KM is a third-generation Japanese-American from Los Angeles, CA. She now lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband and 18-year-old son.
KM was raised in a Christian household, where her family said “grace” before dinner every night:
“I have four siblings and we always ate dinner together with our parents. We’d sit around this big round table and every night, we would take turns saying grace before eating…we were supposed to come up with something original, like something that had to do with the day or different events going on in our lives, but usually my siblings just defaulted to ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” I always tried to have an interesting one, but I think everyone else just wanted to eat.”
I asked KH if she still says grace in her family, or if she and her siblings carried their religious traditions on in their new nuclear families:
“Ultimately I was unsuccessful in getting my kids to go to church. My husband grew up in a Catholic family and now wants nothing to do with the church, and I couldn’t get my kids to show much interest either. I don’t think anyone else in my family still goes to church…except my parents. They’ve been going to the same church since they met.”
Religion is one of those things that can either define a family, or be irreconcilable when two families come together. In KH’s case, religion’s importance started to waver amongst her and her siblings, despite the traditions of their parents. The “grace” prayer in her family shows one generation trying to pass on their beliefs through a ritual, and the next generation participating half-heartedly, or just to please authority. Eventually as they started their own families, her siblings decided the tradition wasn’t particularly important to them, and refrained from instilling it in their own family. More broadly it seems to symbolize the diminishing importance of their religion, and maybe a certain progressive movement amongst families to not force it on their children.
The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:
“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.
It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”
Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?
“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”
My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.
“Whenever I’m tired or have a hard practice I be like, “Jesus be a fence” like be my strength…or before a hard test…or just when I have a lot to do and I need Jesus to be a fence, that’s like when I say it so…pretty much every day! Or like, “Oh Lord stop me from doing somthin wrong…” like if I’m feelin temptation…it goes from simple to extreme.”
Analysis: As a Christian, my informant looks to Jesus as a source of inspiration and fortitude in all aspects of her life. The proverb is laid out in a metaphor in which the speaker literally asks Jesus to hold them up or provide support like a fence. The proverb can be used in many different situations as a means of conveying momentary weakness and a desire for divine intervention on behalf of the speaker.
Although it is mostly used in serious scenarios or during times of legitimate distress, the phrase can also be used in a more humorous setting depending on the scenario. For example if someone was on a diet and saw a donut in a shop window they might use the proverb as a means of conveying their desire to restrain from eating the donut and their need for divine intervention to help them do so.
My informant is a USC student from Wyoming. She is a Christian and her grandmother was a strict Catholic, so many of the things she learned from her mother and grandmother had tied to Christianity and the doctrines of the bible.
“Do unto others as you would do unto yourself”
“My mom taught me that. And basically it means just treat other people how you would want to be treated. So you don’t want someone to be mean to you then you shouldn’t put out like, bad vibes cause then your Karma’s gonna come back and someone’s gonna be really mean to you. But if you’re nice–if you’re nice to everybody then hopefully somewhere somebody’s gonna be nice to you, even though i dunno, people aren’t very nice but if you just like, put good vibes out in the world it’ll be good! And you’ll be good! So just treat people how you want to be treated.”
Analysis: This was a proverb that my informant learned from her parent. Often times some of the most important lessons that we learn come from things that our parents tell us as children growing up. In this case the proverb reflects my informants religious and personal values, as she mentioned that in the bible one of the principles that is expressed is to treat others with kindness. The spread of this proverb within the family from parent to child demonstrates the nature of folklore and the natural affinity for people to share beliefs important to them with other members of their family as a means of maintaining collective views within that family.
“Well, so my mom used to complain about how big my feet were for someone so small, and my grandmother would tell me that, ‘The good Lord put a strong foundation on precious things.’ . . . So that was the saying that made me feel better.”
The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up. The informant learned this proverb from her grandmother (known in the family as Me-Ma) and the informant thinks she learned it from her own mother (the informant’s great grandmother).
The informant says that her grandmother used this saying “in that moment because I was feeling bad about how big my feet were and it made me feel special.” She thinks it means “that you should be happy with what you have and things will change and you will be fine. At least someone’s looking out for you ahead of time and you don’t even know.”
This proverb sounds right in line with the things that would be said among that side of the family. What I mean by this is that my mother learned a lot of similar sayings that sound like they might come from the Bible, but actually do not. The reason for this might be that religion was a really important authority in this group of people, and making something sound like it is entrenched in that way of thinking gives it legitimacy, even if it’s something silly. Additionally, it is interesting that such a strong proverb was used to make a little girl feel better about her big feet. This might be because a child would be more likely to believe something, even if that something was as substantial that she should accept her herself, if it came more formally phrased.
I was wandering down the main street of Lahaina, HI, when I saw two people weaving coconut palm fronds into fish, roses, and a couple of other designs. I stopped and asked the young woman about palm frond weaving.
Me: These are really neat. Where did you learn how to weave palm fronds?
Informant: From my friend.
Me: Where did your friend learn, and why do you do it?
Informant: He learned in the Caribbean. Apparently it was a common art form there. Here, we do it for fun, mainly. And for the tourists.
Me: Do you know how palm frond weaving originally began? And why the fish, the roses, and the crosses?
Informant: I don’t know exactly, but apparently weaving palm fronds has roots in Christianity. You know, Palm Sunday?
Me: Oh? That would make some sense, I suppose. Given how palm fronds are associated with Palm Sunday, I can see how weaving palms became a tradition.
Informant: Yeah. Though it is not solely a Christian tradition. It is simply associated with Easter and Palm Sunday the most, which is why most of the designs that are woven are crosses – the most recognizable symbol of Christianity, especially during Easter, doves – a symbol for peace, hope, and the Holy Spirit, and the fish – which became a symbol of Christianity during the days that Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire.
Me: Ah. Interesting. And the roses?
Informant: That is not so much religious roots as it is more to express gratitude, or to be given to someone who has lost a loved one. You know, like how you would give flowers to someone as a gift? Palm frond roses are essentially the same.
Me: Okay. Makes sense, as roses do not have as much of a symbolism in Christianity, especially around Palm Sunday, as some of the other designs do. So how widespread is palm frond weaving?
Informant: People all over the world do it, as it has become a Christian tradition, as due to the European explorers and colonization, Christianity has been spread worldwide. Though my friend and I don’t do it so much for the religious aspects.
Me: Interesting. Well, thank you for talking with me.
Informant: You’re welcome, and I hope you do well.
I find it to be incredibly interesting that palm frond weaving has become a Christian tradition. Until this interview, I had never known of this Easter and Palm Sunday tradition. Palm Sunday celebrates the day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. As he was entering the city, the people laid palm fronds down in front of him. To me, this practice of weaving palm fronds on Palm Sunday is rather like a kind of magic – using the palm fronds at that time and weaving them into such shapes is a kind of ritual that helps to connect the practitioner with his/her faith, as Easter is the most important holiday for Christians no matter their denomination. The cross is almost like a talisman, a reminder of how Jesus was welcomed into the city and how he was betrayed and killed not a week later. The dove is often a symbol of hope and peace, such as what Christ’s resurrection offers to Christians. The fish is a reminder of the persecution that the early Christians suffered as their Messiah suffered under the Roman Empire.
“My dad grew up in a very strict Roman Catholic family. His mom was from Italy, from a city near Rome, very strict. And so every good Friday from 12-3 (which is supposedly the time when Jesus was on the cross), she made my dad sit in his room and think about Jesus’ suffering. Until Jesus was ‘off the cross’ and he could come out of his room. But he spared me that. But apparently, she had done that—her mother had done that to her, her mother had done that to her, and so forth. Not praying, just thinking about Jesus’s suffering and sacrifice for three hours. It went way back.”
Good Friday is the day that, according to Christians, Jesus was crucified and thus made his sacrifice to save humanity. This ritual was presumably meant to focus devotion and think about what Jesus had done for mankind, to try and understand the value of his sacrifice. Rather than praying, which could easily just be beseeching at that age, this tradition could mean to honor the suffering and the actions of Jesus, hopefully inspiring piety and good behavior thanks to the contemplation of such immense suffering. It is significant that it was meant to occur at apparently the same time that Jesus was on the cross so many centuries ago; such a thing would make the exercise more meaningful (homeopathic magic), possibly inspiring the person who is thinking about the suffering to be as brave or as compassionate as Jesus.
Two students decided to go to a parson and tell him a story so outrageous that he’d pay them just to keep it quiet.
The first student went to the parson and related two strange events that he’d just heard about. The first was that God in Heaven had died, and the second was that the Sea of Galilee had caught fire and burned. The parson refused to believe him. Late, the second student went to see the parson, who asked him if he’d heard these stranger rumors: Could God in Heaven be really dead, and the Sea of Galilee burned to a crisp?
“Well,” said the second student, “I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I’m sure it’s true. When I was in Nazareth a few days ago, the entire marketplace was filled with fried fish, and the angels were buying up all the black cloth in town for mourning clothes.”
The parson gave them both a large sum of money so that they wouldn’t pass on this news on; otherwise, he’d never be able to preach again.
This Swedish folktale employs humor to criticize the Church in multiple ways. The characters in the story have no qualms with conning the Church and more importantly, they know exactly how to do so, thus insisting that authorities in religion are dimwitted, corrupted, and unfaithful themselves. The parson believes quite easily that God is dead and the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel, has burned, and then bribes the students not to say a word so he can keep his position. In other words, even the parson here admits here that Christianity is more of a scam, only functioning as a power when there are enough people faithful, or stupid in this case, to believe in it.
The tale celebrates the cleverness of the students, a major theme in many Swedish folktales, and openly points out the flaws of the Church. After all,Swedenwas converted relatively late to Christianity, around 1000 AD. It stands to reason that the people would be aware of the corruptible sides of the Church after having such a long history with Pagan religion and culture.
Though “The Burning Lake” is a märchen, this one does not seem to be particularly aimed at children. The humor in this story would be more understood by adults; however, young people who read or heard the tale would pick up on the value of cleverness and perhaps some of the flaws of blindly believing in religion.
Blecher, Lone Thygesen and Blecher, George. Swedish Folktales and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Print.
I recall participating in a festival just once many years ago, as a child, in Whitehall, New York, with my paternal family. Apparently, this traditional celebration on July 16 has been part of their tradition since my great grandparents immigrated to the United States. My informant said, “One of the greatest traditions that Italians brought with them was the establishment of the ‘Sons of Italy Society’ which all young men enrolled in. They continued to foster all the customs and activities from their heritage.” In particular, she described a parade that was part of the event, calling it one of the “proudest achievements” of the society. Marching through the village of Whitehall, people of all ages in the Italian community took part in the parade, which included bands and floats. My informant also mentioned other festivities associated with the July 16 event. “In the evening a band concert was held. Ethnic food was sold in various booths in an open field.” She recalled her favorite part of the event being the grand display of fireworks that was held in the late hours. She said, “It was the culmination of all working together to bring the best entertainment to all the folks in Whitehall and all the nearby communities.”
My informant associated this event with a certain Mass that was held on that day, but gave no other detail other than that it was a “solemn Mass” and that it was conducted by three priests and celebrated by three generations of family. More details about this celebration, its origins, and its association to the religious calendar can be found in a report from another informant on this same event, and in the annotation.
My aunt also participated in the July 16 festival (mentioned in the previous report) growing up. Her slightly differing recollections that may illustrate changes that were made over the years, or perhaps are just details that my great aunt forgot or left out. My informant, my aunt, also provided some information on the festival’s name and association with the Catholic church.
According to her, the festival was a three-day event, from July 14 – 16, called the Tritium. The church conducted a special service and benediction at night on the fourteenth and fifteenth, and on the third day everyone celebrated a feast called the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. My aunt said there were two bazaars during the Tritium when she was growing up. The first occurred on the fifteenth, and included food, fireworks, and a concert band. The second bazaar, celebrated in Mt. Carmel field in Whitehall, was a town-wide event and was more extravagant than the more local festival on the fifteenth. According to my informant, my great grandparents cooked and served hot dogs and sausage and my grandfather served beer at the event. There were other activities and games such as roulette, as well, and everyone wore costumes. Like my other informant, my aunt also called the eleven o’clock fireworks “the highlight of the summer.” My family (great grandfather in particular) also used the event to collect donations for a charity, the Mount Carmel Society.
The New Advent Organization’s Catholic Encyclopedia (article by Frederick G. Holweck:(http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/index.html) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10604b.htm) gives a detailed account of the history of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The holiday was originally established in the late fourteenth century to honor the victory of the Carmelite sect over an enemy sect. Throughout the years, it eventually came to be accepted as a holiday universally throughout the Catholic church.
Blood is only one aspect of ethnicity. People groups are held together by many factors, including language, lore, and religion. This religious festival helped to define and preserve an ethnic group in their new location. As many Italian immigrants were Catholic in the nineteenth century (and continue to be), celebrating their Catholicism also helped to affirm their identity as the Italian-American community.