USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘children’s folklore’
Folk speech
Game
Gestures
Kinesthetic

French hand game

The informant is my 19-year-old friend from my French high school. Though she currently lives in New York, she grew up in Germany, and her family is Moroccan. I asked her what games, songs, or rhymes she remembered from growing up, and she volunteered this hand game that is commonly played in French elementary schools. My friend did not know the name of this game, nor does she remember being taught it or teaching it to anyone, but she played it with her friends and most of the kids she grew up with also knew it.

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“Okay, you start by saying, “Si tu perds t’auras un gage,” which means “if you lose, you’ll have a dare,” and then you start the game. Although, to be honest, I don’t think I ever actually did a dare after playing. So … [demonstrating with hand gestures] you clap your hands one time, then you clap once with the other person … diagonally, and then you clap your hands again. Then the same on the other side [demonstrating], then your hands again, then both of your hands with the other person’s hands. And you just do it faster and faster until someone messes up.”

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Though my friend and I both went to french-language schools growing up, she grew up in Germany, and I lived in New York, which made it interesting to me that we both had played this game as children. This was another place I observed Dundes’s stipulation that folklore must have multiplicity. I also thought it was interesting that the game never really had a name; an interesting aspect of folklore is that things can be spread, reproduced, and taught to other people without having a specific name for what that thing is. I also thought that might have to do with the fact that it one of the things children teach each other, which might be it is so simple (no name, very easy to learn). Another thing I found interesting was that neither she nor I ever actually had to perform a dare after losing the game, because the fact that the song starts off with that line suggests that there was a time where that was a legitimate part of the game, and that over time it was eventually lost. I thought it was an interesting example of the fact that folklore is never static, because the game is so simple and has so few parts, and yet it has still changed over time.

Childhood
Customs
Game

Kagome – Japanese Children’s Game

NC: There’s a Japanese game that children play called kagome, um…so it’s-it’s really similar to ring around a rosey in that…um…it was based on…experiments that people were doing, so Ring around the rosie is about um the disease the bubonic plague but um uh kagome is about experiments that people were doing um on the Japanese and they- they basically took children and they mutilated them I think that’s what it is. And um they would haunt people in the building like they would haunt the doctors and they would say um “kagome, kagome” and some other uh words and they would basically play that game in a circle and um that’s just like the ghost story behind that game.

 

Background:

Location of Story – Japan

Location of Performance – Dormitory room, Los Angeles, CA, night

 

Context: This performance took place in a group setting – about 2-3 people – in a college dormitory room. This performance was prompted by the call for stories about beliefs, ghosts, or superstitions as examples of folklore via a group message. NC approached me in person in response to the text and this is the second of two stories she presented. The first was about a monster who took the form of a beautiful, floating female head that had been decapitated and haunts a building. It was apparent that NC had just recently discovered this game because she was looking at her computer the whole time. 

 

Analysis: I think the comparison to “Ring Around the Rosey” is really effective here because it reinforces the idea that games or rhythm games are often counter-hegemonic and can critique a system under the guise of play. It is an indirect form of protest and also a way to be able to process the trauma of an experience such as this with humor and distance from the actual reality. On a different note, I really wished I would have NC where she discovered this game because I can understand stumbling upon a ghost story but not a traditional Japanese child’s game; I want to know where these are being documented online since she had her computer. 

 

Annotation: Upon further research, I discovered that the folk song element to this performance is actually much more essential to the folk game in other collected versions. For example, there is a documentation of this game in Highlights magazine for kids will additional information about how to perform the song. This version documents the chant as, “Can you guess? Can you guess? Who is right behind you? Could it be, possibly…” and then the participants would recite their names until “it says stop.” I could not identify what the “it” of this game is, but what is interesting to note here is that the word kogome is missing from this particular chant. This may very well because it is a translation, but for me, it demonstrates a lack of that historical context. The meaning is even more deeply hidden in the practice of the game. Additionally, Highlights includes the physical rules of the game, which involve being in a circle and blindfolded. See citation below for a PDF of the Highlights article.

 

Citation: Yasuda, Anita. “Kagome Kagome.” Highlights for Children, vol. 65, no. 10, 10, 2010, pp. 12. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/756206958?accountid=14749.

Folk speech
general
Gestures
Humor
Kinesthetic

Em-chang

Context:

The subject is a college freshman, born in South Korea before moving to the United States when they were 12 years old. I wanted to get to know more about any folklore they might have experienced growing up, so I conducted an interview with them to find out.

Piece:

Subject: Okay, so kids, you know how kids like swear on their mother, right?

Interviewer: Right.

Subject: So like, in Korea we do this one our forehead [It's basically the Shaka sign but with the end of the thumb on the forehead] and stick our tongue out and say em-chang.

Interviewer: Em-chang?

Subject: Yeah it basically means, if I’m lying my mother’s a prostitute. And it varies between places in Korea, sometimes you put the hand vertical on your face, or you don’t stick out the tongue, sometimes the thumb goes on the tongue.

Interviewer: Wow, and this is common?

Subject: Yeah it’s the equivalent for swearing on your mom’s life. Arguably harsher.

 

Analysis:

Upon further research, it seems that a lot of different cultures have their own forms of swearing on their mother. The common link is always the mother figure. It begs the question as to why, however I think it’s a simple answer. The mother figures in our lives are extremely important to us, especially when we’re very dependent children. The importance of the mother role is very clear across the globe.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Magic
Narrative
Signs

The Headless Drummer Boy

Context:

I conducted this interview over the phone, the subject was born and raised in Scotland before moving to England, Canada, the United States, then to Northern Ireland, and, finally, back to the United States. I knew she continued to practice certain traditions which were heavily present in her childhood and wanted to ask her more about them.

 

Piece:

Subject: Grandpa used to tell us this ghost story when we were kids about a drummer boy who had no head and would patrol the castles in Scotland. I have no idea why he’s headless or what happened, but he would sometimes get lost from the castle and show up to houses and play the drum to find his way home.

Interviewer: Was he scary at all?

Subject: Yeah, it was meant to scare us, cuz I think if you heard the drum it meant bad things were coming because the boy was so mad that he couldn’t find his way home.

Interviewer: Did it scare you?

Subject: When I was a kid it was frightening!

 

Analysis:

I looked up this scary story to find The Headless Drummer is a known tale in Scotland. According to visitscotland.com, “His identity and the story behind his decapitation remain a mystery, but it is said he made his first appearance in 1650. This was the fateful year Oliver Cromwell launched his invasion of Scotland which culminated in the capture of the castle following a three month siege.” I think there’s a certain fascination with young children who die at the hands of war, or defending something larger than their innocent selves. It’s a sad, glum fascination, but it’s clearly tied heavily to their past.

Source:

Fanthorpe, Lionel, and Patricia Fanthorpe. Mysteries and Secrets: The 16-Book Complete Codex. Dundurn, 2014.

 

Folk speech
Humor

Tweet Tweet!

Context:

The subject is a child in elementary school. I asked him if they had any inside jokes that they could share with me and this is what they said.  

 

Piece:

Subject: At school we had a rainy day one time and  at lunch the teacher wasn’t in our room so the visor lady would check on us sometimes. And, but we wanted to go on our iPods cause we can’t do that with the teacher there. So we had someone stay watch at the window and every time the visor lady would come they would yell “Tweet tweet” and then we’d put all our stuff away for when she’d come in and check. And we’d switch off sometimes on who would watch the window.

Interviewer: That’s really smart. So do you only do it on rainy days?

Subject: We started doing it at lunch and stuff when it’s not raining so that we can go onto our iPods on the playground and stuff.

Interviewer: Have you gotten caught?

Subject: No, not yet. I don’t think we will cuz it’s a pretty good plan, we always know when there’s a teacher or a visor lady around.

 

Analysis:

I think this is a common experience in childhood. Despite the addition of the technological advancement in the iPod, someone’s always delegated to be the lookout for adults on the playground. It’s comforting to know that certain things just don’t change.

 

Folk Beliefs
Legends

California breaking off

My mom, who grew up in Los Angeles, recalls a folk belief from her childhood that California would break off from the US and float away:

“So when I was growing up there would be these periodic panics or rumors that on a certain day, California was gonna break off and float out into the ocean. And I remember being- it would’ve been the year that um, the Elton John song ‘Crocodile Rock’ was out because I can remember listening to that song with [my cousin] Robert–maybe 1971 or something?–and being terrified, knowing that it probably wasn’t going to happen but just having a fear in the back of my mind that maybe there was some truth to this rumor…”

I asked if she remembered where she had heard the rumor first. She said, “well that’s a good question. It certainly wasn’t in the newspaper, it wasn’t like fake news and it wouldn’t have been- we didn’t have the internet, so how did that spread? And it seemed like it was mostly kids who knew it, i mean it wasn’t- adults weren’t, y’know, propagating this rumor. So where it came from, I have no idea. That’s always fascinating to me.”

This piece of folklore falls somewhere between the genres of folk belief and legend. It concerns something frightening that could happen, as many legends do, but it is not a narrative, and is believed to be occurring in the future, rather than the past. It could thus be classified as a “folk rumor” in the same category as conspiracy theories. This folk rumor likely stemmed from the reality of the San Andreas fault and the resulting frequency of earthquakes in Southern California. It spread, particularly among kids, because it seemed plausible and because it fed off of fears about natural disaster.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Going to the wagons

A family friend, Ruth, grew up in a small town outside of Boston that had an unusual 4th of July tradition called “going to the wagons.” The following is a conversation between us about the tradition. “R” is Ruth and “L” is myself.

L: So what is the name of the town you’re from?
R: Dedham, Mass. And this would happen in Oakdale Square.
L: Okay.
R: And so the night before the 4th [of July], late at night, um like, we were young kids so we would go to bed first and our parents would wake us up and we would walk down to Oakdale Square, to take us to the wagons. And we would get there and y’know there’d be a crowd of people and like kids–it was kids I guess–who would roll these burning wooden wagons into the square. [It was called] “going to the wagons.”
L: So they were on- like what do you mean they were on fire?
R: They were burning!
L: Like they had, they were just set ablaze? Like the whole wagon?
R: Yeah!…I think what prompted them to stop this custom was, um, the drugstore windows broke from the heat of the flame, and so they stopped doing it. This was in the ‘50s.

The 4th of July is usually celebrated with fireworks, so in a sense this tradition seems an extension of the pyrotechnic theme present in the holiday. It makes sense that peculiar local traditions surrounding independence day would be most common in the Northeastern United States, particularly around Boston and Philadelphia, as that region was the site of much of the early political history of the U.S. as a nation-state.

Folk speech
Game

“Two Dead Boys” jump rope rhyme

My mom shared the following rhyme, which she learned from her mother, with me:

“One bright day in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A deaf policeman heard the noise, came and killed those two dead boys.”

She says of the rhyme, “I learned it from my mom, and she described it as a jump rope rhyme…double dutch jump roping was very popular for many years in elementary schools. And my mom grew up all over the place, so I don’t know exactly where she got this from. She was born in Atlantic City but she was also raised partly in Biloxi, Mississippi and um, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. So I don’t know where this came from originally but, yeah, she was born in 1928 so it would’ve been from the ’30s.”

My mom jumped rope as a child, but she didn’t use this rhyme for that purpose because it seemed “kind of ghoulish” to her. She says she had jump rope rhymes of her own, but can’t remember any of them as well as she remembers “Two Dead Boys.” I imagine that this particular rhyme stuck with my mom because it is somewhat macabre, and things that frighten or disturb us as children tend to remain in our memories. It is interesting, although not particularly surprising, to me that a piece of folklore used in children’s play would have such dark imagery. Children’s folklore often involves subject matter usually deemed inappropriate for them, but expressed and performed with coded language or, as in this case, with whimsy and humor.

For other variants on this nonsense rhyme, see the British Columbia Folklore Society’s blog entry: http://folklore.bc.ca/one-fine-day-in-the-middle-of-the-night/

Folk Beliefs
Game

Stepping on Cracks

JN is a freshman at USC studying neuroscience. She grew up in the Oak Park neighborhood of Chicago. Here is a superstition from her childhood that she still remembers vividly:
“When I was little, some kids on the playground used to say “step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.” This would mean that, like, when you were walking on the sidewalk, by stepping on any of the cracks or divisions between the sidewalk pieces, you could potentially break your mother’s back. I was super worried about this, so I always made sure to tip-toe over the cracks! Now, I don’t really care anymore because I know it’s just a saying, but on occasion I still make sure not to step on any sidewalk cracks!””

Did you learn it from your other friends? What gender were they? At what age did you learn it?

“I definitely learned it from other friends, probably girls! And I learned it in early elementary school.”

How seriously did you take this superstition? I remember I had friends who followed it religiously!

” I took it VERY seriously, but sometimes I would forget so I would definitely step on some cracks here and there!”

 

My thoughts: This is an interesting piece of folklore since so many people who went to elementary school in the U.S. have heard of it, no matter what part of the country their from. I actually grew up with this folk belief as well and I have an experience with it similar to the informant’s- I learned it from fellow girls on the playground at an elementary school in the suburbs of Chicago! One thing that stands out is how morbid the belief is- children’s folklore often engages with taboo subjects such as violence, as discussed in Oring Chapter 5.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Snow Day Magic Tricks

Informant is a 20 year old college student at the University of Chicago. She is a creative writer, activist, and political science major. She grew up in Highland Park, Illinois with her two parents and two younger brothers.

 

Informant: “So here in Chicago, we have a thing called snow. It actually gets quite cold if you remember.”

Interviewer: “I remember!”

Informant: “Just wanted to remind you since now you live in sunny, always blue-skied, 70 degree Cali. Anyways, there are times that so much snow accumulates that school is canceled. Not very often, but every now and then. Usually ever year, but sometimes just once every two or three years.”

Interviewer: “I totally remember those! They were the best…”

Informant: “They were! Do you remember what we all used to do in the hopes there would be a snow day?”

Interviewer: “Sort of, but not entirely.”

Informant: “Okay, let me refresh your memory. We would put a spoon under our pillow before going to bed—some people put it under their bed, and some people didn’t put a spoon but a fork—and that was supposed to make a snow day happen. But not just out of the blue. IT had to already be pretty snowy, or supposed to snow heavily.”

Interviewer: “Do you remember who told you to do that? Or who told you that worked?”

Informant: “No specific person that I remember. I think we all just sort of knew to do it. Like everyone talked about it working, or having worked.”

 

Thoughts:

I can’t figure why a spoon was the object placed under one’s bed or one’s pillow to conjure a snow day, but I do remember doing this once in the hopes of a snow day. I can’t say for sure if it was my having placed the spoon under my bed or Mother Nature, but we did in fact have school canceled the next day…

I actually googled the practice and found several articles as well as some other ways to conjure snow days! For more snow day “magic,” see http://www.grandhaventribune.com/article/strange-grand-haven/265096.

The notion of “conjuring up snow days”, talked about in the article, brings to mind Voodoo. It’s fascinating that magic or voodoo was so looked down on for so long, and even to an extent is now in the very hyper-scientific society in which we live, but that it holds such an important role for people. This again speaks to belief, and how strong it is despite changing times or new scientific discoveries.

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