Monthly Archives: April 2013

German / Austrian Funeral Tradition

Grandchildren carrying the coffin

There’s also a German / Austrian tradition that when… at a funeral and a church ceremony where you often um…where, like, almost every time, the grandchildren carry out the coffin in which their grandfather or their grandmother is in. And uh… yeah and they carry it out into the hearse.

 

Not every German and Austrian family partakes in this tradition, but in the town of Karlsruhe, Germany it is very common. At the death of her grandfather, Sophia recalls that she and her two older brother and almost a dozen of her cousins carried their grandfather in his coffin from the church to the hearse to be transported to the burial site.

 

This tradition differs from that of Americans who have such a fear of death that they barely participate in the ceremony. Unlike in Mexico where there is a whole day dedicated to celebrating the dead, or in Ireland where there is a whole section of humor dedicated to death, America makes every attempt to avoid confronting it. We only do so when we must—when our loved ones pass away.

 

Death is so dreaded In America that people can’t even joke about it. Humor often arises from that which is repressed—hence the plethora of sex jokes in the US, a country that stigmatizes sex. Yet, people can’t even joke about death in the States. It is beyond repression, beyond denial.

 

The German / Austrian tradition reminds me of some Native American rituals in which the community was very hands at funerals. Whereas the Native Americans understood that death is simply part of life, Americans engage in this disavowal of reality and deny its existence until it meets them head on. I personally think that this tradition Sophia speaks of really imparts to the children at a young age that death is a path we all must take and that we must accept this as soon as possible. In addition, I feel that these children, looking back on the funeral, would be glad to have participated in the final ritual of their grandparents’ lives.

 

 

 

Toasting to Good Sex

In Germany it is a tradition that when you toast you have to look the other person in the eye, otherwise you will have seven years of bad sex. And I learned that probably when I was around fourteen or fifteen—maybe a little earlier—and uh…it’s a German tradition. I realized that no one does it here in the states.

 

Sophia and her family hail from Karlsruhe, Germany. They have always been very open about the topic of sex—a topic that is still taboo here in the states. This folk superstition, according to Sophia, Is widely known in Germany—especially among children. The fact that children are aware of sexual folklore says a lot about German culture and how it has progressed since the times of the brothers Grimm when all of the sexual content was edited out of their work when intended for younger audiences.

 

In the United States parents work very hard to “preserve the innocence” of their children. This includes: “protecting” them from exposure to drug use, violence, profanity, and, most importantly, sex. Although sex is a natural part of life that everyone discovers at one point or another growing up, talking about sex with youngsters is not socially acceptable. Yet, how can parents continue to deny the existence of sex in a culture inundated with sexual images?

 

Children often learn about sex on their own long before their parents are willing to acknowledge it—but not Sophia’s and other European parents. In Germany, and most of western Europe, sex does not carry the social stigma that it does here in the US. From a young age Sophia engaged in conversations about sex with her parents—something that rarely occurs in the US. Why do you think schools here require sexual education classes? It’s because teachers have to compensate for the lack of conversation at home.

 

Furthermore, this folk superstition moves beyond the idea of sex and brings in a conversation about the quality of sex. Not only did Sophia know about sex at a young age, she also learned that sex alone is not enough. “Good” sex is always preferable to “bad” sex. Implicit in this folk superstition is the notion that people should strive for amazing sex, which in turn encourages them to practice sex regularly to achieve a certain mastery that would beget quality sex.

A twist on the traditional American birthday

Ok… so we have a tradition in the family that—probably in the summer… at least the extended family on my mom’s side—we get together in the summer and we celebrate our birthday. It’s never really anyone’s actual birthday we just celebrate everyone’s birthday on one day because of convenience and it gives us an excuse to get together. Also it’s kind of hard for all of us to get together during the year because we’re all gettin’ older now and we all have stuff to do and we could never get together on birthdays so we just created one big family birthday. We all give gifts to each other—usually small with, like, cards or something. One year my cousin got me a uh… a pair of uh…  really cool earrings… like black and gold ones—really cool! I still wear them today actually. Um… but yeah it was just something we’ve always done, something we’ll keep on doing until the older cousins get married and move away. It had nothing to do in particular with sports or anything. It just was because none of us really had time given that one of our cousins moved to San Diego and lives two hours away, and getting together on actual birthdays is way more inconvenient so… we just get together on family birthday.

 

The traditional American birthday is celebrated on the day of the person’s birth (typically for the entire day). Gifts are presented to the person who gains a year of age on that day. Birthdays are some of the few times when it is perfectly and socially acceptable to shamelessly desire to be the center of attention.

 

Haley’s family alters the traditional American birthday celebration in multiple ways: unlike the traditional birthday, her family does not celebrate on the official day of birth. An acknowledgement of the arrival of said day takes place, but no one plans to do anything special. Gifts are not presented at this time, and, thus, this family tradition strays even further from the traditional American birthday. Finally, the “family birthday” for Haley’s family is not about one particular person but rather about all. The traditional focus on one individual finds no place in this family event. In contrast, the day Is more about community and the gathering of a busy family spread out over the state of California.

Pulling Ears

Form of Folklore:  Folk Belief (Protection)

Informant Bio:  The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she attended a Russian school.  At the age of fourteen she and her family moved to America, where she was formally introduce to the English language and had to continue going to a school where the primary language was English.  She has had exposure to both Armenian (from her youth and family) and American folklore (by living and studying in America).

Context:  The interview was conducted in the living room of informant’s house.

Item:    Armenian Transliteration – “Yerp vor vat bani masin es khosum yerekhayi mot, yerekhu akanju petka kashel”

English Translation – “When you speak about bad things in front of a child, you need to pull the child’s ear”

Informant Comments:  The informant does not really believe that pulling a child’s ear when speaking of bad things will prevent the bad things from happening; not does she believe that not pulling a child’s ear will guarantee that the bad things they are talking about will happen.  She does not actually use this folk protection in her life.  She thinks it is simply something older women (i.e. grandmothers) do so they do not feel bad about saying bad things in front of children.

Analysis:  This folk belief (protection) seems to be based on the idea that twisting a child’s ear is equivalent to taking away what they heard or preventing them from hearing all the bad things that will be said.  It does seem as though this protection is more for the people saying bad things than for the children who may hear the bad things.  It somehow offers a loophole for them to say all of the bad things they want without being condemned for saying them in front of children (offering protection to the speakers instead of the children).  Regardless of why they have this folk belief or who it is intended to protect, people can choose to believe it and do it if they please (under the assumption that the pulling of the ear is not painful).

Marriage

Form of Folklore:  Humor

Informant Bio:  The informant was born and raised in Yerevan, Armenia until 1990, when she and her family moved to the United States (Glendale, California), at the age of thirty six.  Most of the folklore she has been exposed to is founded in Armenian culture.  Her social surroundings in Armenia and her father are her primary sources of folklore.

Context:  The interview was conducted in the dining room of informant’s house.

Item:  Armenian Transliteration – Mihat jahel hars ka vor shat mutahokvatsa amoosnanaloo masin.  Voroshuma vor gna ira tatiki mot vor hartser ta amoosnootsan masin.  Hartsnooma “Amoosnootsoonu vontsa?”  Tatiknel asooma iran, “Ari, nusti, bala, ameninch kasem.  Amoosnootsyan arachi tas tarin, dook amoosin yev kin k linek; myoos tas tarin, unkerner k linek; myoos tas tarin, koor oo akhper k linek, heto, yerkoo koor k linek, verchi tas tarin, k kirvek te ova mets kooru.”  Harsu asuma, “Bayts tati, du hitsoon tarits avel es amoosnatsats, ova mets kooru dzer mech.”  Tatiku juptooma oo asuma “oves kartsoom?”

English Translation – There’s a young bride who is very worried about getting married.  She decides to go to her grama to ask her about marriage.  She asks, “What’s it like to be married?”  Her grandma tells her, “Come, sit, my dear, I’ll tell you everything.  The first ten years of marriage, you will be husband and wife; the next, ten years, you will be best friends, the next ten years, you will be brother and sister, the next, you will be two sisters, and finally the next ten years, you will fight over who is the older sister.”  The girl says, “But grama, you’ve been married for more than fifty years, who’s the older sister.” The grama just smiles and says “Who do you think?”

Informant Comments:  The informant believes there is a lot of truth in this joke.  Being married for over thirty years, she thinks that the knowledge that the grandmother passed down to the young bride was very true.  She believes that, in marriage, the two people grow very close the way that two siblings would grow close.  Along with the closeness come more quarrels, hence, the fight over who is the big sister.  This folklore has become a humorous way of telling brides (in real life) about what marriage is truly like.

Analysis:  This folklore illustrates how marriage is viewed as a journey of two people who slowly evolve together and develop a close bond.  It is interesting to note that the husband is the one who becomes a sister, not the wife becoming a brother.  It seems that this is an indication that the female plays a dominant role in the relationship; especially considering how the grandmother smiles at the end of the joke and in doing so implies that she is “the big sister”.  The mild humor of what is said by the grandmother shows that even after more than fifty years of marriage, she is able to look upon her journey with her husband and find humor throughout each passing decade.

Salt Cross

Form of Folklore:  Folk Belief

Informant Bio:  The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, where she attended a Russian school.  At the age of fourteen she and her family moved to America, where she was formally introduce to the English language and had to continue going to a school where the primary language was English.  She has had exposure to both Armenian (from her youth and family) and American folklore (by living and studying in America).

Context:  The interview was conducted in the living room of the informant’s house.

Item:    Armenian Transliteration – “Yerp vor andzreve galis, aghov khach petke arvi getinu vor kuturvi”

English Translation – “When it is raining, you need to make a cross on the floor with salt so that it will stop”

Informant Comments:  As a child, growing up in Armenia, the informant believed that making a cross on the floor in salt actually was the reason why the rain would stop.  Now, she no longer believes this and has not passed this folklore on to any of her children.  She does not think making the cross would be a bad thing, but simply thinks it is not a necessary act to stop the rain.

Analysis:  Making a cross on the floor may have some connection with the fact that most Armenians in Armenia are Christian.  Since rain is sometimes considered to be the “tears of God”, perhaps making a cross on the ground that the rain falls on is a way of making the tears/rain stop.  The roots of this folk belief could be numerous; this is merely one possibility.  I do not think that it is in anyway required to stop the rain.  However, if children would like to feel that they are in some way in control of the weather (even when they are not) I see no harm in telling them about this folk belief.

Nightmares to the Water

Form of Folklore: Folk Belief (Protection)

Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, moved to Moscow, Russia at six months, then to Detroit Michigan at age three. Since she was five years old, she was raised in Glendale, California. Most of the folklore she knows is from her mother (passing down traditions she learned) and from peers at school. Her mother remains as her main source of cultural folklore (Armenian) whereas her friends in school exposed her to the folklore of American culture.

Context: The interview was conducted on the porch of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: Since I was young, my mom told me that if I ever had a nightmare at night, to wake up the following morning and go to the bathroom, turn on the sink, let the water run, and tell my bad dreams to the water… as a way of letting them be washed away and not come true. And I did this for a very long time and often, if my dreams are bad enough, I still follow through with it just to give myself the reassurance.

Informant Comments: The informant does not truly believe that telling her nightmares to the running water in the sink really protects her from having her dream come true. Doing it does, however, offer her some comfort when she has had a horrible dream. Since there is no harm in telling the water about what she had seen in her dreams, the informant continues to do so just as a part of her morning routine after a bad dream.

Analysis: In this and many other folk beliefs for protection, water seems to be used as a method of purification or cleansing. Somehow having the water running as the bad dream is being told, removes the danger of having the evils in the nightmare come true. Since water is physically used to clean, it makes sense that it is also used as a metaphorical cleaning agent for bad dreams. Like the informant, I do not see any harm in using this folk protection but would not consider it to be a necessary action; if one forgets to tell their nightmare to the running water in the sink, they should not panic (if they do, they could always find another source of running water).

MASH

Form of Folklore: Game

Informant Bio: The informant was born in Yerevan, Armenia, moved to Moscow, Russia at six months, then to Detroit Michigan at age three. Since she was five years old, she was raised in Glendale, California. Most of the folklore she knows is from her mother (passing down traditions she learned) and from peers at school. Her mother remains as her main source of cultural folklore (Armenian) whereas her friends in school exposed her to the folklore of American culture.

Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of the informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.

Item: Ok so you write down “MASH” at the top of the page; “MASH” stands for… “M” for Mansion, “A” for Apartment, “S” for Shack, and “H” for House and those stand for where you’re gonna live. Under that you make categories for “Husband”, “Wedding Dress”, “Cars”, “Pets”, “# of Kids”, and “Honeymoon”. Each category has one through four; the first three being what you’d like to happen, the last thing, what you wouldn’t want to happen. And then the person you’re playing with tells you when to stop as you’re making tally marks. And you stop and that’s the number you count to going around and around all these categories and crossing of when you stop at that number. And at the end you’re left with one thing in each category and that is supposed to be telling them their future and what will happen to them.

Informant Comments: The informer learned this game when she was in middle school. She does not believe it can actually predict the future; she used to play MASH as an entertaining game just to see what life (and which celebrity) she would end up with. Even though she never thought it would actually tell her about her future, she still felt a certain degree of disappointment when she did not get a future she was really fond of.

Analysis: MASH is a harmless game which is used as a way to predict the future lives of kids. It has an element of fear that the person MASH is being done for will end up with all of the things that they would not want to happen. Most children’s games do not have this quality; most have a happy ending no matter what. Also, this game introduces children to the idea of marriage and motherhood. It is clear that this is a game for females since it has categories like “Husband” and “Wedding Dress”. Many girls begin to think about their futures as a woman simply by playing this game that was intended to inform them of their futures. Though the game does not actually predict the future, it does make it a part of the reality that little girls will eventually have to deal with.