USC Digital Folklore Archives / Holidays
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Jólakötturinn

Background Information:

My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. The Jólakötturinn, literally translating to ‘Christmas Cat’, is also known in English as the Yule Cat, a tradition similar to that of Krampus, where a giant cat would come around to check if children had gotten all their chores done before Christmas. If they had, he would not eat them. Interestingly, he seems to be confined to Icelandic folklore, and does not crop up in larger Scandinavian Yuletide traditions. She is signified by the initials A.J.

Main Piece:

A.J.: In Iceland, it is traditional for children to be given the last of their household chores to finish up before Christmas, like decorating the tree, sweeping the floor, helping out with the cooking – that kind of thing. If the children did that, they’d be given new clothes to wear for Christmas Day among their presents. The Jólakötturinn is a huge – and I mean huge, as in, bigger and taller than a house – sized cat that lives in the woods and wanders around from house to house looking in the windows to see what presents the children got for Christmas, so you have to leave all your curtains open on Christmas Eve night to let him see in. If he sees that the children have been given clothes as presents, he assumes they have been good and moves on. Even poor people do this, something as small as socks or a hat will do. But, if you haven’t gotten clothes, the Jólakötturinn will firstly eat your dinner that you would have had on Christmas Day, and then he will eat you. I think the purpose of it is similar to that of Santa Claus, in checking whether or not you have been good during the year. But I think this tradition is meant to make people also generous, because sometimes on the last day of school before winter break the teacher will give the children chores to do in the classroom, like tidying up the presses and cleaning the tables, and then the teacher hands out socks usually to the children, and you can give them to someone who did a really good job. In the end, everyone ends up with a pair of socks. It’s good for people who don’t have as much money, to keep the tradition alive without the parents having to spend a lot of money. I also think it’s nice thing to do with your friends, and makes everyone work a bit harder.

A: And do you know where the tradition came from?

A.J.: It’s been around for a long time, as my great grandmother tells me that she was told it by her grandmother, and that was a very long time ago. It’s a bit of fun to believe in, I don’t seriously believe in it but again, I got clothes every year so I didn’t have to experience whether it was truly real or not. Also it’s a good way of making kids behave, and so this seems to me to be why it has survived for so long. I was told the story by my parents when I was about five or so, and I think I will pass on the tradition in my family in the future.

My Thoughts:

The concept of someone or something checking whether or not a child has been well-behaved around Christmastime is not one unique to Icelandic tradition. The popular character of Santa Claus serves the same purpose, if not with such grave consequences should the child have been bad, rather giving them coal. It speaks to the heavy emphasis on generosity and community within the culture. The use of the cat is Iceland-specific, and this seems to me to reference the fat that cats were the companions of Vikings, and so there is a large population of cats in Nordic countries, and so it is natural to choose something so prevalent in a culture when personifying a tradition.

For another oikotype of this, see the Krampus tradition in Germany and surrounding areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Africa Day

Main piece:

Africa Day is the day is meant for people in Africa to celebrate and thank Africa. The holiday takes place in all of Africa.

On this day, they eat traditional staple food called sadza that’s made of corn and looks like rice cake. You eat it with your hands and eat it with gravy, chicken, chicken liver and maguru. They also eat salad called muriwo, which is greens, spinach, and peanut butter.

On Africa Day week, there’s an african dress day called “civvii”. Usually the students have a uniform but this day is an exception when everyone can wear african clothing.

Background information (Why does the informant know or like this piece? Where or who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them?):

Informant found out about Africa Day through living in Zimbabwe. It’s on the calendar so she figured out it was a holiday but it was also taught in school.

The informant said that to her as a foreigner it is a fun day where everyone can really be african. She didn’t think of the liberation as much, but she thinks the day is a part of liberation.

Context (When or where would this be performed? Under what circumstance?):

It’s on May 25th and happens every year. It’s a holiday. Students still have school but they dress differently to celebrate.

Personal Analysis:

I didn’t know that Africa Day existed before, but I’m not surprised about it. There were many foods I’ve never heard of that they eat. It’s good that the holiday lets foreigners participate and feel like a part of the community even though they are of another nationality. It seems like a very exciting day for the African people, seeing that it’s not just the one day but a week long festivity held in school.


For another version of this proverb, see https://www.africa.com/how-to-celebrate-africa-day/

Customs
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Qixi Festival

This friend of mine heard I was finding people to collect folklore and decided to help. He came up with several origins of traditional Chinese festivals. For this particular festival, he learned it from both the literature teacher and geography teacher in China. The two teachers had different focus on the story — the literature teacher mentioned it when studying a poem that referenced the story, while the geography teacher used a astronomical phenomena to explain the possible origin of this tale.

Story:

For story telling purpose, I changed the name of male protagonist, Niulang [meaning Cowherd in Chinese], to Altair; the name of the female protagonist, Zhinv [meaning "Weaver girl"] to Vega.

In ancient time, there lived an orphan named Altair. He was poor and had nothing except for his cow. That cow was extremely old and one day, it eventually died. That night, Altair dreamed of the cow. The cow told him to wear its skin on the day July 7th, and the skin will help him ascends to heaven. In heaven there is a river, the daughters of the Queen of heaven are having a bath there that day. The one that dresses in green would be his wife. The cow instructed Altair to hide near by, wait till they get in the water, grab her clothes and run home. Once the girl follows him to his house, she would never leave him.

Altair did what the cow told, and did come to the river of heaven on July 7th. He hided in the bushes and waited till the girl in green went into the water, grabbed her clothes and ran all the way home just as he was told. That girl did followed him to his place, demanded for her clothes back and asked why did he do that. Altair answered that he wanted to marry her, and coaxed her by praising how the earth is much better than heaven. The girl was persuaded, plus Altair himself was quite handsome himself, she agreed to marry him. She stayed on earth and started a family, weaving every day to make a living. People called her Vega.

Years had passed, Vega and Altair had a son and a daughter. One day, when Altair was working in the field, the King of heaven sent an army and captured Vega home. When Altair was back, there’re only his kids crying on the bed but Vega was no where to be found. He immediately realized what happened, put on the skin of the cow and went after Vega. When he almost caught up the army, the Queen of heaven was irritated. She pulled out her hairpin and drew a river between Altair and Vega, so that Altair could not come to rescue her. Both of them were crying so hard that the magpies heard what happened. They were moved by their love and decided to help. Hundreds of magpies linked themselves to one another and formed a bird bridge, so that Altair and Vega could step on the bridge to say goodbye. The Queen was also touched by them, so she announced that Altair and Vega could meet on this magpie bridge once a year, on every July 7th.

Thus, July 7th became a festival to celebrate the reunion of Altair and Vega and their love. On this day, girls would do needleworks, praying to be as skillful at this as Vega, as well as praying for their love.

Thoughts:

According to my friend‘s geography teacher, every year of this time, the Vega star rises to the highest, and the closest and the brightest star next to it is the Altair star, though they would still be divided by the galaxy. Later in August, the Vega star will head towards West and Altair star will rise to the highest point, as if the Altair is trying to chase Vega. Whether this is how this folklore came to be, or if it’s after the folklore came out people found two stars resemble them and named the stars Niulang and Zhinv, we’ll never know.

Customs
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Duanwu Festival

This friend of mine heard I was finding people to collect folklore and decided to help. He came up with several origins of traditional Chinese festivals. For this particular festival, he said he learned it from his middle school teacher when they were studying a poem the protagonist wrote in literature class. 

Story:

During the Spring and Autumn Period in China history, there is a patriotic poet called Qu Yuan from the Country of Chu.  In 229 BC., Country Qin invaded eight cities of Chu, but then invited King of Chu to Qin to make a peace treaty. Believing this is King of Qin’s scheme, Qu Yuan tried to reason with King of Chu, but only irritated the king and got himself exiled. King of Chu accepted the offer and did went to Qin, but as soon as he got there he was held in captive. King of Chu was full of regret and worry, and died three years later in Qin. After he died, Qin continued to invade Chu, and finally seize the capital. During Qu Yuan’s exile, he heard of the death of the King and the news that the capital was seized, he realized his country no long exists. Depressed, he drowned himself in the river. The day he committed suicide later became the day of Duanwu.

After Qu Yuan’s death, the used-to-be citizen of Chu were touched and full of grief. They went to the river to mourn over Qu Yuan. Fishermen rowed the boat on the river over and over again hoping to find his body but all failed. Someone then threw the rice rolls and other food into the river, hoping these food was enough for the fish in the river so they would not hurt Qu Yuan’s body. Everyone else followed him and began to threw food in the river. Every year of this day people continued to do that in memory of Qu Yuan, and these activity gradually became the Duanwu Festival’s traditions today —  eating the special rice roll Zongzi and rowing Dragon boat.

Thoughts:

Duanwu Festival is one of the most important traditional festivals in China. It does not mean much for me, except that this is the day we would eat a special and delicious food meant for this day only, called Zongzi (made of sticky rice and various other ingredients of your choice, served in a plant’s leaf). I kinda know this festival is originally held in memory of Qu Yuan but never know why. This is educational.

Folk Beliefs
general
Holidays
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Mid July

This friend of mine [noted as T] shared a taboo her grandmother warned her about. 

Story:

T: My grandmother used to warn me, never answer anyone who’s calling your name or tapping on your shoulder on the mid day of July, no matter how much it sounds like someone you know, you have to make sure you actually see that person before you answer them or turn back.

Me: Why? What would happen if I answered as soon as I heard my name?

T: Well, the mid day of July in lunar calendar is actually a ghosts’ day. On this day, all the ghosts in the netherworld are given a “holiday” and are allowed to walk on earth. So when you hear someone’s calling your name, it might not be actually a real person but you know, a ghost. Once you answer the ghost, it will take you to the netherworld with it. That’s what my grandma told me. Since I could never keep track of the lunar calendar though, I would just become extra cautious around July and August.

Me: Are there other taboos on this day your grandma told you?

T: I can’t remember much, mostly are the things like “don’t go near the water body because the drowned spirit will drown you” kind of thing… Oh, there’s another. You should never stick your chopsticks in a bowl of rice when you’re eating or whatever. That would look a lot like offering libation, so the spirits will think you want to share food with them and they will come.

Thoughts:

Mid July sounds a lot like Halloween, except that now Halloween has become a holiday for entertainment, but Mid July still maintained it’s scary nature. China has several holidays for the dead, the most important one is Qingming festival. On this day, people would go to clean up the tombs of those who passed away, and offer libation. On Qingming Festival, it’s for people who are alive to cherish the memory of those who are dead; on Mid July, it’s more focused on those who are dead, and thus is scarier and there’re more taboos on this day.

Customs
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Monster Nian and Sui

This friend of mine heard I was finding people to collect folklore and decided to help. He came up with several origins of traditional Chinese festivals. For this particular festival, he said he read it somewhere in the book.

Story:

Huang: So, Nian was a monster that would visit villages to villages on the first day of the year. This brutal animal would kill and eat people in the villages, even those little kids. Every year, people would fled to the bamboo forest to hide from Nian. One year, Nian was so hungry that he followed the trial and found the bamboo forest, but for some reasons, as soon as he saw the bamboo he ran off. People realized he was afraid of the bamboo, so the next year they became bold and test the theory. The next year, Nian came to a village, but he was first terrified by a red clothing hanging in front of one house and fled; He went to the other village, but soon was scared off by the cracking sounds of burning bamboo. People confirmed that these were what Nian was afraid of, and ever since, on the New Year, people would dress in red, hang the red scrolls on their house, and set firecrackers to scare off Nian. Every time they succeeded, they would visit their family and friends to say congrats, and have a big meal in celebration. As the time goes on, Nian stopped coming out of fear, but these activities remained for precautions and became traditions for New Year.

Huang: Also, do you know where does the tradition of giving kids red pocket money [called Ya Sui Qian in Chinese, meaning "Repress Sui Money"] come from? There was a monster called Sui that would come to little kids’ dream and feed on their scare. Sounds a lot like the Monster Inc, right? Anyway, kids that met Sui would have a fever and become dumb. So parents would put some money in a red envelope and place it under their children’s pillow to exorcise Sui [Red color is believed to have the ability of repress evil spirit in China, so do the bronze coins in ancient times]. As time passes, this also became a New Year tradition.

Thoughts:

The name Nian and Sui both mean “year” in Chinese. This folklore explained pretty well that where the traditions of the Chinese New Year came from. I would say Nian’s story is not as often told as some of the other traditional folklore but still, now I could recall some uses of Nian in modern days. For one, I remembered Coca Cola or Pepsi in China once used Nian element in their TV ad during the Chinese New Year. On the other hand, this is the first time I heard of Sui’s story.

Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Holi Festival

“It begins in March, so the first week of our New Year has Holi. It’s the festival of colors because in North India, like few states in the North, they say that colors make you look beautiful and initially, in medieval times and, you know, the early civilizations, they used to apply turmeric to look fairer. So, that’s how the concept of putting colors came in. Later, it got a little fancy, from yellow to green to pink and then everything. So, that’s how it is. Now, it is more of a water sport. I mean, people splashing water on each other and colors and everything. And, in India in fact, everything is closed. It is a national holiday and even if you don’t know each other, you can go on splashing water without anyone being offended.”

For the Hindu calendar, New Year begins in March. This is one of their many festivals, but this one more specifically honors color, which is very important in Indian culture. It is a very communal festival as well. There was even a celebration on the USC campus that the informant participated in with her friends.

Historically, the idea of applying colors came with the concept that being more fair was more beautiful. Since then, as she said, it has expanded to more bright colors representing individual things in Indian culture.

The informant relayed this to me while we were re-shelving books in the stacks of Doheny Library at USC. She is one of my co-workers.

Personally, I feel as if the Holi Festival has spread into American culture through the forms of “color runs,” where people run a 10k while being pelted with color. I also have seen it in one of Coldplay’s music videos, so knowledge about it is spreading quickly.

I find it interesting how much it has changed from the “original” tradition, yet that the color aspect has carried through while evolving in its own way. It is also interesting how Indians outside of India are taking the festival with them where they go, preserving their culture and allowing people to see and often participate in it with them at the same time.

Holidays

Christmas Time Nut Tradition

Informant:

Daniel is a first year analyst at a prominent Manhattan based investment bank. He grew up in Northern California from a predominantly irish background

Piece:

“Each year around Christmas time my grandfather would take us to this little nut shop in San Francisco. The shop was extremely small and barely had enough room for two people to fit between the door and the giant glass case of nuts. It was run by this tiny Russian lady who looked like she was birthed from a matryoshka doll.  We would always buy cashew butts, the broken pieces of the cashews, because they were much cheaper. But somehow a few full cashews always snuck into the bag. Those were the best nuts. Not cause they tasted better but cause they were special.

The shop closed and I’m pretty sure it’s a hat store now. But I always think about it whenever I have cashews.”

Collector’s thoughts:

The informant truly performed this piece of folklore when it was collected with large gesticulations and a more dramatic voice than normal. Additionally, the use of the specific russian word matryoshka is interesting because it is the russian word for what are commonly referred to as  russian nesting dolls in the United States. The informant has no russian heritage which adds to intrigue of where he learned this word and why he decided to use it when most of the americans to whom he was performing the piece were not aware of its meaning.

 

 

Holidays

Peppermint Pig

Informant:

Dina is a college freshman from Northern California, she comes from a large yet close knit Italian family.

Piece:

Informant: So every christmas eve my entire mom’s side of the family gathers to celebrate and we have this one tradition we do every single year. Its called um… the peppermint pig. And we take this…. We have this peppermint pig and you’re not… it’s wrapped in a velvet bag and you’re not allowed to look at it. You aren’t allowed to take it out. And after dinner we all gather around the pig and everyone takes turns hitting the pig once with a silver hammer from youngest to oldest. Take your turn, hit the pig. And then once everyone has gone, which is like 20 people, you open the bag and there’s all these fragmented pieces of a peppermint pig and you HAVE to eat a piece for good luck for the next year”

Collector: Do you have any idea where that tradition comes from

Informant: No clue

Collector: Why is it lucky

Informant: It just is. yeah it just is It just gives you good luck. Everyone has to, my aunt won’t let anyone leave the room unless we all eat a piece.

Collector’s thoughts:

What most interested me about this piece is that the informant has no idea of where the tradition came from, but is still adamant that it gives good luck. She stressed the fact that everyone has to eat a piece of the pig for good luck. When asked why the tradition is luck, the informant replied in a confused tone, not understanding why an explanation for the luck was necessary

 

 

Holidays

Easter Tradition

Informant:

Pat is a junior chemical engineering major from Southern California.

Piece:

Alright so for easter my family, as opposed to celebrating the religious side of it, just focuses on coming together as a family and like bonding with each other. And we all go to upstate New York where my grandparents live and have like this massive four hour feast. And we have all these different courses and food and half way through there is a break to go change to the next pant size up and then come back and eat more. It’s a lot of fun every year.

Collector’s thoughts:

For the informant, Easter is more about family than it is a religious holiday. Rather than celebrate the religious aspect, Easter is used as a justification to gather as an entire family and share a meal with each other.

[geolocation]