USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘candle’
Humor
Legends
Narrative

Mullah Nasreddin and the Cold Night

I understand that you like to tell “Mullah” stories. Could you share one with me?

“Mullah is a traditional character they attribute a lot of stories to him… and you know, they’re, they’re, usually as funny stories, but then on the other hand has quite a bit of meaning to every story.

This story goes like this, uhh… Mullah and his friend they were getting together, it was at night. So they were kinda challenging each other if, uhh… anybody can stay out there in the cold, it was really cold, night. And uhh, be able to survive until the morning.

Mullah says ‘well, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna try that.’

So he stays out there, in real cold, but he endures, you know, and he had some experience, he endures the cold night. So in the morning they get , they get together, and he explains to his friends that he really, uhh… survived the cold, you know, last night.

They said, ‘nuh uh, it’s impossible.’ Uhh… you know, ‘You couldn’t have survived. You must have had some help. Maybe you had some fire? You made some fire?’

He says, ‘No! There was nothing! uhh… it’s just endurance, and I endured the uhh…’ uhh… I… I was supposed to say it in Farsi!” [laughs]

That’s okay! You can finish in English and tell the Farsi version [later]. (And MB did tell the full story in Farsi, but transcribing the entire story in phonetics would take an immense amount of time. I skip ahead here to the English explanation.)

“The English goes like this, uhh, Mullah and his friends, they were uhh, together, and they were getting together one cold night.

So they started challenging each other who can uhh… stay out there in that cold weather and uhh, survive until morning. And if anybody can do it, you know, they buy him lunch.

Mullah says, ‘Oh, I’m gonna try that!’ So he goes out there in the cold, and uhh, really cold night, and it was suffering all night and everything, but he, because of his experience, he endures the cold.

So in the morning they get together, Mullah says ‘You know, I managed to stay out there in the cold.’

But his friend says ‘Well, that’s impossible, nobody can do that. You must have had some fire keeping you warm all night.’

He says, ‘No, there was no fire. But on second thought, I could see a light several miles away. All night.’

His friends say, ‘Well, that’s it! That light kept you warm all night!’

Then Mullah says, ‘Okay, you folks won, and I lost, so I prepare you lunch tomorrow. I’ll make you some, uhh, soup… for lunch.’

They all say, ‘Great!’

They come to his house, wait an hour, nothing happens, two hours, they wait two hours, no sign of lunch. So they ask Mullah, says ‘Well, what’s happening?’

Mullah says, ‘Still cooking!’

They say, ‘Well wait a minute! How long is it gonna be cooking! Let’s go out there and, uhh, see what’s going on!’ So they go out there and see a big pot of soup with a candle underneath.

They say, his friends say, ‘Well, Mullah, this is stupid. This candle is not going to heat up that big pot and make your soup.’

Mullah says, ‘Well, if that light several miles away could keep me warm all night, this candle should be able to also cook your lunch.’

His friends realize that they, you know, made a mistake, and uhh, says, ‘Okay, we’ll buy you lunch, Mullah, you won.’ End of story.”

Note: For a published version of this story, see Houman Farzad, Classic Tales of Mulla Nasreddin (

Analysis: Mullah Nasreddin stories are very common in Persian culture. They are often used for humor and for imparting wisdom to older children, but are commonly told at all stages of life. There are countless encounters attributed to Mullah Nasreddin, and many have been documented in published works. For another version of this story, see:
MB is especially fond of this Mullah story, and was animated while telling it. MB made a habit of telling Mullah stories to his grandchildren after family dinners in order to get them to laugh and to understand more adult concepts like happy marriages, compromises, good friendships, and general wisdom.

Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

Good Luck Candles

The informant is a 23-year-old undergraduate at the University of Southern California. She moved a lot when she was younger, but spent her high school years but spent her high school years in Colorado, and still returns there to visit her dad on occasion. Her family is Mexican (though only partially) and Catholic, but her grandmother is Spanish (though her family has been in America for several centuries) and is a lot more Catholic than the rest of her family. I asked the informant about anything related to luck and she told me about the closet of candles her grandmother has.

Her grandmother has a closet full of the “Mexican candles” that are unscented candles in tall glass jars that usually have some sort of religious figure, like Jesus or a saint, printed on the outside. (These are also called “novena candles”). The informant says that she cannot remember a time where her grandmother did not have these candles. Her grandmother would keep at least one lit at all times, even when the grandmother is out of the house and, as the informant put it, “created a fire hazard.” Though the informant and other members of her generation (siblings, cousins, etc.) would tease the grandmother for being so obsessive over these candles, they would help her make sure that one was lit when they were around her house. Her grandmother believes that if she keeps these candles lit, it signals God to watch over her family.
There was one instance where the informant and her cousins decided to blow the candle out as a joke. Her grandmother did not find this entertaining, and was very upset that the candle that she thought was connected to God had been blown out, meaning God was no longer looking over her family. Shortly after the candle was blown out, the informant’s grandfather called  and explained that on their way to Idaho, their car had almost flipped and crashed, which had been, unbeknownst to him, the time period that the candle had been blown out. This reinforced the grandmother’s belief that the candles actually did something, and the children were discouraged from blowing out the candles ever again.

The candles physically symbolize the connection to God that is sometimes not easily felt. By using the flame of a candle to signify this connection, a simple glance at the candle can reaffirm the connection if the feeling itself is not there. This can also show the connection to others without having to actively discuss it.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Good Show Candle

My informant told me of a ritual that she used to do at her high school theatre.  Before a performance, everyone involved in the production would stand around a candle, a “good show candle” as she called it.  They would light the candle and all stand around it with their hands crossed right over left, and they would hold the hands of the people next to them.  Each person would take a turn to tell stories or say good things about their fellow actors and techies.  This would go on for about 10 or 15 minutes before the show starts.  At the end of this, one person would squeeze the hand of the person on your left, and then that person would squeeze the hand of the person on their left, and so on.  And once it had gotten back to the person who started it, everyone would throw their hands into the air and as they did they would all say “Goooooooooooooooooood showwwwwwwwwwwww!” and then twirl around and face the outside of the circle, and then everyone would be ready to go.

 According to my informant, this ritual is performed at other theatres as well.
Customs

“Blow out the candles and make a wish.”

This phrase was said to the informant on her birthday in January every year since she could remember speaking.  It is tradition for the family and/or friends to sing “Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear [informant’s name], happy birthday to you.”  Following the Happy Birthday song, the family members and friends are supposed to remind the birthday person to make a silent wish and blow out all of the candles in one blow so that the wish will come true.  For her family especially, they like to blow out the candles, make a wish, and then keep the wish a secret or else it will not come true.  The informant feels that this is not especially symbolic of anything, except that as the birthday girl, she should have something special that sets her apart from the others whose birthday it is not, so she gets a wish.  In turn, she likes to give the same opportunity to everyone else she celebrates birthdays with and the secret wish is always made.

This tradition is a tradition found commonly everywhere around the United States, especially because the Happy Birthday song is in English.  However, there are variations in other languages such as Spanish.  In both cultures, it is traditions to have the same number of candles on the birthday cake as the number of years the birthday girl or boy has lived.  Sometimes this tradition lasts until old age.  As a young person blows out the candles, she is blowing them all in one blow in hopes that her wish may come true.  She usually also blows out the candles herself, without any help, showing the strength and independence of the younger generation.  As the birthday person grows older and is blowing out seventy or eighty candles, blowing out the candles is a symbol of health and strength.  Often if the person is old she will also be helped by the younger generation, often little children younger than five years old, which I believe is symbolic of the young helping out the old.  However, though the people blowing out the candles may change, one thing always remains the same.  The birthday child, teen, parent, or grandparent will always receive one silent wish after the candles have all been blown out.

Customs
Folk Beliefs

Bayberry Candle

My Mother said that growing up, her mother would always burn a bayberry candle on Christmas Eve for good luck and that they would also burn it on New Years Day for good luck. It would burn the entire day until it the wax ran out.

According to my mother, this tradition comes from England, and then was continued as a New England tradition during colonial times. My mother told me that her mother’s side was English, and had the last name of Trasp, which is where the tradition of burning the candle came from in her family. She was not sure why it was a bayberry candle was burned, however.

My mother said that it wasn’t a tradition to make the candle, they usually just bought it. But the candle comes from the wax scraped off the berries of the bayberry shrub, and the bayberry plant is found in both Europe and North America.

This is interesting because in earlier colonial times the bayberry wax would be collected, perhaps because the animal fat used to make candles was scarce. Now the candles are made from other materials, with the bayberry scent, and burned for the sake of tradition.

The interesting thing that I found was that there were many traditional things that my mother did for good luck that came from different regions, and the bayberry candle was just one of them. There were multiple traditions around the holidays and my mother said they did them all, from burning a bayberry candle to a traditional German New Year’s dinner.

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