USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘cold’
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Vaporub Cures a Cough- A Folk Belief

Main Text:

RB: I was told by my mom that if you put Vaporub on your feet and then cover your feet with socks then your cough is supposed to go away.

Context:

RB is a first generation Mexican-American. He said that he remembers this folk belief because every time when he was little his mom would get the Vaporub and socks and rub the Vaporub on his feet to help him feel better. Miraculously he said it works so that is why he believes in it and says he would tell his kids if he had his own to do the same thing.

Analysis:

Although VapoRub is not proven to cure colds, especially but putting it on one’s feet. Its presence in hispanic folk-medicine that I have encountered is a large one. I hypothesize that this belief continues to be passed down because of the context that it is associated with and not necessarily the affect it has itself. For example, most of the time when you little and you get sick in hispanic culture the mother is the one who takes care of you. If your mother is the one who carries this folk belief and she rubs VapoRub on you, you associate the VapoRub with the caressing and soothing touches of your mother. When someone who has experienced this and then goes on to have children of their own, they may pass this knowledge down to their child and rub VapoRub onto them, not necessarily because they believe that it works but because they associate this process with the gentle care and affection that they had received from their own familial member or whomever performed this act for them.

Another way to analyze why this folk belief is still being passed along and striving is the culture that many hispanic people have built around it. I have grown up around many hispanic people, mostly of Mexican decent, all of my life and am currently in a long-term relationship with someone who is Mexican. Having this background I have realized that Vaporub is used for almost any ailment in a Mexican household, even if there is no proof that it works. This is not limited to y boyfriends household either. I have asked many hispanic people about Vaporub and they all know exactly what I am talking about and even more so they usually have a a jar of it sitting around somewhere in their houses. They have built a culture that they share amongst themeselves because they all share common memories of being smothered head to toe in that stuff since childhood. Most of those who I have talked to also continue to use it to this day because of this shared memory that this is what people of Mexican or other hispanic cultures do. The use of Vaporub in Mexican households is such a common occurrence that the online realm has take hold of this belief and practice and have adapted it into hashtags, published poems, telenovela appearances, memes, emojis and even comedy skits. You can also buy t-shirts, paintings, cards and candles that all contain an appearance of Vaporub. These adaptations into the online realm and buyable objects just work together in order to strengthen the culture that many hispanics share with each other surrounding their common memories and experiences with this “magical” topical ointment. This resulting strengthened culture allows for stories and folk beliefs (like Vaporub and socks during a cold) to continued to be shared from family to family and household to household.

Folk Beliefs
Protection

Wet Hair Outside Superstition

“Leaving the house with wet hair is bad luck.”

Context: The informant is the grandmother to the collector and this spoken superstition occurred naturally during her visit to Los Angeles from Chicago. When the collector was leaving their house with wet hair after taking a shower, the informant remarked on their appearance poorly, by stating that wet hair outside is bad luck. The collector has heard this superstition on multiple occasions from the informant.

Informant Analysis: The informant said that when you get ready to leave the house after taking a shower, you should dry your hair with a blow dryer so that it is not wet outside. Although she did not say she believed it would cause bad things to happen, this little superstition was told to her from an early age. She noted that, while it may not be an omen of bad luck, having wet hair when you go outside is unmannered and sloppy. Every person, according to her, should learn these simple tasks as a child. By making it a superstition, it was her assumption that children would be more likely to listen.

Collector Analysis: Although I am no longer a child, I have heard her say this to me many times. I believe there are three ways to analyze this superstition: its formation, its content, and the speaker’s identity. To begin with its formation, it is interesting that this superstition is perhaps not meant to be viewed as a superstition at all, but a trick played on children. It is often the case that children choose to not follow the command of their parents or grandparents either out of the urge to rebel or the disapproval in the purpose of the command. In many ways, it may be seen as easier to have a child do something if it is not coming from the mouth of the parental figure. In providing a make-belief statement, that wet hair outside is bad luck, the command becomes an implication to act a certain way. The statement itself then sounds like an self-beneficial objective belief rather than a subjective parental belief on what one should do. Furthermore, if the audience of this command is for children, it is perhaps more likely that a child would believe in a superstition and act upon it than an adult would. If a child has greater tendency to believe in superstition, it would only follow that the utilization of superstition would work well in guiding their actions. While the formation of command into superstition changes the meaning completely, we can also look at the substance of the superstition itself– wet hair and outside.

The informant had grown up in New York and had moved to Chicago as an adult. One commonality between these places is that they both have extremely cold winters. Leaving the house with wet hair could be seen as dangerous and ill-advised if there is a greater likelihood of getting sick from the cold by doing it. If we parallel this idea to the common folk belief of putting on more clothes or,  you are going to catch a cold! , there seems to be some similarity between the two pieces of folk speech; specifically, the danger of being needlessly colder than one has to and cold being the cause of sickness.

Lastly, it is very informative to note the relation of the informant to the superstition. The informant was born in 1946 in a Irish Roman Catholic neighborhood where there were strict rules on how one should dress and style themselves. Her family was not wealthy by any means, so there was some emphasis on trying to not appear poor. Part of the not-poor-look was to always leave the house well-dressed with your hair styled and dry. In this time period, perhaps too generally speaking, there was more emphasis on presenting oneself to the world in a mannered way. In this regard, having wet hair when leaving the house was looked upon poorly because it could be mistaken for not having time, money, or self-respect. Today, the code of manners in the United States is much laxer. Wet hair would currently, at most,  connote that an individual took a shower.

Folk medicine
general

Getting a Cold with Wet Hair

Context:

Madeleine Hall is Junior at USC, studying Communications. When I set out to explain folklore to her, for some reason my mind went straight to folk remedies and I gave her several examples of these, and then got into general folk beliefs around sickness. Obviously, my niche explanation led to this piece of folklore she then provided.

Transcript:

Madeleine: There are two parts of it, though. The first part is my Mom used to say that you can’t go outside with your hair wet because you’ll get a cold when it was cold out, or really hot out, doesn’t really matter, you’ll just get a cold. Uhhm, annndd, the other one is that you can’t go to bed with your hair wet, which really makes no sense, uhm, but now I dry my hair before bed every night, because I’m not gonna go to bed with my hair wet.

Interpretation:

This is something I investigated to see if there is any scientific truth to it. It seems that there is no science behind this claim, but I had also heard it before. Many people had, it seems, because after typing only a few words into Google, Google auto filled the rest of my search. Like drinking eight glasses of water a day, or the above wet hair folk belief, many people often hear these things over and over. With the Internet, people can finally seek out their validity.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Sickness & not wearing socks

My friend Justine is Chinese-American, and her parents are doctors who practice holistic Eastern medicine. She shared the following folk belief with me:

“Something that like, my family weirdly believes–and I’m gonna equate this to, like, Eastern medicine or like, myths in Eastern medicine–but my family hates it when I don’t wear socks because they think that if you don’t wear socks, that’s the first like, way you can get a cold. Because like, your feet–and this is true–your feet are like a good signifier of your body temperature, so like, if your feet are cold it means the rest of your body is probably gonna feel cold too. And like, if you are cold you are more susceptible to getting a cold…Also no cold drinks, because it’s like the colder your body is, the more susceptible you are to getting sick.”

Like many folk beliefs and practices in East Asian medicine, this one is not necessarily based in empirical scientific proof, but this does not mean there is no truth to it. Remedies and folk beliefs formerly dismissed as “superstitious” have often been tested and proven effective by the medical/scientific institution, and subsequently incorporated into Western medicine. This belief reflects a general practice in Eastern medicine of focusing on overall bodily wellness rather than quick cures for acute illness.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Finnish Tradition

Main Piece: Finnish Tradition

 

Told to me by my high school friend Mika, about his Finnish grandmother:

 

“On Christmas before dinner Mummi(his grandmother) would sneak off into the forests near their house with her brothers and sisters to go pick wild boysenberries, and explore in the forest.

After picking berries and bringing them back to the house, her brothers and sisters would go into the sauna, then after a short while after getting hot in the sauna they would run out and jump into either the snow or into a freezing cold lake.”

 

 

Background:

 

My friend Mika told me this story after I had first met his grandmother Mummi, and she had a very heavy accent so I asked where she was from. He told me that her and her husband were born and raised in Finland, so he went on to tell me some stories that she had passed down to him.

He particularly likes this story because he grew up in southern California where his house was surrounded by other houses, and the weather rarely dropped below 65. We have been friends since elementary school, and in the winter we used to go in his sauna when it was freezing cold out and after we got too hot we would run out and jump into his freezing (most likely 60 degree) pool, and cool off. I never really thought anything of this, just thinking it was something we did when we were bored and hanging out. But Mika did this because of what his grandmother had told him about when she was a kid.

 

Context:

 

Mika was first told this story during one of his family gatherings at Christmas time. Mummi told this story when they were all sitting down at dinner as a way to pass on her heritage to her grandchildren. That was another tradition that Mika told me had been in his family for many years, where they would have Christmas dinner with extended family, having grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins all for a large feast.

There isn’t much other context this sort of tradition would be passed on in, other than if you were in Finland and were attending their family Christmas. This may not necessarily a country wide tradition, but it is something unique to their family given where Mika’s grandmother was raised.

 

My thoughts:

 

I think this a pretty interesting tradition as it is very specific to the location and climate where Mummi grew up. It seems like something only the children would really do, as getting your body hot then jumping into something freezing cold to cool you off seems like a bad idea. My family has a Christmas tradition of watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation every Christmas eve, and I like to think this is a lot like that .

Adulthood
Legends
Narrative

A Ghost in Grass Valley

Informant JM is 58 years old and recounted the story of a paranormal encounter she experienced ~10 years ago:

Have you ever experienced anything that you would consider to be of supernatural origins?

“Only once. Never before and never since but I will always remember that night”

So what happened?

“Well I was in my room getting ready for bed. All of a sudden I felt the room grow eerily cold. I thought it was a bit odd but continued to undress and sat on the bed to take off my socks. Upon doing so I felt the cold presence to my immediate right and upon turning saw, *shivers* wow this gives me chills just thinking about it. I saw a depression in the bed next to me as if someone were sitting next to me. Not knowing the intentions of this spirit I yelled at the top of my lungs ‘Go! Get out! Be gone with you!!’ and closed my eyes. After a moment or two I felt the cold dissipate and upon opening my eyes saw the depression was no longer there.”

Did your opinion regarding the existence of the paranormal changed after this experience?

“Well prior to this encounter I’d say I believed that ghosts existed sure, but having never experienced an encounter first hand and not knowing any immediate family or friends that had, I was certainly a bit skeptical. After that experience, I know now without a shred of doubt that ghosts or some form of spirit form definite exist. I cannot think of a single other rational explanation for what I experienced that night.”

What context would you share your experience in?

“At first, I shared it with literally anyone that would listen. I was equal parts excited and terrified by what I had experienced. In the years since though I only tend to bring it up when someone asks about my ghost encounter or the conversation shifts towards the talk of ghosts. ”

How did people react to your experience?  

“People tend to get pretty freaked out by it. They sometimes ask whether I thought it was going to harm he. Now I am not sure what the intentions of this spirit were, but be they benign or malignant the coldness of its presence definitely gave me an uneasy feeling leading to my prompt response of telling it to leave”

 

Analysis: This story possesses a couple motifs common to ghost stories. One such example is that it occurs at night. Another aspect of this story common to several stories I’ve read or been told is the association of the presence of a ghost with coldness. A unique aspect of this story is that the ghost in no way made itself directly heard or seen; it was only because of the drop in temperature and the depression it left in the bed that JM was even aware of its presence. The ghost itself was not visible or audible. While neither JM or anyone else would be able to determine the intentions of the ghost, be they simple curiosity or something more malicious, the fact that it reacted to her yells for it to leave is another interesting component of this particular encounter.

Legends
Narrative

Bay Area Ghost Story

Informant EB is 52 years old and recounted the story of a paranormal encounter he experienced last fall:

Have you ever experienced anything that you would consider to be of supernatural origins?

“As a matter of fact, I have. First some backstory. When my wife and I were purchasing our home we were told by the realtor that the prior owner, a contractor who had built the house himself,  had committed suicide along the side of the house due to financial difficulties and his wife leaving him. Early last November, a day or two after Halloween, I was walking my aging dog whose hips are starting to fail around the walkway surrounding our property in order to avoid her straining herself by climbing up the stairs inside. Upon rounding a corner, which due to tree cover and a lack of windows on that side of the house was submerged in near complete darkness,  I saw, for only a split-second, what could only be described as a face come rushing at me before passing right through sending a curdling chill down my spine. My dog started barking incessantly and I, obviously shake, continued on into the light of the front of the house and inside.”

Did your opinion regarding the existence of the paranormal changed after this experience?

“Yeah I’d say so. I wouldn’t say I didn’t believe in the paranormal prior to this experience but having never had any personal encounters I definitely had my fair share of doubts. I’definitely say this experience has solidified my belief in the existence of the supernatural to some extent.”

What context would you share your experience in?

“I have told several people in the month since. Whenever talk of ghosts has come up in conversation I’ve brought it up.”

How did people react to your experience?  

“A mixture of fear and skepticism. I would be skeptical too had I not been the one to experience it. ”

 

Analysis: The story took place “a day or two after Halloween” meaning it quite likely could have fallen on November 2nd, which is also All Souls Day. All Souls Day is a day on which the Catholic Church remembers those dead that are now in Purgatory being cleansed of their venial sins and carrying out the temporal punishments for their mortal sins. November 1st or 2nd is also a part of the three days of Day of the Dead festivities popular in Hispanic cultures during which the souls of ancestors are remembered and are believed to return from the dead to visit their living relatives. As such the soul of a man who had died via the mortal sin of suicide would, according to the catholic doctrine and Hispanic customs be more likely to appear during this time frame. A motif common to many ghost stories and which also appears in this story is its occurrence in a liminal location, the property line between the former homeowner’s property and that of his neighbors.

Folk Beliefs
Narrative

Math Classroom Ghost

Information about the Informant

My informant is an English teacher at a high school in Southern California, and has been teaching for over twenty-five years. She has been featured as an Influential Teacher of the Month within the last five years, and has received great reviews and praise from her former students as a teacher who cares about and motivates her students to succeed. I met her next to Tommy Trojan when she brought her class to USC campus on a college visit and she gave me this school ghost story in the short time before she had to collect her class.

Transcript

“I teach at the oldest high school in [school name and location removed]. And there is a common story that, um, circulates. And that is that one of the math classes is haunted. And so everyone goes in, I–usually on a Thursday morning, and you can note the differences in air temperature. Um, on a Thursday morning, you can, at any other time, on any other day. So, we really believe that something is going on in that school, or in that room, or something occurred there that–and that is an ongoing reminder to us that something negative occurred in there, because it’s always cold.”

Collector: “Is there any, like, theory as to what it might be?”

“From my kids? No, we’ve no theory. We have no idea because we cannot, um, there’s no accounting of anything had ever happened in there. So it could be that prior to the building being built, that some violent occurrence was there. Maybe, you know, some, uh, early settlers or maybe some of the indigenous people, or something like that that was in–that was, gave that piece of land or that little area kind of a negative quality.”

Analysis

When asked how this possibly haunted classroom affected people at the school, whether staff members or students, my informant told me that all it seemed to do was reaffirm the beliefs that the students or staff members already had. For those students (and possibly members of the staff) who already believed in an afterlife that included ghosts or some sort of spiritual remnant left in the world after death, the story “gives credence” to that belief. But for those who did not believe in ghosts, they simply believed the unnatural cold was due to “wind pattern or something.”

This is an interesting example as it’s an instance of a ghost story where there is no actual ghost, but merely an unnatural phenomenon that could easily be attributed to a natural cause. It’s interesting to observe because, rather than attribute the cold to a problem with the cooling system or weather patterns, it seems like people at the school are more than willing to try to find a “supernatural” explanation for the cold, even undertaking, it sounds like, research into the history of the school to find out if anything violent had ever occurred on the school’s property. It’s an interesting example because it provides a look at how an experience may turn into a memorate, the process by which an experience can become a memorate, where the experience is something strange but explainable and those involved instead search for a way to incorporate it into the genre of ghost stories, using the tropes about ghost stories that they already know (e.g. that if there is a ghost, there must have been some violent incident in the past; that settlers or indigenous people may have cursed the ground long ago).

Childhood
Customs
Life cycle

Blue Bend Cold Water Jump

Item:

Me: “So was this like the big ‘you’re a man now’ moment or something?”

Informant: “Not quite that but, I guess, it definitely was a change and I felt like I was considered older by my parents because I was allowed to do it.”

The informant’s family participates in a tradition at a river camp named Blue Bend in West Virginia. Years ago, the informant’s father’s family began visiting the location. In the winter, the river isn’t frozen over but is brutally cold. At one point, the kids (including the informant’s father) noticed people would jump into the near-frozen water of the river. This was taken as a challenge, and became a tradition to do so once every trip up there. Over time, this expanded into excursions with many families going up during the cold season and jumping into the water at least once.

 

Context:

The informant began going with his family at at young age to the location. But only upon reaching a certain age was he allowed to jump into the river, since it’s a little dangerous to jump into an ice cold, moving body of water as a child. His first time was like a rite of passage. In subsequent trips, it simply became a personal challenge that also connected him with the other people subjecting themselves to the frigid water.

 

Analysis:

It’s interesting to see an event or tradition that serves a dual purpose of being somewhat of a rite of passage but also a yearly act by everyone involved who has passed that period. Perhaps it’s like “going on the hunt” for the first time. In any case, the deliberate discomfort of jumping into cold water is a moment a lot of families have come to look forward to in this tradition. It’s also pretty fascinating that it did start with kids, but now kids have to be a certain age – likely older than the originals – to participate.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Beware of the Cold

Click here for video.
“So other things that my parents told me about like cold being bad for you is that when I get out of the shower, I should dry my hair otherwise the cold will give me like, headaches when I grow up. And I shouldn’t work out in like a really air conditioned or cold environment, because I’m going to get sick and not like cold sick but like lifelong illness and pains. So yeah, that’s what they told me.”

The informant’s parents are Taiwanese. My parents would tell me things similar to this all the time. It seems like Taiwanese people have a lot of problems with the cold. Since air conditioning is a relatively new invention, the fear of air conditioning is reflective of the suspicious attitude towards new things that many older Taiwanese people hold. Even in the United States, many parents tell their children to dress warmly to prevent them from catching a cold. However, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that cold temperatures have little to do with illness and colds. There is no causal relationship. So how did this association between cold and illness come about?

A professor at USC studying alternative health beliefs explained to me how, based on her research, the belief came to be. Long ago, before modern medicine and the advanced understanding of disease we have today, lower class citizens often lived in squalor, had poor nutrition, and did not have the resources to keep warm. Due to compromised immune systems from malnutrition coupled with poor sanitation, diseases spread quickly through these perpetually cold populations and eventually being cold became tied to illness.

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