USC Digital Folklore Archives / Old age
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Visiting Spirits and Dead Babies

After college, my mom lived in Japan 7 years. She taught English to get by and apprenticed as a potter to gain experience. Growing up, she told me tons and tons of stories from her time there. She’d speak fondly of their unusual ceremonies and traditions, and how, by the end of it, her host families said she was so in tune with the culture, that if they closed their eyes, they couldn’t tell she was a foreigner.

Driving home from lunch one sunny afternoon, I ask her and my dad if they have any stories about the inexplicable that I could use for my folklore project. My mom starts:

“In Japan, it’s a uh … a worshipping of dead ancestors day in August, Oh-Bon. They put out the dead people’s – the dead grandpa, the dead grandma, they put out their favorite food, and they put out chopsticks, and they will, you know, burn their favorite incense and they do all this so the dead can come and visit. They do this in their home. Every year, in August. It’s always in August. So it’s like Halloween, except it’s got a religious significance. It’s when the dead come back. They have festivals in town too, Oh-Bon-Matsi.

“It was a festival for dead children. And there was a river running through the town. Not dead babies but dead children. And, they… But. You know lanterns with lights in them? They’d float these lanterns with lights in them down the river and it was just gorgeous. Each lantern represented a dead child and they had this beautiful eerie music, just vocalizations for the occasion. Traditional Japanese instruments too. And incense burning. It was a very volcanic, sort of lunarscape in the far north. I can’t remember the name of the… the far north of Honshu. So you can look up ‘dead baby festival Honshu’ and figure it out.”

This is a very comforting view of the afterlife. It’s as if death is not the end, but merely a move to a different city. Growing up, she imparted this same sense of the dead on me. She’d always tell me not to fear death or the presence of ghosts, but to welcome them, as they were once in our shoes and only wanted to visit. The dead baby festival further illustrates their benevolent view of death. In America, when a child dies, we mourn and often times never speak of it. In Japan, it is tragic, however they still take time to celebrate their lives. No matter if that life was only for an instant.


Old age
Tales /märchen

Grandpa and the Friendly Ghost

Main Piece: CR: So, I’m not sure if the ghost came with the house in Winchester because after I finally told Grandpa about the ghost he then told me that the house I grew up in also had a ghost, so I don’t know if its a new ghost or like a continual ghost, but um, yeah there was the two specific things that happened! So we had bookcases in the den, built in bookcases that had books and knick knacks, so one day sitting in the living room I can see the den, out of the blue one of the knick knacks, a little fairy, literally falls off the bookcase on to the ground. No animal had walked by, nothing had happened. So I went to pick it up, and I put it back and I thought “well, maybe it was just learning funny, maybe it got bumped and finally fell off” so I put it back. I sat back down. Within a couple of minutes, from that same area on the bookcase, a book fell off and hit the ground. That’s the one that freaked me out because there’s no way a books just gonna fall off and hit the ground from the same area that that fairy was! In addition, things would go missing forever, we’d look and look and look for something, and a week later bam it’s just sitting there where we had looked 47 times, and I also would notice little peripheral lights in certain areas, and i’d look and it would go. So that’s when I made a deal with the ghost, I said “you can stay, but you cannot freak me out!.” and so I feel that when we moved to the first condo, I feel it came with us, because I still had the lights and things would still go missing, BUT when we moved to the second condo was within a few months of grandpa dying, and I have had very little issues at the new condo, so I don’t know if Grandpa is running interference with us with this ghost.


Context: These ghost sightings were noticed years ago, in an old house which happened to live in a city with a lot of Native American culture.


Background: CR tends to believe in these things: she meditates, she collects healing crystals, and she firmly believes that this ghost was real. She just as firmly believes that her father, after he died, has sent signs to her and has possibly protected her from this ghost.


Analysis: Ghosts are always interesting, especially when dealt with from the perspective of someone who firmly believes in ghosts. It seems difficult to find any sort of logical explanation for CR’s items falling off of her shelf other than a ghost, as books flying off shelves just isn’t something that regularly happens. The most interesting part of this story, however, is when CR mentions her father; it is definitely worth noting that her father died around the same time that her ghost stopped making problems for her– perhaps the ghost was tied to her father, since he mentioned that they definitely had a ghost in her childhood house. Perhaps the ghost was helping her recently deceased father get situated. Or perhaps, as she said, her father is out there, protecting her from this ghost that just wants to knock things off of shelves. Her firm belief in the presence of this ghost, and the relationship of the ghost to her father, is what makes this story truly unique.


Folk Beliefs
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Día de los Muertos Traditions

Transcription: “We don’t do a big ofreda. My mom puts out photos of my grandma and lights a lot of candles on that day… I guess in remembrance of her spirit. We don’t eat the special bread.”

When I first asked my informant to tell me about any of her family traditions, she immediately thought of Día de los Muertos. Día de los Muertos is a holiday celebrated by those of Mexican descent. The celebration remembers those who are no longer living starting on October 31 and ending on November 2. During that time, the spirits of the dead were thought to be able to come to earth and mingle with the living.

My informant’s family is from Mexico and she is originally from Texas, therefore, she has a strong connection to Mexican culture. When I asked about her Dia de los Muertos practices, she explained that the traditions her family follows on the holiday are simple. Although her family recognizes Día de los Muertos, it is not an integral holiday in her family tradition.

Every year, her mother sets up Día de los Muertos decorations. Día de los Muertos is known for its extravagant ofrendas, or offerings, to the dead. Since Día de los Muertos is not a popular holiday in her family, they do not set up elaborate ofrendas. Instead, they set up pictures of deceased relatives and light candles. Her family’s decorations may be simplistic, but they accomplish the same goal as the ofrendas. Both honor the dead by recalling their image to the minds of the family and invite a spiritual form of remembrance.

According to my informant, there is a special type of sweet bread that is eaten on Día de los Muertos, but her family does not usually buy it. My overall impression was that her family celebrates Día de los Muertos not because they believe in the holiday, but because honoring the dead is central component of their culture.

Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Old age

A Spirited Dream

Collection: Legend (ghost) and Folk Belief

I asked the informant to describe an unusual happenings regardings spirits or the soul. She answered with the following story.

“A few weeks after my dad died, he came to me in a dream. This was the most realistic dream I have ever had even to this day. Of course I was so overjoyed to see him and talk to him because he had just passed away. He told me that he was so proud of me and his grandchildren and that I’ve done a wonderful job raising them. After we talked for awhile, he said, ‘I’m sorry honey but I have to go now.’ I cried and screamed, ‘Please Daddy don’t go! Don’t go!!!’ He said, ‘I love you, I’m okay, don’t be sad and don’t be scared. I’m okay.’ He started to rise up, up ,up in the air, and then he was gone. The next thing I know my husband is saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ I was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking up at the corner where the wall meets the ceiling, and  yelling for my dad to stay.

Context/Interpretation: This collection depicts folk belief in a soul and implies the existence of an afterlife or spirit. Further, this narrative reflects the life cycle as the informant’s father spoke to her after death, and he mentioned new life, her children.


Old age



“We go to the temple for funerals.  Everyone eats lunch or dinner together like a family reunion.  It’s like a funeral but also an opportunity to catch up with each other. I went to those funerals, but I don’t really think of them quite as funerals.  “

What usually happens in these events?

“We go to the house of the person who died.  The priests come there.  Usually the day is spent making food and preparing the house, then making an alter and decorations.  Service where they have chanting, and at one point they take a string, and wrap it around the attendants around the hands of the attendants.  Same thing happens for blessing the house.

After the service is over, before noon, then the priests can eat, but if it’s after that, then no.  Then after that they party and eat.”



The subject describes the traditional events of a Sri Lankan funeral of which he has participated in a few times.  He also stated that it emphasized family in a way, bringing people together who may have been unable to communicate for long periods of time.   Similar to stories I have heard from Louisiana, rather than mourning the death, they celebrate a person’s life.



I found that the idea that death could be viewed as a celebration to a person’s life rather than mourning was incredibly positive.  It seemed like a means to help people move on after death and in this case, rekindle the family bonds that may have slowly drifted away.

Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Reading of the Christmas Story

A father has implemented a tradition in his family that the eldest family member present reads the “Christmas Story” as recorded in the book of the Bible, Luke. This occurs before any Christmas presents are opened, he explains:

“I started this tradition as a way of reminding everyone what Christmas truly means without getting too wrapped up in the excitement of the holiday and the gift aspect. Christmas to me is a true celebration of life and having the oldest family member read the story is another way of celebrating life itself.

This version of the Christmas story text reads as follows (Luke Chapter 2: 1-21, NIV edition):

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the         Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them,“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.”



Background:He is 53 years old and raised in Los Gatos, CA. He was raised in a Catholic home and began to strongly identify in the Christian faith after college and into his years as a father. He attended Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley.

Context:He shared this tradition with me at a dinner we had just the two of us. His mother had just passed away, and he was reflecting on his fondest memories of her.

Analysis: Family traditions, particularly those linked to particular holidays or particular people, is a really emotional form of folklore. There is something about a holiday ritual that evokes such a strong sense of family unity and solidarity that I think is very unique. In terms of the Christmas tradition explained above, the most captivating element is that the reading is done by the eldest family member every year. This is really emotional to think about, as the eldest family member could potentially change every year depending on family members who pass on. For the person who shared this story, his mom was the one reading the Christmas story for many years, until this Christmas, when the tradition had to be passed on to someone new. The tradition becomes heavy in this sense, but also a really beautiful way to continue someone’s legacy and memory within one family unit.

Folk Beliefs
Old age

MS College for Women: Old Maid’s Gate

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

Category: Curse/ Conversion Magic

Informant: Lieanne Walker

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: Upper 60s

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

Residence: Columbus, MS

Date of Collection: 4/21/18


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


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

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

Personal Thoughts:

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


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

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

MLA Citation:

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

Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Tomb visiting day in Taiwan

Background information:

My friend introduced me to a practice that he and his relatives often perform surrounding the celebration of his ancestors. He is of Taiwanese descent, as he was born in San Francisco, California and both of his parents were born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family moved to California since before he was born and have assimilated into the American lifestyle but still stay very true to their Taiwanese roots and take great pride in their Taiwanese culture.


Main piece:

My friend said that throughout his childhood and growing up, he would always celebrate his ancestors with his relatives. He explained that there is a special day in Taiwan where family members all get together and visit the tombs or graves of their ancestors. When they visit their ancestors, they do everything from pray to bring a large amount of food for both them as well as their ancestors to enjoy. He explained this as not being an event of sadness, but rather a celebration where family members are able to reconnect and bond over their unity in their family and eat traditional Taiwanese foods. He said that his family members come from all over Taiwan and therefore all of his family members travel to the location where their ancestors are buried, when they are celebrating this day, showing the importance that people place on this event and how crucial it is that everyone attends.

When I asked if there was any dish in particular that was popular for this event, he responded that fruit is very common to bring, along with other desserts such as red bean desserts and rice cakes, emphasizing that sweets are often preferred in his experience.


Personal thoughts:

Upon hearing this tradition, I felt that this was a fantastic way to celebrate relatives that have passed away because everyone in the family is joining in on this event, unifying the family a great deal. In addition to the unifying and memorable factors of this celebration, I feel that the great amounts of food definitely make this event even more successful, as I have always experienced that having food at events usually makes them vastly more successful and memorable.

Life cycle
Old age

Chinese Funeral Customs

Interviewer:  Are there any practices in your culture that revolve around life transitions, like funerals, weddings, or birthdays?


Informant:  So at Chinese funerals there is often a viewing beforehand where it’s like a reception and people make speeches and you bow and pay your respects to whoever has died.  And then before you sit down for the service you are given a red envelope that already had money and candy in them.  They are usually prepared by the immediate family of the deceased and then handed out to guests.  And when you go up to casket after the speeches in a specific order depending on family and friends, we did it that way because we didn’t know everyone that had come so we just wanted to have an orderly way of doing it.


Interviewer: So who are the envelopes for and what do you do with them?


Informant: The envelopes are made of the guests.  You don’t give the envelopes to the deceased or the family of the deceased they give them to those who have come to pay their respects.


Interviewer: And what do the envelopes symbolize?


Informant: Well I haven’t been to a lot of funerals but I believe my grandparents said that it was for good luck and a way of spreading prosperity.


Interviewer:  Do you do anything else?


Informant: After the viewing you get into your cars and drive to the cemetery.  At the cemetery then you say more things as the casket is getting lowered.  We also put fake money in the grave with the caskets and we bowed again, and said a prayer.  Some people depending on their relationship to the person who has died, they get different colored ribbons based on the placement of that person in the family.  And then once you get to the cemetery you take off the ribbons and put them in with the casket.  SO my mom wore a ribbon at my great aunt’s funeral but my brothers and I did not.  After everything is done at the cemetery, it is customary to go and visit another place before going home from the cemetery.  You have to spend the money you are given and eat or visit some other location as a way to not lead the spirit back to your home.  And then once everything has passed, the newly dead become part of other festivals like the Ching Ming festival.


Interviewer: So in a way everything is connected! That’s actually really cool. Thanks again for sharing.


Background: The informant is a Junior at USC studying human biology and a roommate of the interviewer.  She is a second generation Chinese American and is also half Italian.  Her grandparents immigrated from China when they were young and had her mother and uncle.  She has two brothers as well.  For her this piece was also a learning experience because she has only been to a few Chinese funerals and was especially new to taking on a role within the funeral customs.


Context: This interview was done during an afternoon in our apartment.  The context of the informant experiencing this custom was when her great aunt died in the previous year on her mother’s side. It was the first time someone relatively close to her had died and she had to take on certain roles like passing out envelopes and where her mother had to engage in the custom of wearing a colored ribbon.


Analysis: This piece extremely interesting because I had never heard it before.  It also provided a lot of context for other festivals that the informant had shared with me. Being able to better understand the cycle of a culture’s beliefs made the pieces less like random facts and more like I was truly learning about my roommate’s culture and traditions and where they came from.


Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Old age

How to Live a Long Life, According to a 102 Year Old

Informant is 102 years old, and has become quite practiced in answering the question, “what’s your secret for living so long?”

She was recently hospitalized after an operation, and the interviewer was able to record the following instructions for living to an old age:

Well, the thing is this, it’s all about the moderation.  And being consistent.  You don’t let anything fall by the wayside.

So everyone knows you move around every day, not to little and not too much, I like to climb stairs when I can and take walks.  Everyone knows about exercise  And you eat some vegetables every day and more is better than less, everyone knows that, but the thing my mother really believed in and that she learned from her mother who learned it from her mother and that I haven’t yet gone a day without doing is every day you have a little bit of chocolate, just a piece of it or chocolate ice cream or something.

Used to be we would come home from school for lunch and there would be maybe some cabbage soup or something, kasha and mushrooms or what have you, but always there was a piece of plain chocolate cake and a big glass of milk, and you don’t go back to school until you’ve had your cake and milk.  And on the weekend it was for breakfast.  But every day it was very important to my mother because her mother taught her, every day, you have a little bit of chocolate.

My mother was hit by a car so we don’t know if the chocolate would have kept her alive so long or not, but her mother, she lived for a long time, and she did it every day.  And I’m 102 and I do it every day.   And my sister, she’s 97, and she is in very poor health, and she never ate the chocolate because she didn’t want to be heavy.  But I tell her you can’t live on bread alone and she tells me that’s not what that means and I tell her who’s to say what’s living?