USC Digital Folklore Archives / Gestation, birth, and infancy
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Gestation, birth, and infancy
Gestures
Humor
Kinesthetic
Life cycle
Material
Musical
Rituals, festivals, holidays

South American Birthday Ritual

Background

Informant: A.G.  22 years old current senior in undergrad at USC, third generation from Honduras/Mexico

Location: Los Angeles, CA

Context

A.G. grew up in an Mexican and Honduran household, and has participated in and experienced this birthday tradition since he was a child. This tradition represents an important, but often unspoken facet of his culture, one that can be viewed and participated in as both heritage and tradition. I have transcribed his explanation below:

Main Piece

“So every time it’s somebody’s birthday, you have to sing ‘Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to Anthony, Happy Birthday to you. Ya queremos pastel!’ which means, ‘we want cake now!’ Then, right after you blow out the candles, everyone chants, ‘que lo muerda, que lo muerda,‘ which means, ‘bite the cake’ and when they go in for a bite, you grab the back of the person’s head and slam their face into the cake. After that, we start to cut pieces off the cake where the face did not touch and give a slice to everyone. In Honduras, it’s pretty much the same tradition but instead we say ‘feliz cumplanos’ which is just happy birthday in Spanish.

Thoughts

A.G. remarked after describing the tradition that it often makes him smile because it’s always done at a time of celebration, The celebration of one’s birthday and of coming of age is an important part of his culture and therefore this small tradition has a bigger importance in his cultural identity. He recalled learning the song as a child, celebrating his aunt Reina’s birthday, and how there were differences between the song when he was celebrating a birthday on the Honduran side of his family, or on the Mexican side. He specified that this tradition is not specific to children in the family, even though it can be more fun, but that the tradition is practiced with adults as well because it has such a cultural significance. He himself has experienced this tradition first hand for many of his birthdays, and sometimes the most fun part was picking out the cake, knowing that it would be used in this tradition later. It seems he views this tradition and the memories that stem from it with great fondness.

 

I found it particular interesting the small variations between the Mexican and Honduran version of the song. Linguistically, while much of South America speaks Spanish, there are small but significant variations in the words used or the common expressions. It reminded me of how certain regions in America will infuse different elements into their versions of Happy Birthday, that help differentiate it from other places. This brings to mind the idea of different folk groups and the multiplicity that they may express when performing tradition. There is no one way to perform this birthday ritual, but each has it’s own cultural value to the groups that claim specific heritages.

 

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Legends

The Legend of Boto Cor De Rosa- The Pink Dolphin

The following is a conversation with KL that describes her interpretation of the Brazilian legend of the Pink Dolphin (In Portuguese, Boto Cor De Rosa).

 

KL: So, basically, this story is popular among all Brazilians and it’s about a man who is said to have actually been a Pink Dolphin who would come out of the river and transform into a human. So, when he would come out of the water he would be dressed in all white and he would go to parties, acting like a human, and he was a very fertile man so he would impregnate a bunch of women in the village. So, there are a lot of conspiracies in Brazil about whether or not this is true, so some people do believe this is true, as crazy as it seems.

 

EK: So how did you learn of the story?

 

KL: Yeah, so this was told to me when I was on exchange in Brazil by my host parents right before I went on a trip to the Amazon Rain Forest. It’s just something cool that a lot of Brazilians tell, I was also told the story when I was in the [Amazon] rain forest, so it’s just a story that everyone kind of knows.

 

EK: So, it’s a pretty popular oral story then.

 

KL: Yeah, it’s pretty popular, if you asked around in the area, I’m sure someone would know. It’s one of those word-of-mouth things; it started in an Amazon village, the Amazon River was where he (the dolphin) was said to come out of, and now everyone knows, and different Brazilians will tell you their version of it or what they know about it.

 

EK: So, then what do you get out of the story?

 

KL: Yeah, I think that it shows that Brazilians place a lot of cultural emphasis on nature, like humans’ connections to nature, animals, and I think it’s really cool. It’s just an interesting story that shows that their culture is very much centered around family and nature and those connections.

 

My Interpretation:

I would have to agree with KL; it seems that Brazilians have a huge cultural emphasis on nature and family. Brazil may not be the wealthiest country in the world, but with this culture, they don’t place as much value in wealth as, say, Americans do. With the Amazon Rainforest in their backyard, there is so much nature to explore and appreciate. I believe the pink dolphin is only native to the Amazon River.

The Pink Dolphin who turns into a man to impregnate the women of the village shows the emphasis on family and fertility as well. However, it is interesting to me that the dolphin/male does not stick around after impregnating the women to my knowledge, so that could also be a statement on gender roles in Brazil. In most stories that I have encountered that are like this, though, it is often the female who is stuck with the child and the male who continues to impregnate multiple women, so it could also just be a theme of these types of stories.

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Gestures
Protection
Signs

Blessing a Baby After Sneezing

Background Info/Context:

Religion plays a large part in Jordanian culture, and Jordanians express it in many different ways. My boss told me about a practice that Jordanians do to their babies to maximize their blessings. She grew up giving babies the sign of the cross on them when they sneezed.

 

Piece:

Rehab – “If a baby yawns, you’re supposed to do the, um, cross symbol on them to bless them when they sneeze or when they yawn. I think it’s more when they’re sneezing rather than yawning if I remember correctly.”

 

Sophia – “Do you think this a Jordanian thing? Because I’ve never heard that.”

 

R – “It’s probably a Jordanian religious thing, I don’t know. A lot of things have to do with God or what they think is religious.”

 

Thoughts:

My boss later shared that giving someone the sign of the cross when they sneeze is not something that continues into adulthood. This is mostly a practice that is done on an infant, to ensure that they are blessed by God. I think adults do this for babies, because babies aren’t able to pray to God themselves, so doing the sign of the cross on them connects them to God even before they’re able to speak.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Magic
Protection

Arabic Eyeliner Gives Good Vision

Background Info/Context:

My boss and I were talking about cultural traditions she grew up participating in, and one example she gave was about wearing a special Jordanian eyeliner. This eyeliner was put on her as an infant, and she has applied it on babies as well to help ensure them to have good eyesight.

 

Piece:

Rehab – “They have this stuff called Arabic eyeliner. So for all the girls, and it’s like black like coal, eyeliner. It looks really nice, but I think they think that, um, it’s supposed to help the baby’s vision.”

 

Sophia – “Oh, they put the eyeliner on a BABY?”

 

R – “Yeah like a baby baby. I have pictures when I was younger, like FULL on eyeliner. Inside your eye.”

 

S – “And the baby didn’t cry? That’s hard to do.”

 

R – “Well it’s like a little thing that we have. It looks like a genie bottle. It’s so pretty. It’s like all brass and the eyeliner is powder, so you just pull it through and it gets on the top and bottom.”

 

Thoughts:

My boss wore this special coal eyeliner up until she was in high school. Although its initial use is to help the newborn baby’s vision, many people continue to use it as they get older. They may still believe it has potential powers to bless people with good vision. However, it is more likely that people keep applying the eyeliner because wearing darker eye makeup is common in Arab beauty standards.

I think it is interesting to learn about a culture that is heavily tied to Christianity, but still has its separate cultural beliefs. Many Christian dominated countries follow the miracles and stories written in the Bible, and I have not personally heard of many practices in American or Korean culture that are independent from the Christian text.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Humor
Life cycle
Signs

Birthday Candles Prediction

Text:

P: If you blow out the candles, the amount of times you, it takes for you to blow out the candles is how many children you’re going to have

J: Wow

P: Oh wait, that means you’re going to have one child, cause you blew once

 M: Nooo.

J: See I thought you were saying you get what you wish for and M doesn’t want to have kids, so….

P: But yeah that’s why I said that you’d have zero because I thought it started at zero but I guess it starts at one.

M: But the abortion negates it.

Context: The collector is noted by the letter J. Informant P is the one who knows of this custom, and informant M is celebrating her birthday. Informant P learned this belief from her Indian parents.

Analysis: This custom celebrates not only the birth of the person blowing the candles but also their potential fertility and their future as a reproductive being. That said, the idea of blowing out the candle isn’t necessarily inherently sexual, but instead is just a physical way of blowing out the flames. Perhaps the flame is a representation of single life without children and each failed blow is a child that fails to tame the fire of the blower’s sexuality. However, this isn’t meant to be a ritual to bring on the children but is instead a predictive belief. Despite this, I am confused as to how to reconcile with the fact that people have multiple birthdays. Does the number of blows add up from year to year? That seems impossible given that humans don’t tend to have 13 children (assuming that the counting stops once the being is fertile. Or is it an average of all of the blows per birthday? Regardless, the belief itself isn’t concerned with the mathematics of the custom but instead is primarily focused on celebrating birth and fertility.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Watermelon Seeds Make You Pregnant

Text:

Informant (C): Remember at Walton’s when we used to have watermelon and I refused to eat it and said I was allergic?

Collector (J): Yeah

C: I was never actually allergic and I actually really liked watermelon, but when I was at school some other dumbass kid told me that people got pregnant from eating watermelon seeds so I was crazy paranoid about like, being a child mother, and so I just avoided it like the plague because I didn’t want a kid.

J: Really?

C: Yeah, because, like, my mom was pregnant like my sister and the kid said “oh she probably ate watermelon” and I was like “what?” and they were like “well, like, she has a watermelon in her tummy” or whatever and my dumbass just fell for it. I thought that, like, if you swallowed the seed, you would grow a watermelon in your stomach and then the baby would form in the watermelon. Like now I know that’s ridiculous, but like it was believable as a kid because I didn’t know about sex. I guess that kid’s parents or someone told them that because they didn’t want to explain the whole “your mom and dad had sex” thing. But yeah, after I learned about sex I started eating watermelon again.

Context: C and J met at a summer camp (Walton’s). At the end of each camp session, there was a camp-wide barbeque where watermelon was served.

Analysis: Like the informant said, this belief likely started as a way to wholesomely tell kids how their mothers got pregnant. Instead of explaining puberty and sex, the narrative of having a woman swallow a watermelon seed is easier to explain to a child. It also makes physical sense, because a pregnancy belly does approximate the size of a small watermelon. The inside flesh of the watermelon also arguably could resemble human flesh, which is why it is so believable that a baby can be formed in it. There is also something to be said about the association of fruits and fertility, with the human and plant lifecycle often being associated with each other. The cyclical nature of life as both human and watermelon allow a further association to be made with the human gestation period. Overall, the idea that pregnant women are carrying watermelons and are pregnant because of watermelon seeds isn’t that far-fetched from the eyes of a child who has no knowledge of sex.

Folk medicine
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Material

Fertility Charms

Context: I was interviewing a 50-year-old female informant from Memphis, TN, who is a registered nurse. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household that kept strict kosher dietary laws and regularly attended temple. I was in her home and explaining to her the many different categories of folklore, so she would have a good idea of the type of information that I was looking for. When I mentioned the category of folk medicine, she seemed very intrigued and asked me what types of things could be considered folk medicine. I listed off a few examples, and she said, “Ok, then I definitely have a piece of folklore that is good.”

Piece: “Many years ago, about 21 or so years ago, me and my husband wanted to have our first child. We attempted to do so for a while but had a very difficult time conceiving. We, of course, sought out help from a medical professional, but for a while, many of our friends and relatives who knew we were having trouble having a baby came to us with personal and family items that they claimed would help us conceive. I did not take any interest in any of these offers. I remember one of my older relatives offered my husband and me a family blanket which she told us would definitely give us a baby if we lied under it during intercourse. Obviously, we turned that offer down immediately; it made us pretty uncomfortable. One of my closest friends at the time was very spiritual and worldly; she traveled a lot and spoke multiple languages. She came to me with something that was given to her by another friend when she was trying to have a baby. It was this small stone idol. I do not remember exactly what the figure looked like, but I think it was just a regular woman. It was held in this small stone box that could fit in my hand and the box had a detachable lid. My friend told me that when me and my husband were having intercourse we needed to put the stone container on our nightstand with the figure in it. And we also needed to take the lid off. We were eventually able to conceive and I became pregnant. This all happened soon after we used the fertility god, so who knows, maybe it helped some. After you are finally able to get pregnant, you are supposed to pass the idol to another person to help them have a baby. There was also something else that my mother gave me to help with conception. It was a pie made out of the citron fruit, which is similar to a lemon and used during the Jewish holiday Sukkot, during which it’s called an Etrog. I don’t think you’re really supposed to eat the fruit because it tastes terrible, but my mother insisted as she said it was sure to help. The citron pie definitely did not help.”

Analysis: There are surely many examples of folk medicines that do actually have effective medical benefits; however, there are also surely examples that have no medical benefits whatsoever. There is a category of folk medicine that does fall in between the aforementioned effects, and that is things that bring health through the placebo effect. This is when a subject experiences a response to something, usually a medicine, but only because they expected that thing to produce that result. The fertility god and the citron pie that the informant spoke about definitely do not work based on this effect because, of course, you cannot experience pregnancy unless you are actually pregnant. However, I do find it interesting that she only became pregnant after she used the folk medicine to which she did not have any objection but not after using the medicine which she very much did not like. While there is no way of knowing if a fertility god can actually help someone become pregnant, it can still functions as a ritualistic folk item.

 

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Egg-pregnancy ritual

MG: “Did you partake in any pregnancy rituals?”

LR: “yeah i did the egg thing… my mom did it on me when I was pregnant like she cracks the egg. She rubs it all around and then she cracks it in a vaso [cup] and if there is telaranas [webs] in it than someone is wishing bad upon you”

Context: I was asking the informant about her pregnancy.

Background: LR is a master student at the University of Southern California. She grew up in a Mexican American household and has grown up hearing superstitious things. She has chosen to partake in this ritual because she wanted what is best for her daughter and also as a safety measure. She did not want to regret not listening to cultural superstitions.

Analysis: Eggs are very symbolic and they are often used to ward off the evil spirits, see Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs” THe Journal of American Folklore, vol.80, no. 315, 1967, pp. 3-32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/538415 for more examples of how eggs are used. It makes sense that an egg ritual would be used while pregnant because during pregnancy because the mother and the child are very vulnerable to illnesses and evil spirits. Pregnancy is also regarded as very sacred since you are bringing in a new life into this world so it is important to take care of your baby.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Ghosts Affecting Crying Babies

Context:

The informant and I are sitting in the USC Gould Law Cafe around 3:00 pm. She is a Chinese American student at the University of Southern California who was born and raised in Shanghai until she came to America for high school in Maryland. She is describing Chinese beliefs about crying children and how there is a belief held that babies cry the most loudly when they have a ghost that is connected to them. 

Body:

J: “So ya know when babies cry really loud during the night? This is blamed to ghosts. Because what they say is that babies are really vulnerable since they are just born and this is kinda like a life stem. When a baby is born, it’s like a small stem then they grow into a tree later. So it refers to their life as a stem and when they are first born, they are really vulnerable so little things like the wind can hurt them so that’s why babies sometimes can see ghosts because they’ve just been born and are more likely to see ghosts than adults.

So when they see a ghost, they can’t say it because they don’t know how to talk. So sometimes when a ghost haunts them in the night, they start crying and crying and crying and some kinds of ghosts will stick to the baby so that they baby will cry for a long time. Like every night they will cry. So what they do is some ritual ceremonies to get it out. Because a lot of babies tend to cry, but only a certain amount of babies cry really loud at night…every night. They have a certain name for them. **See image below for Chinese characters** So that’s the name.”IMG_1342

A: “So that’s for children that cry a lot at night?”

J: “Yep, like during the night some people will hear a baby cry at night and they will call them this.

A: “So to calm the babies at night then, they perform rituals to calm them down?”

J: “Yep”

A: “Have you ever heard of this happening in your family or friends lives?”

J: “One of my mom’s friends actually. But he is kinda old and my grandpa’s age. His grandson would always cry during the night. It didn’t happen after the day he was born but it actually would happen when he was two years old then he would always cry at night. So our friend actually found someone to perform the ritual and he stopped crying at night! It’s weird!”

Takeaways/Thoughts/Analysis:

This contribution that babies cry loudly during the night due to a ghost “sticking” to them can be seen as rational especially since babies don’t know how to communicate what they are seeing or experiencing except for them to cry. This can also be seen as more credible due to “FOAF” (Friend Of A Friend) where the informer had a family friend where the ritual was a success to calm the crying child! The ways of ridding the ghost seem to be rooted in ancient teachings and practices that were passed through from generations. The child’s crying can also be associated with a ghost because a child’s cry can be very aggravating as I am sure it would be to have a ghost possessing your body. To stop the crying and thus, “rid the ghost,” performing such rituals to make it go away would help the child sleep better and thus the care takers as well.  

 

Contagious
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Holidays
Life cycle
Magic
Material
Narrative
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Persimmons scare the tiger who wants to eat crying babies

Context
I was having lunch with the subject, and he told me about this bed time story. He lived in Korea until he was 14 years old, one year from finishing middle school. He then moved to the United States to finish his middle school and high school.

Piece
Informant: It’s really for a kid who don’t go to bed or like keep crying. So, this involves a baby crying. So, basically, you are the main character. And, there is an evil tiger outside. Trying to get the crying baby. So, basically the old ones, for me it was my grandma. My grandma keeps telling me,’if you keep crying the tiger is going to get you.’ But I’m in the middle of an apartment. There is no way the tiger is going to get me. Or else, the zookeeper is going to come and pull it away. And now I still don’t know how I believe in this story. I believe that the tiger is going to come and get me.”

Interviewer: Are you afraid of it?

Informant: Not any more. Yeah, so the way you defend off the tiger is actually like — you know what persimmon is? Persimmon is like a fruit. It’s very sweet fruit. So, the dry version of it. They say, if you give that to the tiger, the tiger will actually run away. So, they will actually bring it from the fridge and give it to you, and you basically eat that. And people eat it, because of the childhood story. So, to summarize it. A child keeps crying so the grandma basically threatens the child that if you keep crying the tiger is going to come for you. But the kid stills cries because there is a tiger coming, right. So, the Grandma gives the persimmon and the child stops crying, right? Because it’s food and you can eat it, and you can’t cry while eat it. So the tiger outside is scared by the persimmon because persimmon is stronger than the tiger.”

Analysis
I ask whether persimmons carry some special meanings. He explains that the fruit is eaten in late autumn. It is also dried so that it could be eaten in the winter, like in early February. The fruit is eaten on holidays such as Lunar New Year, which is on Jan. 15. The informant believes that persimmon symbolizes family reunion because people eat it when they meet their family on holidays. He says that it is not a national fruit. When I asked him why persimmon scares off the tiger, he said persimmon is not a repellent against the tiger, but rather a stronger version of the tiger because it stops the baby from crying better than the tiger does. He explains that persimmon stops the baby from crying, because it is a sweet food, and the baby has to stop crying so that it can eat the fruit.

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