USC Digital Folklore Archives / Customs
Customs
Folk Beliefs
general
Gestures
Kinesthetic
Protection

Spitting on the Devil

Description

“Whenever you talk about something good happening, like if you mention you’re doing good, you have to spit over your shoulder three times. The Russians believe that’s where the Devil is, so you’re spitting on the Devil real quick, just to make sure that he doesn’t, uh, to make sure that nothing negative happens. Speaking of that, you usually don’t want to talk about anything good happening in the future or anything, you wanna be pessimistic. Or else it means that it won’t happen, if you talk about it a lot.”

Context

I asked the informant about his Russian culture, and he proceeded to tell me a lot about Russian superstitions and things that his family practices. He said that he first encountered this when he was very young, because when he was young he wanted to talk about what he wanted to do when he was older, but his mother would always remind him to spit on his shoulder, as outlined above.

Analysis

This is interesting to me because as someone who grew up without “culture” aka, my family is generations removed from its original culture from wherever in Europe, I never encountered the idea that talking about the future could be bad. I think this says a lot about Russian temperament that a lot of people talk about — I’ve heard that Russians are in a bad mood all the time, etc. I like the idea that something could be ruined by talking about it, as I’ve had good news that is almost true, but didn’t want to share it with people in case it didn’t actually end up happening.

 

Customs
Game
Humor
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Indian Wedding Custom: Stealing Shoes

Text:

BH: “So one of the wedding rituals that all, or like most, of the Indian weddings have, is the joota churai [shoe stealing] of the groom, so basically the [to-be] sister-in-law that uh, whenever, so Indian wedding require you to remove your shoes whenever you enter into that pandar [ceremonial area] where the groom and the bride [perform the official religious marriage rituals] – they have to remove their shoes because shoes are considered to be something dirty and they’re entering into a pure religious place and that’s why they are asked to remove the shoes. So, as soon as the groom removes his shoes, it a battle, or kind of like a battle, between the groom’s side and the bride’s side because the bride’s sides – the sister-in-laws – are supposed to steal the groom’s shoes and at the end of the wedding [ceremony], the sister-in-law will present the shoes back to the groom in exchange for some money. It is like a ritual which shows the relationship between a sister-in-law and – like a very friendly relationship – between the groom and his sister-in-law, it kind of helps them bond.”

MS: “Have you yourself ever been involved in the stealing?”

BH: “So basically what happened – there’s a varmala ceremony [bride and groom exchange “necklaces” made of flowers, similar to leis, similar to the exchange of rings] that happens in Indian weddings. So the groom was [lifted] by his brothers onto their shoulders so that he could put the varmala on his bride. And during that time, all the sister-in-laws – because he was at a height – they, uh, removed his shoes without him knowing and we ran away and we hid them in a car and the whole time when he had to pose for pictures, he was just barefoot and then he had to go for the ceremony [where he would have had to remove his shoes anyway] so it didn’t really matter. But it was a good ice-breaking session for us, that allowed us to bond. Because then we had to uh – so once the wedding ceremony was over, we came to him with his shoes and we were basically bargaining with him for how much he’d be willing to buy his shoes for. Since there were a lot of saliyans [sister-in-laws], we negotiated to a high amount and in the end, it depends on the groom and his family as to what uh amount they want to give and that is split equally among the sisters…It helped us make – uh, it was an ice-breaking thing for us, because the next time I met him [the groom], I was very comfortable because I had led the negotiation earlier because I was the closest sister-in-law so it was very easy for me to maintain a good rapport with him later as well.”

MS: “Does it matter where you hide the shoes?”

BH: “Not really. You just have to make sure you hide them well because if the groom’s side takes the shoes, then you will not get your money. So we usually hide them in the cars so we aren’t really bothered during the long ceremonies that we have in Indian wedding that the shoes might be stolen back by the groom’s side.”

[Talking more about the negotiation over the shoes]

BH: “It’s a very very hard negotiation, so all of the bride’s family and the groom’s family come in to support both of them, though the bride doesn’t say anything even though she is pressured to say something, she will not say anything because she does not want to take anyone’s side…In the end, we just take – as the sister-in-laws, we just take whatever the groom is willing to give and whatever his capacity is to give and that is equally – but it helps because we make jokes about it in the future. Because a sali’s [sister-in-law’s] relationship with her jija [brother-in-law] is very fun and relaxed – it’s like friend-cum-brother so they should be able to have open conversations and this is one of the ways to establish that.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India. The conversation was in response to my question about any wedding traditions that the informant has been involved in or seen in the past. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. Certain key terms have been Romanized and their translations or explanations are given in brackets. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

This was a very culturally dense discussion that took for granted a basic understanding of how Indian weddings work. Focusing specifically on the one ritual of stealing the groom’s shoes, it seems to be, as the informant says, a means to establish a relationship between the groom and the sister-in-laws. But it is also notable that the entire family joins the discussion about how much the groom is going to pay for his shoes, whose side you support becomes an identifier of whether you belong to the groom’s side or the bride’s side. In the same vein, the bride is not supposed to partake in this discussion because she is now supposed to be a part of both the groom and the bride’s sides. The exchange of money itself is also interesting and may have some historical basis in the fact that traditionally the expenses of the wedding ceremonies were paid for entirely by the bride’s side of the family – this seems to be one of the place where the bride’s side can some monetary and symbolic compensation.

Also interesting is the change that the informant implicitly mentioned from the traditional “battle” like nature of the ritual, where each side is supposed to steal back and forth from each other, to the more modern “we just hide them in the car and forget about them till the end of the ceremony”. Even though the practice has changed, its social significance persists.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Re-entry into a Home: Indian Folk Belief

Text:

MM: “See when we return home after a long time, then it is supposed to be pretty auspicious that in front of the main door of the house someone pour oil on like both sides of the door – before you like enter the house.”

MS: “Is it usually when the person is already at the door, or before they show up?”

MM: “No like when you show up, you have to wait at the door, and then someone pours the oil and then you’re allowed to enter.”

MS: “Was there ever a time this ritual was done differently?”

MM: “Yeah there was this one time when we showed up somewhere and they had already put the oil on the doorstep and the door wasn’t even open yet and it was supposed to be like a super bad omen. Like you’re supposed to do it the right way, after the people show up, not before.”

MM: “My grandparents believe in this pretty ardently and some people from my parents’ generation do as well, but we kids like definitely don’t see the point and I don’t think I’d like continue to do it if it were just me.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India, currently doing a study abroad program in America. The conversation was in response to my question about any odd things that happened in the informant’s past that she did not agree with but had to partake in anyway. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

The informant does not really understand the reasons behind the ritual herself, and is adamant in not taking part in it, but she still acknowledges the proper way to do it and the consequences of messing up even the order in which the actions must take place. I think this ritual developed because there was a time when people would often go away for long periods of time and the lack of communication abilities would imply that there was no way of knowing if and when they would be coming back. Further, there was implicitly more of a risk in travel earlier than it is now. The ritual seems to be a response of gratitude for a safe return as well as a prayer that even return be as safe and sound as this one.

Customs
Folk Dance
Musical

Up You Men

Official pep song of the Aleph Zadek Aleph (male Jewish teen youth group). Commonly started by president/board member/event leader drawing out the first word before everyone jumps in and forms a mosh pit.

Lyrics (More shouted than sung): Up you men and sing to AZA

Time will pass and we’ll be on our way

As the years go by there will be

Happiest of memories (Ra ra ra!)

Stand and then

We’ll sing this song again

All you loyal men

Sing the praises of our order

Sing up you men of AZA

(Once it reaches this part the song usually winds down with everyone matching a “heartbeat” rhythm pattern on their chest.)

 

The song is a shortcut for whatever peer leader is running a given meeting or event to bring up the energy in the group and get them to pay attention in one fell swoop. The lyrics themselves serve to hype up the group and its individual members in a way that’s somewhat jingoist. No official origin is known, but the full lyrics are included in the official AZA handbooks which speaks to its deep history and significance to the folk group. The organization’s origins (also detailed in the handbook) as a very pro-American group which contributed to the nation’s WWII war effort probably explains the jingoist vibe of the piece. Little details such as the second verse present in the handbook being absent in favor of the heartbeat rhythm (explained to me once with “Every Aleph’s heart beats the same way.”) as well as the mosh pit aspect (the handbook doesn’t comment on dances for the song) indicates that the song is still a living, breathing folk tradition that defies standardization and continues to evolve in use.

Customs
Folk speech
Humor
Musical

Airforce Ranger

An off-the-books traditional AZA (Jewish teen youth group) call and response chant, with one person shouting each line before the entire group repeats it back. Sometimes different leaders will switch off and alternate rhymes, especially the more taboo stuff towards the end.

Lyrics: I want to be an airforce ranger

I want to live a life of danger

I want to drive an ocean liner

I want to pull a sixty-niner

And here’s to the woman that I love best

The many times I sucked her breast

F***** her standing, f***** her lying

If she had wings I’d f*** her flying

Now she’s gone but not forgotten

I’ll dig her up and f*** her rotten

Though she’s gone, I’ll surely miss her

I’ll call her up and f*** her sister

 

This song is an exercise in playing with taboo concepts and language in a childlike way that’s reminiscent of what Jay Mechling called obscene play. It’s usually performed in a relatively isolated setting, either inside the meeting room (usually some side room in a synagogue) or elsewhere separated from the adult advisors that represent the org legally. (That’s what separates the group from just loitering teens I guess.) It’s performed in this isolated, just teens setting alongside other similarly sexual vulgar songs in a kind of group catharsis act. The lyrics employ lots of shock humor that comes from all this extremely explicit material being unabashedly used in a public group in a public setting, especially one that is ostensibly a religious group. It basically signals to new members “We’re not prudes.”

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Something Old

The following folklore is an old folk belief my informant followed during her wedding. My informant is a middle aged white woman who will be referred to as M;

Text:

M: Brides should have something old, something blue, something borrowed, and something new at their wedding day.

Context: M and her mother both followed this wedding tradition when they were married, and M told me this folk belief numerous times throughout my life, usually in the context of whenever someone is getting married M would say “I hope the bride has something old, something blue, something borrowed, and something new.” It’s important to M because she followed this belief, as well as her mother and grandmother. For M, she followed this folk belief because it was a family tradition as well as supposed to give her good luck. According to M, the something old is supposed to remind her of her past and family, and M’s something old was one of her mother’s pieces of jewelry. The something new is supposed to represent the brides future, and for M she bought a new pair of wedding shoes. The something borrowed is supposed to represent that she will always have reliable friends, and M’s something borrowed was a necklace from her friend. The something blue is supposed to represent the purity of the wife, and M wore a pair of blue underpants. All together, they are supposed to set the wife up for an excellent marriage and M fondly remembers her collection of objects and the meaning behind them.

Analysis: I enjoyed learning about this folk belief and tradition because I think it’s fun to have a family tradition in your family, and my mother also follows this tradition. I hope my sister will also follow this belief. I think M analyzed this perfectly, it’s a folk belief that is supposed to give good luck to those who follow it. This belief shows how many customs we retain from our parents, and how it is hard to break these customs without feeling guilty.

For a more detailed version of this folk belief, watch season 8, episode 23 of the CBS series How I Met Your Mother titled “Something Old”.

 

Customs

Brazilian Engagement Rings

The following is a folk tradition that I heard from my family friend, a mid-40s Brazilian woman. The woman will be referred to as C.

Text: In Brazil, both men and women wear engagement rings. While engaged, they wear the ring on the right ring finger, and switch it to the left ring finger at the wedding.

Context: C is my family friend who told me this folklore when she was telling me about differences between living in Brazil and America. She brought this particular example up because she thought it was strange only females wear engagement rings in America, when both men and women are engaged. She thought it would make sense that they would both be happy about being engaged and want to show it to other people. C said that she thought this tradition isn’t the case in America because in olden times, many women were thought to be owned by men, and therefore supposed to wear a ring to signify who “owned” them. However, men didn’t need to do this as they didn’t belong to anybody and therefore didn’t need to wear an object to show this.

Analysis: This was a surprising cultural difference between the US and Brazil that I didn’t know about. I had never thought about why men don’t wear engagement rings before, but this made me think about it for the first time. I realized there is absolutely no reason men don’t wear engagement rings other than tradition. It points out just how stuck into their own ways people are, and how hard it is to go against tradition. After doing a bit of research I discovered that wedding rings were initially meant to symbolize the women’s purity and virginity, and the man could break an engagement off at any time, so he never had a ring until he was certain that he was going to marry the woman. This cultural difference made me realize that men not wearing engagement rings is actually patriarchal and oppressive. This is because making women wear something that shows them as being taken, while men have no such reservations, is sexist in our modern society.

 

Customs
Holidays
Homeopathic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cutting Hair for Chinese New Year

[The subject is MW. Her words are bolded, mine are not.]

ME: Can you tell me about a Chinese New Year tradition?

MW: Chinese New Year, or Chinese New Year eve, we will put the whole table. Mother cook, or have the servant cook, all kinds of goodies, but we cannot eat first. But they still put the wine and the chopstick, and the whole table, but that’s let the ancestor come, ancestor, I mean we don’t see them- the people already pass away like my grandma, or grandma, you know? My mother always, we cannot- the kids eat later, just have to let them, still, put the best food, all warm, but we cannot touch the chair. It’s grand-grandpa, and grand-grandma, let them eat first. And after the time, bring the food back to the kitchen, and then bring it back and then we can eat.

And then also, in Chinese New Year, we have to go to have a haircut, the kids all have to go have a haircut.

ME: Why is that?

MW: It’s like for a new year, then you have to clean up the whole thing. And the next day, we have to go to, for our auntie, and grandma, those kowtow. And then they give us a red envelope.

Context: MW is my grandmother, who was born in Shanghai and then lived in Hong Kong later on in her youth. She moved to San Francisco as a young adult and has lived in the Bay Area for the last six decades. She is a native Mandarin speaker, but is also fluent in English. I sat down with her and asked her to talk about some traditions and stories she remembers from living in China.

Thoughts: I am half-Chinese and have lived in the United States for my entire life, so while the tradition of eating a big dinner on Chinese New Year is familiar to me, but the less common tradition of getting a haircut for the new year was not. I believe that this tradition could be associated with Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic, because the chopping of the hair seems to represent chopping off what you no longer want to hold onto from the last year, and creates good luck going forward.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Haircut in the First Lunar Month Kills Your Uncle??

正月剪头死舅舅

Zhèng Yuè Jǐan Tóu Sǐ Jìu Jìu

This is a Chinese saying that literally means “If you get hair cut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar, your uncle (your mother’s brother) will die”.

 

Context: The collector and the informant were talking about weird Chinese sayings and customs heard from parents. The informant is a USC student from Beijing.

The informant heard this saying from his mother. Once he planned to get a haircut in the first month of Chinese lunar calendar. His mother stopped him by telling him this saying. However, he forgot his mother’s word and went to get a haircut anyway. Then his mother asked him to text his uncle new year greetings and whish his uncle a year of great health. The informant found it funny and that is why he always remember this saying.

Even though the informant’s mother didn’t necessary believe that her brother would die because her son got a haircut, she didn’t think that was a good sign.

The informant doesn’t believe the saying.

The informant doesn’t know why there is this saying. He guesses it is only because it is in rhyme (“Tóu” and “Jìu”).

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I have also heard of this saying, but only with little impression. I thought it was a very weird saying or custom. Maybe it’s because Chinese people view renewable body parts such as hair and finger nails also as important part of body granted from parents, so it is an ominous sign to cut hair in the first month, a meaningful period of time that is supposed to pave the way for good luck of the entire year.

However, I did some research online and found an explanation: After the Manchus overthrown the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu government enforced a policy on Han people that all Han men should shave their hair and have the required hairstyle like the Manchus. Han people valued hair very much. Hair being shaved was considered humiliating. Many Han men refused to follow the policy as well as other oppression, which led to some massacres. The result was Han people passive resisted by not getting haircut in the first month of the year to express their longing for the lost Ming dynasty as “思旧 (Sī Jìu [Literally: Longing for the past])”. However, as the saying was spread, “Sī Jìu” turned into “Sǐ Jìu Jìu (Literally: Uncle dies)”.

Reference: http://www.sohu.com/a/59020978_349043

Customs
general
Material

Future Son-in-law and Poached Eggs

Context: The collector asked the informant (as MD) for some Shanghainese folklores. The informant is the mother of the collector.

 

MD: You know, when a couple in relationship want to make sure parents from each side agree with their marriage, they will visit the woman’s mother. When it is the first visit for the man, he should bring gifts, such as liquor or cakes or whatever, while the future mother-in-law is supposed to serve him a bowl of 水潽蛋 (Shanghainese in IPA: /sɻ̩ pú de/  Chinese Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ pū dàn/  Literally: water boiled egg, specifically poached egg in Shanghainese), 水煮蛋 (Mandarin in Pinyin: /shuǐ zhǔ dàn/, literally: water boiled egg). The kind of water boiled egg that you break the shell first and then boil it. (The informant was emphasizing the difference between hard boiled eggs and poached eggs)

Collector: Yes, I got it. But why?

MD: I have no idea. It’s just a custom! If the woman’s mother does serve the man a poached egg, that means she recognizes the man as her future son-in-law.

Collector: Is there anything special with poached eggs? Aren’t they just daily matters?

MD: Well you know, life in the past wasn’t like now. Eggs weren’t something you could afford every day!

Collector: But you told me your family had hens when you were young… Okay, okay, I got it. Did Grandma serve Dad poached eggs when he first went to visit?

MD: She did.

Collector: Did she just give him the egg or she told him what that meant? Dad mustn’t know the custom. (The collector’s father is not from Shanghai)

MD: Well, she just served him the egg. Your dad is an outlander. He didn’t know.

Collector: Then did you tell dad what the egg meant?

MD: Yeah after the visit.

Collector: But wasn’t that meaningless for Grandma to do so? Because Dad couldn’t know what she implied.

MD: That doesn’t matter. It was the purpose and the feeling of the mother-in-law that mattered.

Collector: Alright. If CH (the collector’s elder sister) brings her boyfriend to you and you think he is a good man to marry, will you also serve him poached eggs?

MD: Yes, I will, if I like him.

Collector: Even if he is a foreigner?

MD: Yeah. That doesn’t matter.

 

Collector’s thought:

In the past, eggs were valuable food for ordinary people. Even if they had hens, they would probably rather sell eggs for money than consume eggs frequently. Thus, serving future son-in-law eggs is sharing something highly valued with that person, meaning that the man is viewed as a trustworthy husband and is welcomed as a new family member.

It is interesting that the informant values this custom and intends to actively carry it on even though she didn’t really know the background of the custom and in fact, the social context has already changed a lot, which to a certain extent reduces the special value of poached eggs and the meaning of the custom.

The custom might only be a practice in Shanghai, but it’s also possible that the custom is practiced in a larger region, for example, the Yangtze River region.

[geolocation]