seems as though Hindus really value large social gatherings, and use religious holidays as excuses to throw huge social celebrations. In fact, it seems that the point of many religious occasions is much more social than it is religious. I feel that this is likely the result of a seemingly much more inclusive and accepting religion, that values socializing and lifestyle over religious and social boundaries.

 

Festival
Holidays
Myths
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Diwali

Context:

The informant – RB – is a middle-aged Hindu woman, originally from West Bengal, India. She now works as a nutritionist in South Florida, and is one of my mother’s closest friends. The following happened during a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about some of her favorite Indian folklore, particularly about holidays and celebrations.

Piece:

Diwali is called the Festival of Lights. This is kind of associated with on of our mythologies, which is Ramayana, where Rama, who is a prince, was sent to exile for fourteen years. Rama’s father was a king, married three times. By rule, what happens is the eldest son is successor to the throne. But, what happened was, the middle wife goes to the king, who in the past helped him a couple of times, and the king had said, “I want to grant you two wishes, since you took such good care of me.”

And she said, “I don’t need anything now, but when the time comes, I’ll ask you for my wishes.”

So when her children grew up, she went to the king and said, “Now you have to grant me my two wishes.”

So the king goes, “Okay, tell me what you want me to do.”

She says, “I want you to send your oldest son to exile for fourteen years, and I want you to make my son the king.”

The king was very upset, he’s like, “That is unheard of – you cannot do that.”

But she says, “You said you would grant me two wishes, those are the only two wishes I have.”

And the oldest son, who was very respectful of his father, says, “You know what? If that’s what you had promised her, I don’t mind. I’ll go into exile for fourteen years, and I’ll come back after that.”

So he goes into exile, and there are a whole bunch of stories about what happens when he’s away. But, the day that he comes back to his kingdom after being in exile, the whole country was lit up with diyas to welcome him back, since he was such a good person. And that’s the day we also – since it was believed that, when he comes back to the kingdom, there will be wealth and prosperity – worship the goddess of wealth, since it is believed that, on Diwali, that is the day that wealth and prosperity will come to your house.

So you will see all Hindu households light candles, exchange sweets, exchange gifts and clothes: it is a huge time of celebration. There is one thing we also do, and it is kind of related to your Halloween. We also light a lot of fireworks that day, because we say we are scaring away the evil with the fireworks; and we are welcoming the good by welcoming the candles and the diyas.

 

(Later, after asking about the religious nature of the holidays)

 

RB: We call it religious, but they are more social religious than just religious, because it all involves inviting people, having dinners, lunches, dressing up, having music and dances. There’s a lot of culture that is associated with these festivals, so it is not that you’re just in the temple, reciting hymns or chanting. That is a very small part. It’s all about dressing up, looking good, and eating food. That is how we keep in touch with each other. At these festivals, at these religious ceremonies as we call it, we go visit each other. We keep in touch with each other and socialize with each other. I think we use it more for socializing and less for religion, which is how it should be.

One thing I want to clarify is that Hinduism is not a religion. It is mostly a way of life. And that is why you can’t be converted to Hinduism: because, either you are born one or you’re not. And if you are born one, you are taught the way of life since you’re born. But, you can still marry into it. We do not require people to change their religion when you marry, because we just think that when you come to a Hindu household, you will learn the way of life. Hinduism does not require that you go to a temple everyday, or pray everyday. They just teach us that everything should be a part of your life: that you clean your house and take care of each other, etc.

 

Analysis:

It was very interesting to hear how RB views Hinduism – not as much of as a religion, but more as a culture and lifestyle. Hearing the mythologies of these holidays with this context explains why there is seemingly more variation in the ways people tell these stories. It seems as though Hindus really value large social gatherings, and will use religious holidays as excuses to throw large social celebrations. It seems that the point of many religious occasions is much more social than it is religious. I feel that this is likely the result of a seemingly much more inclusive and accepting religion, that values socializing and lifestyle over religious and social boundaries.

Holidays
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Tales /märchen

Le Pere Fouettard

Context:

The informant – MZ – is a middle-aged woman originally from the French Alps, now living in South Florida. Growing up, her mother was French-Moroccan, and her father was Moroccan-Algerian. She is one of my mother’s close friends. The following is from a conversation in which I asked her to tell me about any French-Moroccan traditions she remembers growing up.

 

Piece:

For us in Europe, all across Europe, when we have parades for Santa, there’s always the bad guy, we used to call him Le Père Fouettard. Fouet means whip, so he was the whipper. So we had this guy who was kind of a monk, with a brown cloak. And he would be along with Santa Claus, along with the parade. And during the parade, we’d have Le Père Fouettard, and it was like, be careful if you don’t behave! The Père Fouettard will come and whip your ass.

 

 

Analysis:

Fairly clearly, Le Pere Fouettard is a variation of Krampus. I think it’s very interesting that, though Krampus is a prominent figure all across Europe, this specific variation exists in France’s Christmas tradition.

Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Holidays
Magic
Material
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Peruvian New Years Tradition: 8 Grapes on Years

AS is a USC game design major who’s family hails from Peru, she enjoys spreadsheets, Dungeons and Dragons, and spreadsheets about Dungeons and Dragons.
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Interviewer(MW): So you mentioned earlier that in Peru some holidays are celebrated differently?
AS: okay so I guess I’ll start off with New Year’s so there’s like two weird holidays that occur on New Year’s for Peruvians for some reason

AS: We do the normal thing where it’s like you used to stand by you wait until you know the countdown starts and you drink the champagne you do all that jazz.

AS: But the things that you do is after you drink the champagne you down like 12 grapes in the champagne each one’s supposed to be a wish so down your champagne you eat individual grapes as quickly as possible

MW: I’ve spent New Years in Lima, I know they have some interesting New Years Practices, so are there things that do you have any particular set things that you associate with the grapes like there’s some things that you’re supposed to wish for?

AS: There isn’t anything you’re supposed to wish for I think, like generally it’s stigmatized in Latin Society for good health to be a thing or like wish your family good health like general well-being.

AS: I guess would be something that people would would generally stick towards at least want to do one or two wishes to be around there

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Analysis:
The use of champagne as a marker of the new year exists across culture but using fruit as a conduit for wishes ties the sweetness of the fruit to the hope for a sweet new year, this invokes a similar tradition to the Jewish Rosh Hashanah practice of dipping apples in honey for a happy new year. The wish too carries meaning, like a birthday the new year is full of promise and marks a transition and making a wish is a way to codify that promise in a fun and festive way. Likewise AS’s note that there’s a focus on well-being represent anxieties about that transition, the bitterness of the alcohol in the wine might invoke this anxiety, tinging the sweetness of the grapes with a fear of the unknown and the challenges that the new year will bring.

There are 12 wishes as well, this factors into the cyclical nature of the tradition as well as each grape likely represents a month of the year thus the wishes are meant to carry the participants through the entire year.

Customs
Earth cycle
Game
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Peruvian New Years Tradition: Run the Suitcase Around the Block

AS is a USC game design major who’s family hails from Peru, she enjoys spreadsheets, Dungeons and Dragons, and spreadsheets about Dungeons and Dragons. AS grew up in Texas after her family moved there from Peru.
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AS: My family had a lot of traditions for New Years, I’ve heard a lot of people do this one though

AS: We fill like a like a suitcase of some sort and we run it around the block and that’s supposed to represent like good luck in traveling and like safe travels and all that stuff.

AS: So my mom makes me do it every year cuz you yeah gotta have that good luck

MW: Do you have any particular attachment to this?

AS: I mean I would still do it if I didn’t live in South Central LA and that’s dangerous

AS: I guess it’s it’s it’s kind of just like a superstitious thing to me

AS: Or it’s just like it’s a cute tradition that makes New Year’s feel different than what like normal people celebrate even it doesn’t have like a very deep impact I guess it also fills me with nostalgia for things you did as a kid so you feel like you should do it anyways.
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Analysis:
The symbolism of running around the block mimics the cyclical nature of the calendar year and separates it from the idea of linear time. The suitcase is also filled, meaning that the carrier takes home with them when they travel and provides a direct connection to home and family life. Likewise, the fact that you run around the block and return to the starting point sort of carries the message that no matter where you go you can always return home, this centers the importance of home even in a tradition that’s all about travel. The desire for safety also reveals anxieties about leaving the home. Travel to new places is scary, a journey into the unknown thus the hope for good luck works in combination with the carrying of the known with you and the promise of a safe return to that known space.

Childhood
Festival
Foodways
Game
general
Holidays
Material
Myths
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Afikoman: Jewish Holiday Folk Game

Context: AW sits with her daughter preparing for the second night of her Passover Seder, the room is bustling with activity as people get food prepared for AW’s many relatives. AW’s Daughter chimes in every so often to ask questions
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Performance:
MW: So what do you know about the Afikoman?
AW: The Matzah, the bread we eat during Passover, because it represents the fact that when the jews had to flee Egypt and slavery. They left in such haste that the bread did not have a chance to rise, that’s why we have matzah.
AW: So, we eat the matzah all week so that we remember what happened to us, and during the seder…the person that leads the seder
[AW flips through her Passover Haggadah]
AW: explains to everyone…REMINDS not explains, what the bread means to us as a people
AW: they break it in half, one half to be eaten, and the other to be set aside for later. Traditionally that half is hidden by the oldest person at the seder for the children to find after the festival meal.

MW: Do you have any, like, special house rules?
AW: So we make rules, first the Afikoman has to be hidden in the house. Depending on the age of the children, if they’re very young it has to be in one specific room in the house to make it easier for them to find it. If they’re older it’s anywhere downstairs. It’s usually hidden by the person who led the seder.

MW: Ok
AW: Someone says “on your mark get set, go” and the kids race to find it, if there are young kids we hide it again so all the kids get a chance to find it.

Meaning
MW: So what does the Afikoman mean to you?
AW: It’s just part of the festival, it’s nice, you know what it’s nice because I remember the nights where we were all to grown up to do it. So it’s comforting to see the next generation carrying on our traditions.
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Analysis:
The Afikoman is wrapped which serves the practical purpose of keeping it, a dessert item, separated from the rest of the food. But the wrapping also serves a symbolic role as mimicking the way Ancient Jews would have wrapped their matzah as they fled Egypt. This mimicking is key to the overarching theme of Passover, that all Jews see themselves as having been liberated from Egypt, not just their ancestors. So in repeating the wrapping behavior modern Jews inhabit the role of their ancestors. The Talmud, a commentary on the Torah states that “We snatch matzahs on the night of Passover in order that the children should not fall asleep.” Thus, Afikomen hunting becomes a way to engage children with short attention spans during what is a fairly long religious event.
Likewise, the matzah is split in half during the seder. This might represent the delayed nature of Jewish salvation, the matzah eaten during the Seder representing the exodus itself, while the Afikomen matzah, hidden away and eaten only after the Seder ends, represents either the Mosciach, or Messiah’s final redemption of the Jewish people, or perhaps their eventual return to their homeland Israel after 40 years in the desert. For alternate uses of the Afikoman in Jewish households as a pendant for blessing see What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish

Ochs, Vennessa. “What Makes A Jewish Home Jewish?” What Makes a Jewish Home Jewish?, an Article by Vanessa Ochs, in Cross Currents, the Quarterly Journal of Opinion Covering Religion and the World., www.crosscurrents.org/ochsv.htm.

Customs
Festival
Game
Holidays
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Megilah Reading

Every Purim Jews congregate to listen to a reading from a book called the Megilah which features the backstory of Purim. It’s the most outwardly religious part of Purim. The congregation is encouraged to be active and loud, reacting verbally to every single mention of the characters’ names in the story. Mordecai and Ester (the Jewish heroes) get jubilant cheers every time their name is read while the bad guy Haman is booed. The congregation is even traditionally encouraged to drink so much that they can’t tell whose names to boo or cheer.

Again, this is the religious part of Purim but the encouragement to chime in makes it stand out from other Jewish holidays in a way that fits the extra cheerful celebration of Purim. While this folklorist’s congregation doesn’t drink during the reading, it does fit the rest of the relatively lax nature of the event.

Customs
Festival
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Los Angeles Swedish Festival

Los Angeles Swedish Festival

The following informant is a 21 year-old student from Sherman Oaks, California, currently studying at the University of Southern California. Their stepmother was from Sweden, and included the informant in traditional Swedish holiday festivities. Here, they are describing memories of attending the Shrine Auditorium, and a belief they recall. They will be identified as X.

X: My stepmom was from Sweden, and so, obviously her heritage was very important to her, because she was living in a different country, but she’s Swedish.

I guess Christmas time in Sweden is a big cultural thing, and they have all these different traditions than what we have over here. So, the Swedish community in Los Angeles puts together an annual Swedish Christmas fair at the Shrine — it’s basically like every Swedish person in LA is in the same room at the same time, and they have all the vendors selling things from Sweden, all the clocks and all the food, they’d have Swedish meatballs and spiced wine, which they make around Christmas time.

They’d also have the Santa Lucia celebration, I think. It’s like the blonde girl with candles on her head, like a candle crown. They’d sing a traditional folk song, which I still kind of know the melody — I never learned all the words.

It was beautiful, they’d turn the lights down, and all the girls would come in and, their white gowns with little red accents on it, because that’s the Christmas colors. Santa Lucia would have the crown of candles on her head, and everyone else would have a little wreath on their head — it was really pretty.

They have these little Christmas elf characters called tomte, and they’re little wooden creatures, with little beards and hair, and made of sheep’s wool, I think, but it’s really soft. They all have little red caps on, like Santa hats. But the story goes, the tomte are little older men type characters, like elves, and they’re the size of a small child, and they would either live in the barn or the pantry of the house, and their job was to take care of the animals.

You’d feed them porridge, leave it out for them and they’d eat it. And the way you know you have a tomte living with you is if you have a tidy house and tidy barn, that means there’s a tomte there. We still have our tomte decorations that we put out every year, now it’s become just a part of Christmas.

Context

The informant is a friend of mine who studies in the same program. I asked them if they recall or would be willing to share any special holiday traditions or rituals that they or their family takes part in annually.

My Thoughts

All of what the informant shared with me is factually accurate, as far as I can tell. It is interesting how there are small variations in holiday celebrations; instead of what I know of as elves in Western culture and Christmas celebrations, decorations, and stories, the Swedish Christmas holiday includes tomtes, which I have found stem from Nordic tales, and do in fact resemble gnomes.

It is nice how this almost foreign version of something has become a staple of Christmas for the informant; it is a means by which they might reconnect with their stepmother and show appreciation for their relationship, even without her being there.

 

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Navratri

TextRB: Navratri is an Indian Festival, it’s like celebrated in India. It happens every November, and I think you know, it’s like whenever I wear those really fancy dresses and I’m like, “I’m gonna go dance.” I feel like you know that. But anyways it’s basically just a celebration of dancing and fasting, like a celebration of life. And it’s really good cause what you do is you go to this big dance hall or whatever, and there’s this music, it’s called Garba music. And you can search it up, it’s like very traditional music. And you just dance all night to it. And it’s like a celebration of life. Traditionally, it celebrates three goddesses in Hinduism. It’s like Durga, Lakshmi, and one other goddess. But, it just marks the start of a new season basically. The most famous thing about it is the dance style. So, Garba is a very famous dance style, it’s like folk dancing. But anyone can learn how to do it because it’s just repetitive steps in a circle over and over again. But that’s my favorite dance ever.

AT: Who taught it to you?

RB: My parents. My parents and my grandparents taught it to me. And sometimes they conform the dance style into competitions. People have like competitions with this style now, or people just do it for fun at like any event. It’s just a very big community thing in India. Especially if you’re, like, my type of Indian. Like, I’m Gujarati, which is like from the state Gujarat in India. And it’s originally from Gujarat. So if you see someone else from Gujarat you’re like, “Hey, Navratri, Garba…” It’s our thing. Oh, and my grandmother sewed my dress.

Context: RB is an Indian-American who lived in India during her pre-school years. She practices Jainism, one of the lesser-known religions of India. She frequently returns to India to visit relatives and continues to practice her faith and India’s festivals with other Indian-Americans in Texas. This interaction took place in a living room while we were both home for spring break.

Interpretation: Navratri is typically a nine day-long festival typically celebrated in honor of the divine feminine in India. Navratri is celebrated differently depending on where you are/are from in India, practices surrounding the festival existing in multiplicity and variation. RB mentioned that it was a time of fasting, while others who participate in Navratri see it as a time of feasting. While the pattern varies somewhat by region, generally the first third of the festival focuses on aspects of the goddess Durga, the second third on the goddess Lakshmi, and the final third on the goddess Sarasvati. RB mentioned the first two of these goddesses while failing to remember the third.

RB chose to share this festival with me due to the mere fact that it is her favorite. She holds it special because of the fact that it is specific to the region in India from which her family is from, and the fact that Garba dancing is a point of pride and community that her family and the people from Gujarat share.

For another interpretation of this festival, please see p. 2416-2419 of Stany Pinto’s “Communalisation of Tribals in South Gujarat” (Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 39)

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Nowruz

Context: I was sitting at a restaurant in West Hollywood with a good friend who is also of Persian descent, discussing our respective families plans of celebrating the Persian New Year. In the piece, my informant is identified as R.M. and I am identified as D.S.

 

Background: My family is one that has assimilated more towards American culture, and does not perform all traditional rituals performed on Nowruz. However, R.M. and her family take the New Year very seriously, and plan large gatherings for the holiday every year.

 

Main Piece:

DS: “So what are you guys doing tomorrow night”

RM: “My mom is going all out as usual. We’re having like 60 people over, I have to help her set up all day tomorrow”

DS: “What do you guys even do? Jumping over the fire and all that?”

RM: “Oh yeah, there’s definitely going to be a bonfire. She bought a bunch of goldfish too, setting up that whole haft table and all.”

DS: “What else goes on the table?”

RM: “A bunch of spices, a mirror, the goldfish, some money, fruits, eggs. There’s definitely some more that I’m forgetting but you get the idea of it.”

DS: “Are you going to jump over the fire this year”

RM: “I think so, I don’t know, I always just get so nervous getting close to it every year but my parents say it’s important so I want to try it out.”

 

Analysis: Each aspect of the setting traditions of the New Year are for specific metaphorical purposes. For example, jumping over the bonfire is thought to ensure good health for the new year. The mirror is to reflect on the past year. The goldfish is to represent new life and rebirth. The money is to encourage prosperity. The eggs for fertility. Each family often celebrates and prepares differently, with each component on their table representing what they want to attract in the year to come. The Persian culture is very poetic and spiritual, so it comes as no surprise that the culture chooses certain items for these grand representations.

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