Content and Context:
Informant -“I remember my mother did this several times. At the Christmas meal, my mother would set an extra seat and an extra place setting. Now the tradition is in case someone shows up, but I always associated it with the people who weren’t with us. That’s how I like to think of it.”
JK – “The people who aren’t with us. Does that mean people who have died or people who just aren’t there?”
Informant – “Either way. When I say prayers at home now, I always add that I ask god to take care of those who aren’t with us. That means your dead grandparents and those who are away.”
JK – “Did the Christmas tradition lead to this added prayer?”
Informant – “Maybe the thought did. Not consciously. It just seemed to me that our meals couldn’t possible be complete without recognizing the absence of those who couldn’t possibly be there.”
It’s interesting that the informant did not carry the tradition forward, but rather his interpretation of the ritual. While his mother wanted to be prepared for unexpected guests, the informant wanted a reminder of guests that weren’t coming.
Informant Info: The informantis a 22-year-old male who was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and comes from a Catholic family. He currently is a senior at USC and is very into half-marathon and marathon racing.
Interviewer: Growing up, did you have any big holiday traditions?
Interviewee: I would say my mom is the biggest proponent of like keeping the traditions strong in our family. I would also say that Christmas is definitely the one that has most traditions surrounding it. When I was a kid we had ones that would be like kind of like silly now. We would we all do the mass on Christmas Eve together to a Catholic Mass. Before that we always went off to a nice dinner. And at that point nice was Olive Garden for me. So that’s what I though was a nice dinner (laughter). That was a joy. But I think later on I realized that Olive Garden was not indeed a nice dinner, so we changed it up a little bit. But up until I was probably in like the seventh or eighth grade, I uh – We did that as a tradition. So, would go out, we’d have the same waitress at the Olive Garden and we’d have our same meals. I would always order the same thing you know like a fettuccine alfredo and a raspberry lemonade. I remember that very clearly. And then after that I would go to Mass. I think it used to be at 10:00. And then we come home, and we do our little rituals….we had a very set routine before we go to bed on Christmas Eve. We would come around, my mom would have the cookies that she would have out, uhh she’d bring a variety of cookies into the living room and then be laid and
we would each have one or two of those. And then we would read a book. So, we’d have like a massive stack of Christmas books in our living room. And you choose two to three for people to read and at that everyone would be getting pretty tired, so my mom would usually read it and we kind of like were falling asleep. But before that we actually would write a letter to Santa. So, one interesting thing about my parents is that they still will not openly admit that there is no Santa. So even though it’s all kind of like tongue and cheek at this point… Like it’s a bit silly that we still have to write a letter to Santa even though you know as the youngest I’m 22 years old and so that’s kind of like I would say had an example of like the emphasis my mom has on tradition. And so we always write a letter to Santa and maybe cookies and a beer at this point. Uh and so, in the morning, Santa has written back and has eaten the cookies and has drank some of the beer as well. But then in the evening what we do is we have the cookies then we have my mom read the story and then we write a letter to Santa and then we open one present. When I was a kid that was like what I really looked forward to and now as the presents dwindle underneath the tree…We’re like kind of like “Well I really don’t need to because that’d be opening like half of my presents under the tree!”
So we still most of that, I still have like that tradition of it. And then we go to bed. Usually right around midnight. When I was a kid I would always try and stay up as late as I could, as always, and try and listen for Santa coming in. And now I’m like just like a homebody. So I’m like already so exhausted and like “I’m going to sleep, I’ll get up in the morning” and then I would say like in the morning it always would be I would be the first one up. So I would be because I was young as I was usually the one to get up and like my brothers and sisters who are teenagers they would sleep in later. I would always get up and I would try and run to the kitchen and my parents would get up and grab me and not let them go in there quite yet because whenever we wanted to open our presents or see our stuff from Santa we would always have to be there together so I would just sit in parents room and I’d be like sitting from 6:30 to 8 just waiting for everyone to get up and it was the longest hour of my life. Eventually it’d get later and later the older we got.
Anyways, then we would go into the living room together and our presents from Santa wouldn’t be wrapped, they’d be in or by our stocking, so we’d go and see if we got what we wanted and them we went. Then all the other presents would be wrapped so we would do our Santa stuff at first and then my mom would start making breakfast and she’d made most of breakfast the day before. We have really big, really big breakfast with like a casserole and bacon and grapefruit and cinnamon rolls and stuff like that. And that’s something I always look forward to and it was like the calm before the storm of seeing what our Santa presents were and opening the wrapped presents. Instead of just going in and ripping them open, my mom always made sure we had always taken turns, or all had one at a time to open. Afterwards, she’d make sure you wrote thank you notes afterwards. When I was a kid, I was kind of impatient but now I appreciate it. So that was like when I was a kid and those were my habits and traditions. As I’ve gotten older, they’ve changed and adapted slightly but not by much.
The informant’s family Christmas seems to be a very traditional American and Catholic Christmas. On a religious level, it is one of the most important holidays, and he holds Christmas Mass to be very dear to him. On the other end of the spectrum, it seems extremely traditional in terms of it being a time that the family can be very close together. His family traditions of having a large Christmas eve dinner, opening one present at a time, and having a large meal on Christmas align with my own family’s traditions and shares similarities with many other Christmas collections.
My informant was telling me about some customs his family in New Jersey celebrates, and he seemed particularly fond of early Sunday dinners at 2pm.
Informant: “Every Sunday you eat dinner at like 2pm, and you have like a really big dinner that someone cooks. And you always have bread at the table, salad, pasta, and your whole family is expected to be there.”
Collector: “And then you wouldn’t have dinner after that?”
Informant: “Yeah, it was really dumb, like ‘why are we eating dinner right now?’… Italians really like to cook, and when they have a guest, they always try to feed them”
When I asked the informer if he knew why his family chose to do early dinner at 2pm instead of just a regular large dinner at the “normal” dinner time around 6pm, he was unable to recall how this tradition started. My personal hypothesis is that it’s a way for the Italian side of his family to reconnect to their European roots, since many European cultures eat a large meal at around 2pm, and then dinner is typically late at night, around 10pm or so. However, a 10pm dinner would probably be too out of the ordinary for this Americanized family to handle, so they just chose to stick to an easier option, of having a large family meal at 2pm.
My informant is a USC student and member of a sorority at the University. She is bi-racial of black and Caucasian ancestry.
“In my sorority we have Monday night dinners every Monday night and all the girls are required to go, and then afterwards we have these sorority meetings to talk about things we need to do that week or what’s up for the next week, stuff like that. A persona chef comes and cooks and everyone is required to be there. You just don’t miss. You don’t.”
Analysis: The prevalence of Monday night dinner within sorority culture signifies a collective bond between the girls in the sorority to one another and to their house. I think that its interesting that there is an unspoken law that everyone has to be at Monday night dinner. When I asked if someone could miss she just replied that you “just don’t”. Although there isn’t a spoken reason for it, all of the girls know and accept that it is unacceptable to simply “miss” Monday night dinner. The rituals within sorority houses on occasion are reminiscent of cult behavior, where many people follow a doctrine or a ritual not because there is a justified reasoning behind it, but because everyone else is doing it, or the leader has said that it needs to be done, which can seem slightly off putting for people who are not immersed in of familiar with sorority culture or values.
“You don’t ever pass salt. It has to go down [demonstrates placing a salt shaker down on the table], you never pass salt . . . That’s a pretty common one. Like if I have, if this is salt, you know like, ‘Oh, pass the salt,’ never pass the salt to someone that you love! You put it down, they pick it up. You can pass pepper, that’s fine, but you never, ever pass salt. Big no.” I asked the informant why she did this and she said, “The passing salt thing? That’s, like, a death sentence, like why would you do that? You, it means you want to, like, cut ties with someone, if you pass them salt. And if you do that and it happens, that’s when you do the salt over your left shoulder, I believe. I never do it, so I don’t have to do that.”
The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” She said she learned this practice from her mother, but also said she thinks most of the superstitions her family practices come from Romania because her great great great grandmother was “the Romanian town palm reader and she read tea leaves and, like, they were a very mystical family.” When I asked her further about why she thinks this was, she said, “Because they were poor, that’s probably why. Because they had nothing. And the pogroms were going on that were attacking the Jews, so stuff like that . . .”
I had a long conversation with the informant about superstitions in her family, but it was during her description of this one that she became the most animated and emphatic. It struck me as interesting because she also thought of this practice as being extremely commonplace and straightforward, so much so that she could not believe I would ask why she performed it. It was also interesting that she connected this practice to the one of throwing salt over your left shoulder. The latter is well known to me, although usually in the context of what you do after you spill salt. I do not know why the informant sees this practice as meaning you want to “cut ties with someone” or “death,” but it seems like a trend that salt is involved in important superstitious practices. This could have something to do with salt being an important commodity in a European historical context, or with the fact that it can be used to cure meat and keep food for long periods of time, making it valuable. Since the informant never passes the salt and so never has to throw salt over her left shoulder, it is very possible that she mixed the latter practice up with another. However, the important thing in this context is that it is exactly what she would do were she ever to pass the salt.
I agree with the informant that doing things like this to avoid “bad juju” probably has something to do with the performer feeling a lack of control over forces bigger than humanity, such as death. This would make sense in the face of large-scale discrimination and genocide, as occurred in the pogroms. When you are reminded that death could come for you at any moment, it is comforting to think the performance of small actions such as this could help keep you safe.
“The other thing I remember is my grandmother on my dad’s side, when we would go eat dinner with them, well first of all it was called ‘supper.’ ‘Dinner’ is lunch and ‘supper’ is supper and there would always be at least three meat dishes on the table. So you’d always have, like, venison, there was always fried fish, and there was usually like ham or a roast as the third meat. And then for dessert there were always at least three choices for dessert. And the saying was, ‘You have to clean your plate.’ So . . . yeah, I never felt that great after eating there. So full. But ‘you have to clean your plate.’ If you put it on your plate, you have to eat it. So then you just learn to put less on your plate, unless you’re just gonna make yourself eat it. You can’t throw anything away.”
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. She learned it from both of her grandmothers who “both grew up in the Great Depression and during the war when there wasn’t a lot of, when they used coupons to get their food.” She thinks this proverb is “about not wasting any food. And they didn’t have iceboxes, or well they had iceboxes which didn’t keep the food as well.”
I included the details about central Texas supper because it struck me as interesting and unusual that there always had to be three different kinds of meat on the table. I have no idea why this might have been, but it seems like it was a pretty hard and fast rule. I also thought it was interesting that different people refer to different meals differently, even if they reside in the same country. I agree with the informant that “Clean your plate” is probably related to the time period in which the two women grew up. In addition to there being the Great Depression and WWII, food was generally less abundant in all times before this one. I have often heard this saying in American households and I think it reflects the negative attitude most people have towards wasting food.
Informant “J” is a 19 year male old college student at the University of Southern California, he is studying Neuroscience and is a Sophomore at the time of this interview. He was born in Danville, California to a Jewish father and as a result J has regular exposure to Jewish traditions and customs. Though he does involve himself with Jewish traditions, he does not practice Judaism and considers himself non-religious.
“J: One thing my family and I like to do during our Passover Seders is that we have this, at the end of the Seder, we have this dinner and we all like to sing our own song which is called “The Fishman Seder” song, I don’t know exactly how it goes, because we have always had the sheet but it started…
“Wouldn’t it be greater than to be at Fishman Seder, or a Fishman Seder on Meeesssaaa ” (audio attached)
J: And it’s really fun and we’d pound the table and everything and it’s just something that we’d do after every single Seder dinner, which we like to have a lot of our, a lot of our kind of traditions, based on a kind of Jewish Holidays. Granted we tend to go off of my Mom’s religion, we tend to go off Protestant, but a lot of the things we do as families we do during Hanukkah or Passover.
Me: Alright… um, the Fishman song, do your Grandparents, or do any other previous generations sing that, or did you guys originate that?
J: So I think it was actually my Grandparents who came up with it, beacuse the first time we sung it, it was with our Grandparents and they pulled out a piece of paper and they said “we came up with this new song”. They came up with it with my uncle and aunt as well. They all liked it so they were the first Fishman to sing the song.
Me: How long ago was that?
J: I don’t know, before I was born I know.
Me: Do you guys sing it when your Grandparents aren’t around?
J: No it’s sort of only when we’re all together, not unless they’re at Seder with us.”
Although “J” informs me that the tune is a familiar one and not a Fishman original, I am not sure of the origin of the song. I welcome anyone with any idea where the tune might be from (from the audio clip above) to comment on this posting. The Fishman Seder song seems to act as a celebration of the family as a whole, and acts as a way to celebrate being part of the Fishman family (“…be greater than to be at Fishman Seder”) as well as their coming together. The family working to build the tune together, as “J” mentions happened before he was born, as well as the families continued insistence to sing the song during Jewish Seder supports this conclusion. As Seder is a Jewish Passover tradition, and as the family is unified during this event, it can help to both reinforce their Jewish identity and its connection to their shared experience as a Family.
As the event is sung at the end of Seder, it may also act to transition from one Passover event to another, or to transition into the end of the evening. Either way the event seems to act to transition during a liminal period of the event while also reinforcing the sense of community the Seder dinner builds, as if to sort of epitomize the event they are concluding.
I gathered this piece from my friend who comes from a very Italian family. Her parents family’s are both from Naples, her mom’s side is from Mirabella and her dad’s side is from Benevento. Even though her parents weren’t born in Italy, Italian culture is still very important in their family, and keeping up traditions such as this Christmas Eve dinner are very important to her parents, especially her father.
“I come from a very Italian background. My paternal grandmother was born in Italy and then came here, so my father is first-generation. My mother’s grandparents were from Italy…so they come from a very traditional Italian background. And one tradition that we’ve always followed in my family is that on Christmas Eve you are supposed to have the “Seven Fish Dinner” which means that you should be having seven different types of fish for your Christmas Eve meal. Every year my family would invite all of our family and friends over and my dad would spend about two or three days slaving away in the kitchen to cook all these different things which included lobster, probably cooked multiple ways, clams, shrimp…scungilli salad, which is octopus salad, a type of fish which I am not remembering what it’s called…and other things that I can’t remember.”
Q: So is this something your parents got from their parents?
“Yeah, it’s an Italian tradition. My family is not the only one’s that ever done it or heard of it. I know my dad keeps a lot of his Italian heritage in memory of his grandparents who he spent a lot of time with….’This is what my grandparents did so this how we’re going to do’ kind of a thing”
Food folklore tends to revolve around family and family traditions, and this is no exception. The informant learned about this through participating in a family tradition, which was kept by her parents in order to honor their Italian grandparents. Participating in the tradition becomes a way to keep the tradition alive and maintain the culture.
This house situated in Downtown Lima, Peru is the most famous haunted structure in the entire country. It is famous throughout, you can ask anyone in Lima, and they will all know of it whether they believe in paranormal phenomena or not. The house was first brought to my attention when I moved to Peru by one of my maids, she told me all about it and then my mother confirmed the stories circulated, but said they were all made up. During her last visit, I had her recount a couple of versions of the story of the Matusita which she knew (there are dozens):
At the turn of the twentieth century, there lived in the house a cruel man with two servants (cook and butler). During dinner with friends, the servants decided to get their revenge and poison their master and his friends with hallucinogenic substances. They served the tampered dinner and locked the door of the dining room. A few minutes later, the servants heard a horrible scuffle. They waited until the noises ceased and then when they opened the door, they saw that the diners were torn to pieces, there was blood spread everywhere. The servants felt terribly guilty and took their lives right there. This version is said to explain the loud voices, conversation and laughter followed by blood curling cries and sepulchral silence that neighbors and passerbyers have attributed to the house. It is said that if they get close to the house or look in, they will go mad at the sights of gore and debauchery inside.
This version shows the rift between the master and his servants which can be extended to the sentiments that the indigenous and African workers feel towards their European (and later on Asian) masters. This tension is found to this very day since in Peru there is a very strong, but passive racist undercurrent that is perpetuated from generation to generation and never confronted. The race of the master is left unsaid in some versions of the story like this one (it is implied he was white); however , there are also versions that connect this version to version b which I also discuss. In those versions, the master is Asian and a descendent of the Chinese family who lived in the house in the 19th century.
My informant comes from a Christian household, and she told me about the prayers she and her family said before meals together:
“So what it is, is we have a family prayer that we say before every meal, but specifically dinner, when we’re all eating together. Um, and it’s something I learned from my parents because they both growing up as kids had their own family prayers that they said before meals, so when they were raising my brother and I, they came up with their own for our family. So my mom typed it up and cut it out with these fancy scissors so it looks nice, and she put it in a frame and hung it up right by our dinner table. So, whenever we sit down to have dinner, we always say it before we eat. And we say, ‘God is great, God is good, and we thank God for our food. Amen.’ And that’s something that when we get together with our other relatives—with our extended family—it’s something that they now say as well, because it’s been a tradition for our family so it carries over. And they have their own prayers that they say that we all say now too, so we have like, three small prayers that we go through as a huge family before we eat.”
Christianity was very important to my informant when she was growing up. She went to church every Sunday, and she says religion was extremely influential on her worldview and morality. Since coming to college, she actually stopped going to church. She is part of a Christian youth group on campus, but she says that her religiosity has waned since high school. Even so, when she returns home from college for vacations, she and her family still recite this prayer before every meal they eat together. She appreciates that they have this tradition. It not only reminds her of her Christian foundation, but also of the closeness of her family. This short prayer is a way for my informant’s family to give thanks for what they have and reflect on what they see as God’s impact on their lives. It also commemorates the beginning of a special time: family dinner. Because of all these reasons, this simple tradition has great significance for my informant. One thing that intrigued me about my informant’s account is that she says it’s a prayer that her parents thought up together before spreading it to their children and other relatives, as well as whoever joins them for dinner. Yet despite my informant’s assuredness that this prayer is entirely her parent’s creation, I remember hearing something very similar to it before. One of my good friends used to say a prayer much like this one before she ate with her family. My informant’s parents might have gotten the idea for their prayer from other similar variants, and then made it their own by writing it down and spreading it to their own family. The development of this prayer is one that reminds me of the way other folklore spreads: it is learned from one or more sources, and then spread in a slightly new way.