USC Digital Folklore Archives / Customs
Customs
Foodways
Material

Lentils on Monday

Context: My informant – identified as N.D. – and I were on a FaceTime call. She is of Greek and Peruvian decent, and goes to school in Manhattan, New York. While catching up, I decided to ask her whether she maintains her cultural traditions while at school.

 

Background: It was a Monday afternoon and my informant was eating a bowl of lentils, she explained that she did so every Monday, as explained by a common Peruvian folklore custom. Her parents and grandparents have followed this tradition for as long as she can remember, and she feels that it’s something that connects her to her family, even while she’s away from home.

 

Main Piece: “So every Monday I make sure to eat a bowl of lentils. Back at home, my mom would make them for dinner every Monday night for our whole family to eat. No matter what else she made, there were always lentils involved and we always had to have at least one bite, no matter how badly we didn’t want to eat them. The reason is that it’s supposed to bring or attract money, prosperity, and good luck. I’m not sure where this tradition started, but my grandparents grew up on it, so did my mom, and she makes sure we all take part in it too. Peruvians use a lot of foods to represent or attract different things into life. Food is a huge part of the culture. I’m not sure how much I believe that this tradition works or anything like that, but it’s something that I’ve done for so long that it feels natural to continue. Little things like this keep me connected to my family which is important to me now that I haven’t been able to see them since I’m away at school.”

 

Analysis: The continuation of cultural traditions and rituals is something very important to the elders of immigrant families. It’s easy to assimilate to the current lifestyle of where a person lives, so it’s refreshing to hear that first or even second generation immigrants keep their culture alive.

 

Customs
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Smashing Plates

Context: My informant – identified as N.D. – and I were on a FaceTime call. She is of Greek and Peruvian decent, and goes to school in Manhattan, New York. While catching up, I decided to ask her whether she maintains her cultural traditions while at school.

 

Background: While discussing her sister’s upcoming wedding, my informant described a Greek ritual that is often performed at celebrations. It’s the idea of smashing plates to promote fun, good spirits, and positivity. N.D. couldn’t place how or when the tradition began, but mentioned that it was deeply rooted in authentic Greek culture.

 

Main Piece: “Any time we’re at some big party, usually a wedding or an engagement or something like that, there’s always some point where everyone just picks up a plate and starts smashing them onto the floor. It usually happens at the peak of the party, when everyone is dancing and drinking and having fun. It’s supposed to symbolize the idea of good spirit and fun. My parents say it promotes positivity. When I go back to Greece in the summers to visit my family there, you see it everywhere. The restaurants there are very lively and upbeat and play great music. At one point a lot of people will start dancing once they finish eating, and you’ll see the plate smashing there too. I don’t think it has some crazy symbolic meaning to it, but it’s something you’ll always see in Greek culture.”

 

Analysis: The idea of breaking glass, especially in regards to weddings, reminds me of Jewish tradition as well. At Jewish weddings, the groom usually stomps on a glass, to symbolize the loss suffered by the Jewish people throughout history. Though it’s a somber reminder, it represents healing and better fortunes ahead. Broken glass in many cultures emphasizes positivity and happiness, among other things. It’s interesting to see the similarities across cultures for this kind of ritual.

 

Customs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Driving on Eggshells

Context: Following a conversation I was having with my father about warding off the evil eye, I asked him about another ritual we often performed – specifically, whenever one of our family members got a new car. 

 

Background: Persian culture often uses different foods, herbs, or spices as symbols. The egg often represents fertility, rebirth, or something new. In this case, the egg is used to celebrate the new while simultaneously keeping away the evil eye for that new endeavor. This ritual is a different way of warding off the evil eye, practiced in instances of large purchases.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious and sensitive when they talk about anything very good happening or having something expensive. They are nervous about other people judging them or cursing them. So any time one of you gets a new car, I take out the eggs and I start drawing the circles. The circles are supposed to represent an eye, or the evil eye I guess. I think in my head to myself of anybody I can think of off the top of my head that would look at us with a negative energy because of our purchase. I draw as many as I can in place of those people, and say their names while I draw the circles and say a prayer that the new car won’t bring a bad fortune. After I finish drawings, I put the eggs in a paper bag and I usually have you drive to a different street from our house, put the eggs in front of the wheels of the car, and tell you guys to drive over it. It sounds a little silly. But the idea is that you shatter any possible evil eyes that would come your way for getting this car. It’s for precaution, just to ensure protection and good luck.”

 

Analysis: The notion of the evil eye is particularly sensitive for the Persian community. Persians have a number of different rituals that they perform to ward it off depending on the circumstance and situation. This one in particular ties to significant purchases. Some others are burning sage, hanging an evil eye charm in the vehicle, or keeping prayer books within the car.

 

Customs
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Red Eggs on Easter

Context: My informant – identified as N.D. – and I were on a FaceTime call. She is of Greek and Peruvian decent, but goes to school in Manhattan, New York. While catching up, I decided to ask her whether she maintains her cultural traditions while at school.

 

Background: While discussing the upcoming holiday of Easter, my informant described a generations-old Greek Orthodox tradition that she has practiced with her family for years. Her father’s family participated in the tradition in Greece, and she and all of her relatives have continued the tradition after having moved to Miami.

 

Main Piece: “The night before Easter Sunday my parents always dye the eggs red. We used to do it all together when my sisters and I were little, but as we got older we got a little less involved but they always kept it going. My dad and his entire family have been doing this for years in Greece and since his family is very religious it’s really important to him that we keep the tradition going. The red dye on the egg symbolizes the blood of Christ that was on the cross ‘for us’. Then the morning of Easter when we’re all sitting together, we start cracking the red eggs, and that symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, because the egg represents his tomb, and it also represents new life. Since I moved to New York for school this is one tradition I haven’t kept up with on my own and neither have any of my sisters. Our family definitely isn’t that religious even though my dad is Greek Orthodox, things like this are just traditions we would do as a family to spend quality time and celebrate together. It also kept us really entertained when we were younger.”

 

Analysis: This Greek tradition is an interesting take on the symbolism of eggs on Easter. Easter eggs are said to represent Jesus emerging from his tomb, but most cultures, especially in America, choose to decorate the eggs in colorful patterns to celebrate the coming of spring. This Greek Orthodox take on the deeply-rooted tradition is one of great solidarity with Christ, in order to remind oneself of the sacrifice he made.

 

Customs
Gestures
Holidays
Humor
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Dayenu on Passover

Context: My informant is a 63 year-old man of Persian descent. The piece is a ritual practiced by Persian Jews at traditional Passover seders, which is a generations-old gathering where specific foods are eaten to remind oneself of the hardships faced by Jews in Egypt. Each food symbolizes an aspect of the suffrage, and is consumed after reading stories and prayers from the Haggadah – the text recited at the seder.

 

Background: The morning after I had a Passover seder with my family, I decided to ask my informant about a tradition almost exclusively practiced by Persian Jews. He explained that they had practiced this tradition while still living in Iran, before they moved to Los Angeles after the fall of the Shah. It remains a staple of Passover seders at any Persian Jewish home.

 

Main Piece: “When it’s time in the seder for the green onions, we do Dayenu. This food symbolizes how we remember that the Jews were beaten and whipped as slaves in Egypt. Persian Sephardic Jews have a fun twist on this to make the seder more fun and enjoyable while also remembering these hardships. After reading the piece from the book and saying the prayer over the green onion, everyone starts singing the Dayenu song and runs around hitting each other with the onions. It’s fun and chaos, and it makes such a long traditional seder a little more lively and bearable. I’m not sure how this ritual originated, but only Sephardic Jews do it usually. It mimics what the slaves went through in Egypt but it also brings a fun and enjoyment to the holiday.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see the distinction between practices of different sectors of Jews. While Orthodox and Ashkenazi Jews take a more traditional aspect to the Passover Seder, Sephardic Jews practice this ritual to celebrate the remembrance while also bringing excitement to the tradition. There is debate about where the custom originates, but it’s typically practiced by Sephardic Jews from Iran and Afghanistan.

 

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Material

Lentils and Pork on New Year’s Eve

Context: My informant is a 22 year-old student of Italian descent. The piece describes a traditional New Year’s custom for Italians, which is thought to bring good luck and prosperity.

 

Background: My informant has practiced this custom in her family for as long as she can remember. Her family participated in this tradition while still living in Italy, and she and they all continue to practice it after having moved to Los Angeles.

 

Main Piece: “Every year the family spends New Year’s Eve together whether we’re in L.A. or visiting family in Sicily. My dad and his 4 brothers are all chefs so food is definitely a very important aspect of our daily life. On New Year’s Eve, they all prepare a big meal together and we sit down and eat with the whole family, it’s always like 40 or 50 of us. At midnight, we all come back around the table and eat lentils and pork sausage. Lentils symbolize good luck and the pork symbolizes prosperity and good fortune. Eating those foods at midnight is supposed to bring you a year filled with good luck and prosperity, so it’s really important to my dad and uncles that we all take part in it. Food in Italian culture has a lot of symbolic meaning.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to hear how important food is in so many different cultures, and the symbolic meaning it holds. In another interview, an informant explained a Peruvian custom, which requires eating lentils, also to bring good luck and prosperity.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Material

Coin in the Cake

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. She wasn’t able to go home for Easter this year, as she usually does, but she described a tradition that her family practices every year on Easter.

 

Background: She explained that this tradition normally takes place in Greek tradition on New Year’s Eve, but that her family celebrates it on Easter instead, as she and her siblings usually spend New Year’s with friends.

 

Main Piece: “So this is usually done on New Years, but we always do it on Easter since that’s one holiday Greek Orthodox people take very seriously, so we’re almost always all together as a family. We’re always separated on New Years so this is just the best time to do this tradition I guess. Basically, my mom or grandma will bake a cake, and they bake a gold coin into the cake itself. They put it in the oven, take it out, and then they cut it all up and serve it. The person who gets the piece with the coin in it is supposed to have the luckiest year out of everyone else. Essentially it’s going to be like their golden year. It kind of defeats the purpose that we do it in April of every year, but Easter also represents rebirth and whatnot so I guess it kind of works when you think about it.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see how much a culture’s folklore can be taken into interpretation. The meaning remains the same, but the tradition is made flexible. I found it compelling how many different traditions there are throughout cultures to ensure a lucky or prosperous year ahead.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Night Before Greek Easter

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. She and I were discussing her Easter traditions and whether she still celebrates her Greek Orthodox traditions despite being away from her family.

 

Background: The following ritual is deeply rooted in the Greek Orthodox tradition and takes place the night before Easter Sunday. My informant can’t place the exact root of this ritual, but it’s likely to have been performed since biblical times.

 

Main Piece: “In Greek Orthodox tradition we follow the biblical Jewish calendar, so pretty often Greek Easter doesn’t fall on the same day as American Easter. Like this year it’s the week after American Easter. The night before Easter, we go to church at around 11pm, and we wear all black to mourn Jesus’ murder. We go the night before because it’s the night before Jesus’ resurrection. Everyone lights a candle, and we say a few prayers. Then at midnight everyone starts walking around the church chanting christos anesti, which means Christ has risen. Since coming to school, it’s hard to go back home to celebrate with my family, so my parents make me go to a Greek Orthodox church in Downtown L.A. This is the biggest holiday in Greek Orthodox tradition, so it’s really important to them and honestly for myself that I keep it up even while being away from home.”

 

Analysis: It was interesting to learn that Greek Orthodox culture follows the old Jewish calendar. As a Jew I follow the same calendar in regards to holidays, the New Year, and so on. But I wasn’t aware that other cultures still follow this historical timeline as well.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warding off the Evil Eye

Context: One night at home I decided to ask my dad for an explanation behind a cultural ritual he had performed almost every single week for as long as I can remember, and was preparing to perform that night. It’s a process using a spice called Esfand.

 

Background: In Iran, Esfand is used to ward off the evil eye. This is a generations-old ritual that has been passed down for hundreds of years. The idea is to burn the spice, and the smoke and popping sounds from the burning are said to burn away the evil eye.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious people. Iranians have always been very successful for the most part and it’s a little natural for us to think someone would want to curse us if we are doing well or better than them. Most of your friends from growing up are Persian too so I’m sure they know all about it too. Persian people are a lot of the time looked at as being very flaunty or extravagant, and they are sometimes, but as a culture most people are very conservative about sharing achievements or very exciting news. It’s looked down upon to brag about good fortunes that you are having. I don’t think you even notice but sometimes when our family is out or at parties and someone was giving you or [your siblings] a certain look or a compliment me or mom would say a little prayer until we could get home and do Esfand. I think it could be a myth that there are people that really have an evil eye. But I think there are definitely people who act a certain way but inside don’t mean well for you, or give off a very negative energy that you shouldn’t have around you. So you burn it away. I put the esfand in my hand and I start with a prayer. I circle it around my head, mom’s head, and all of your heads a few times, chanting the same prayers asking for protection. I wave it all around the house. Then I take the foil and put it over the stove, and I put the esfand from my hand on it, and I let it burn until it’s done. It burns the negative eyes and thoughts from others.”

 

Analysis: The concept of the evil eye is definitely not tied specifically to the Persian culture. It’s interesting to look at how each culture or religion carries out their ritual against this superstition. Some knock on wood, some throw salt, some wear evil eye jewelry, but Persians choose to physically burn it away.

 

Annotation: For more on the notion of the evil eye in Persian and Middle Eastern culture, reference to:

Spooner, B. (2004). 15. The Evil Eye in the Middle East. In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (pp. 311-320). New York, NY: Routledge.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Name Days

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. While discussing how she celebrates Easter as a Greek Orthodox, she mentioned another tradition that caught my attention.

 

Background: The tradition is referred to as Name Days, and has been a custom of Greek Orthodox culture for centuries. My informant explained that she and all of her siblings celebrate their name days, as they are all named after saints.

 

Main Piece: “For Greeks, your name day is more important than your actual birthday. Your name day is the birthday of your icon, or the saint that you were named after. Me and my siblings are all named after saints, and the same goes for my more distant relatives. Greek Orthodox people are really into using generational and famous names that are important in their history. So I’m named after Saint Katherine, so my name day is some time in November, but my actual birthday is in May. Obviously being in American culture now, my birthday is equally as important, and I celebrate it with my family and friends, but my name day is still a huge deal in my family. On my name day my parents always go all out with the presents, we have my whole family over, and it’s just a big celebration. The same goes for all of my siblings. It’s pretty great because it’s like having two birthdays every year that are equally as celebrated. I also see how important it is to my grandparents especially that we celebrate name days so it’s something I definitely want to pass on to my kids too.”

 

Analysis: I found this tradition very interesting, as I had never heard of Name Days prior to this encounter. After doing additional research on this ritual, I learned that they are actually celebrated in many countries across Europe and Latin America. It’s a nice way to celebrate yourself, as well as the historical icon that you were named after.

 

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