USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘german’
folk metaphor
Folk speech

Sie Hat Nicht Alle Tassen Im Schrank

Original: Sie hat nicht alle tassen im schrank

Translation: She doesn’t have all the teacups in her pantry

Full translation: This phrase is used when one is trying to say someone else is crazy. When used, one is implying that the person in question is not entirely right in the head.

Note: This piece of folk speech was only provided using the pronoun “she”. However, he/she can be interchanged and the phrase would still work in conversation.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this piece of folk speech used almost interchangeably with any other permutation of “that person is crazy” both in the city and in the countryside. He does not see it as a piece of folk speech, but rather as another piece of his vocabulary. When someone is acting crazy, this phrase comes as naturally as simply saying “That person is crazy” in German.

Analysis: I was especially excited by this folk speech because it closely resembles a similar phrase used in the United States. In the US, the phrase “the lights are not all on upstairs” shares a similar meaning, to imply that the subject it is referring to is somehow not right in the head. The two phrases most definitely appear to be oikotypes – regional variations of a piece of folklore. Interestingly, however, the German use of “teacups” and “pantry”, more traditional objects may suggest that the German phrase is actually the original, from which the American phrase was derived. Considering there is a sizeable German population in the US, this could most definitely be the case!

Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Story of the Inked Boys

Interviewer: Got any other German fairytales?

Informant: I do, actually. This one is one of my favorites – it’s interesting because it shows a tolerance that Germans seemed to have forgotten at some later points in our history.

Three boys are laughing and playing in a field outside of their village, near a road. As they play, a Moor, a black man, comes down the hill, carrying a green umbrella. The Moor is quiet and polite as he makes his way down the road, but when the boys notice him, they grab all of their things and rush over and start insulting the Moor. The boys sing songs and make fun of the Moor’s dark skin and how its so black it’s as black as ink.

St. Nicholas, who lived nearby, heard the boys and what they were doing, and he shouted at them to stop. But, the boys didn’t listen. They kept laughing and shouting at the Moor, continuing to make fun of his skin color.

St. Nicholas is pissed at this point, so he takes his huge ink pot that he used for his quill and grabs the three boys. Then, he goes and takes each one of them… and dunks each one into the black ink until all of them are just as dark as the Moor. Then, he takes them out and puts them next to the Moor, who is laughing super hard at this point. St. Nicholas taught them a lesson about harassing people who look different from themselves.

Context: This informant is a nineteen year old college student, attending school in the US. However, he lives abroad in a small town in Germany, where he has access to a wide range of German folklore. He also speaks German fluently, which offers him greater understanding of German culture as well.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of his neighbors from his village in Germany. He has a personal love for this tale, as it was one of the first to be told to him in his childhood, but also because of the general message it sends – one of punishment against not only intolerance, but xenophobia. The children make fun of the Moor due to his difference. My informant points out that St.Nicholas places the children into the Moor’s shoes not only to punish them, but also to make them experience life from the point of view of their victim.

Analysis: I believe my informants tale outlines a curious societal quirk inherent in whatever communities it originated from. It appears to be poised against intolerance towards foreigners, especially of African descent, at a time when such intolerance was widely acceptable. It makes a point to not only punish rude children, but also to make them experience life from the point of view of those they wronged. From a more objective lens, one might also point out the motif of threes at play here as well. Three boys are present in the tale, rather than a single one.

Foodways
Holidays

Goulash

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed from a conversation between the performer (EC) and I (ZM).

EC: Stuff that we would do is we would eat goulash on holidays. Which is like a German stew.

ZM: What’s in it?

EC: Umm… It’s just basically a stew I guess. Like vegetables and some form of meat. I feel like…it was probably just like beef or something normal like that, but like it has a German name so…

ZM: Who makes the goulash?

EC: My aunt does. So… yeah.

ZM: She’s the one that was in the military?

EC: Umm my uncle by marriage was in the military and then she is my like blood aunt. My dad’s sister.

 

Context: This is from a conversation I started with EC about her German traditions.

 

Background: EC is a sophomore studying at the University of Southern California. She is of German descent. She was born and raised in Sacramento. Most of her German traditions were not passed down, rather influenced by aunt’s family who lived on a military base in Germany.

 

Analysis:I thought it was interesting that even though EC is “significantly German heritage-wise,” the only German traditions practiced by her family are not due to their lineage rather a modern-day influence.

 

 

 

Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

German Santa

I interviewed Audrey when I met her in Everybody’s Kitchen, a USC dining hall. Audrey spent some of her childhood in Germany, so she wanted to share some of the German folklore she knew. This includes the legend of the German Santa. The following is lifted from the interview:

 

Audrey: “So I learned this from my fifth grader german teacher when we were learning about German traditions. Okay, so, on St. Nick’s day — the 6th of December — German kids leave their shoes outside the door. Good kids get stuff like candy and toys, and bad kids get coal. But that’s not all bad kids get. German Santa goes into their bedrooms, and puts them in a burlap sack. And then he takes them out back and beats them — just beats them in the sack.” [She mimics the action she is describing]

 

Me: “Did you ever partake in this tradition?”

 

Audrey: “Well, I took part in American St. Nick’s day. I would leave my shoes by the fireplace… and I was never taken out back and beaten in a burlap sack, so I don’t know about that part. But I always got candy and toys in my shoes.”

 

My informant then noted that she vaguely remembers learning that German Santa had an assistant named “Krampus.” She didn’t have enough knowledge to talk about him, though.

 

Analysis

I am aware of the Krampus and the tradition of leaving out shoes, but I’ve never heard of Santa being the one that takes naughty children to be punished. The legend of German Santa seems to be used to scare children into behaving, much like many other fairy tales (Although, this is considered a legend instead of a tale because it takes place in the real world with questionable truth value).

 

Adulthood
Customs
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polterabend

The following is a conversation between myself and my parents about a German Jewish wedding tradition called a Polterabend. My dad, Arthur, is of German Jewish descent and grew up in a secular household in Cincinnati, while my mother, Margaret, is from a secular Episcopalian background. They are referred to by their first initials in this conversation; “L” is my first initial.

M: This is actually uh, Dad’s but I was gonna say that in Cincinnati they have um–among reform Jews in Cincinnati–they have a custom called the Polterabend. which is a-
A: It’s a German custom.
M: It’s a german custom, but isn’t- I think it was celebrated by the German Jews?
A: Yeah.
M: Um and we had one of them before our wedding and the idea was um, the night before, you have like a- a kind of a wild party of some kind to celebrate. But “polter” is y’know from “poltergeist” so it’s like, y’know, goblins or-
A: And you’re supposed to break something.
L: You always do it before your wedding or…?
M: Yeah, the evening before your wedding um, y’know you uh, you break stuff, you make a lot of noise to sort of celebrate the marrying couple and chase away the bad spirits.
L: And like, did your parents do that, Dad?
A: Yeah.
L: And like, all the reform Jews in Cincinnati?
A: Yeah.
M: And when they had a party for us, the evening before our wedding here [in San Francisco]-
A: They called it a Polterabend.
M: They called it a Polterabend, although it was just a party.

My dad’s family, like most German Jewish families in Cincinnati, were not at all religiously observant; in fact, they had a Christmas tree most years growing up. Still, most reform Jews in Cincinnati, my dad’s family included, participated in cultural practices like the Polterabend in order to connect to their culture. Although neither of my parents are especially religious, traditions like this one connect our family to our cultural-religious background. My parents were married by a Rabbi in a Jewish ceremony, and had a “Polterabend” before their wedding; though my mom is not Jewish, their wedding celebrated Jewish culture’s place in their newly formed family.

Narrative
Tales /märchen

Hans im Glück

The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.

I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a German tale that his mother would often tell him, called “Hans im Glück.”

“The story goes that there was a guy named Hans, who was really poor. After seven years of hard work, he garnered enough wage to see his mom – a lump of gold. So he went on a journey and kept trading what started out as a lump of gold for various things he needed: a horse, then a cow, a pig, and then a grindstone. He loses the grindstone but ends up being happier after, because he’s tired of having to worry about all this trading and keeping track of things. Then he walks to finish the journey to his mother and tells her everything that happened to him.”

This German fairy tale, or märchen, does not follow the traditional story of a poor man working his way up in the world to wealth and success. Instead, it places more value on the connection that Hans has to his mother than his attachment to material items like the lump of gold that he acquires at the beginning of the story. The context within which the informant was exposed to the story, then, makes perfect sense: a mother lovingly telling a tale to her son of a son who is devoted to his mother. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “Hans im Glück” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers, and when told in the English language it is titled “Hans in Luck.”

For the version of “Hans im Glück” published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.

  • Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Hans im Glück, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, no. 83.
  • Note that while this tale was not included in the first edition of the Grimms’ collection (two volumes, 1812, 1815), it was added to the second edition (1819).
  • In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 1415.
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Seven Ravens

The informant is a 21-year-old college student who was born in France, and continued to live there until moving to the United States at age 15. The informant’s mother is from Germany and his father is from Spain.

I asked the informant to grab a cup of coffee on campus, and questioned whether he had distinct memories of any bedtime stories that his parents told him when he was a child living in France. He described a tale that his mother would often tell him, called “The Seven Ravens.”

“A girl who is very sick and weak was born among seven brothers, so their father sent the boys to get this holy water to help their sister. But on the way, the brothers get lost, and so the father gets angry and says ‘I wish they were all turned ravens’ and they all turned into ravens. The girl eventually gets over her sickness and as she gets older she sees traces that she once had brothers. She became super curious and wanting nothing else but to find them. She met a witch who would give her this wish but she had to get all these specific materials to knot a sweater for every brother. She got super close but didn’t have time to knit the arm thing on one sweater, and all her brothers came back except one still had a wing.”

This German fairy tale, which describes a sister on a quest to find long lost members of her family, seems to closely follow the syntagmatic structure that the folklorist Vladimir Propp established for all folk tales. It follows a hero, the girl, who is sent on a long quest to fulfill a set of tasks that will satisfy her initial desire to piece together the traces of her brothers and ultimately bring them back into her life. Knowing that this tale is of German origin, I asked the informant if he knew what book his mother had read it to him from, suspecting that it was related to the vast number of fairy tales recorded by the Grimm brothers. His response confirmed my suspicions, as he said that “The Seven Ravens” came from a book of German fairy tales his mother had that mentioned the Grimm brothers. This märchen functioned as a source of entertainment for the informant, and provided his mother a fun and suspenseful story to tell her child while allowing him to settle down for bed. The informant’s mother and father were separated, which may help to explain why his mother was not worried about telling a story that did not shed a positive light on the hero’s father figure. Despite the father’s wrath in the tale, “The Seven Ravens” places importance on themes of family unity and persistence, and in turn functions to encourage young audience members to care for and support their family members and to never give up when faced with a difficult task.

 

For the version of “The Seven Ravens” first published by the Grimm brothers, see the annotation below.

  • Die Sieben Raben, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (1857), no. 25.
  • In the ATU categorical index, this falls under Aarne-Thompson type 451, The Brothers Who Were Turned into Birds. Tales of this type are found throughout Europe.
Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

St. Nick’s Day

Informant is a theatre student at USC who was raised in Wisconsin and comes from 65% German heritage. 

St Nick’s Day is kind of a tradition that it isn’t anywhere else. Just because we’re so so German in roots. Everyone does it a little differently, but I know a few people who do it just like we do.

What is St. Nick’s Day?

It’s initially a German tradition. St. Nicholas, or Santa, whatever would – ‘cause Christmas is actually the birth of Christ. So St Nick would actually come around the 6th of December. And he would leave presents in the kids’ stockings. That’s kinda how all that really started. But how we do it, my family, is you leave your stocking – you leave your note for Christmas in your stocking, and Santa – or St. Nick – will come by and he’ll take the note out of your stocking and he’ll leave presents in your stockings. On the 6th of December. And then he has your list, for the rest of Christmas. Most other people around the US will mail their notes to Santa, which – I did not know that was a thing for the longest time. I was so shocked when I found out that people actually mailed their lists to Santa. I was just like “How does he actually sift through all of that? How does he know where it’s all coming from? At least with us he picked it up straight from the house and he knew where it was.” Childhood logic. And then I had a German teacher who would also celebrate it with us, and we would leave our little dance shoes on our desks at school, and she would put a clementine, which is kind of like a tradition – like a fruit, fruit in stockings is a tradition. And then she’d leave a couple little chocolates or something. Cute, fun little things. That one I know is initially a German tradition – ‘cause they also have Krampus, who’s hilarious. But yeah.

With St. Nick’s Day, it’s not just your family – it’s people in the area.

Its not just us. I’m not sure if it’s the whole area, but anyone with enough German roots knows what it is. Or at least has an idea about it. They may not actually practice it, but they know it.

[The people who learned about it through school were] anybody who wasn’t German enough. There were a few people who were like “What is happening?” But for the most part they all accepted it and moved on or already knew about it. I know there were at least two other kids who were super German, like one whose father was actually in Germany and the other whose father had immigrated from Germany and they definitely knew what it was.

It’s not just our family that does it. Everybody practices it a little bit differently.

What are some other versions?

Some people he just puts things in their stockings and moves on, I think my mom came up with the list part. I think that was all her. Everything else – like the leaving the little bit of toys in the stocking, that is the German tradition. Because the story of St. Nick, is like – he basically threw money in this guy’s window so his daughters would get married. That was essentially the story of St. Nick. And then somehow he became a saint. And now he goes around giving gifts to kids on the 6th of December. And apparently Christmas. I don’t know how that one came around.
Informant described this pleasantly and excitedly. It is a holiday and tradition I was completely unaware of. I had heard of St. Nick, but didn’t know that he had a day to himself many days before Christmas.
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Belsnickel

INFO:
There are variations of the story in which Belsnickel would arrive before Christmas to scare children into being good, but the “more terrifying” story (according to my informant) is when if you were bad, Belsnickel would come between Christmas and Epiphany and take your presents. Belsnickel has patchy fur, tattered clothing and a black hat and claws.

BACKGROUND:
The informant’s parents used to threaten him with Belsnickel’s wrath if he were behaving badly. His father told him that Belsnickel’s origins were German because his mother used to threaten him with the story. Compared to everything else the informant’s family practiced as proud Polish-Americans, anything that wasn’t distinctly Polish was delineated as so by his parents.

CONTEXT:
The informant shared this with me in conversation.

ANALYSIS:
In this particular case, the fact that the informant’s parents went out of their way to distinguish the “national heritage” of this particular folklore figure is interesting. Even though many cultures share overlapping facets of folklore, the strong national distinctions many people feel actually do make their way into the spreading of stories and figures.

Folk speech
Humor

“Ah Ma Schwartz Katter”

“When somebody’s being lame, or kind of a wet blanket, there’s, I mean, okay, I mean, there’s two of them. One of them is “ah ma schwartz katter” which is “oh, my poor little black cat,” and that’s for if they’re being silly. So, just, for instance, if someone is like, ‘oh, poor pathetic me!’ it’s ‘ah, ma Schwartz katter,’ [she mimics patting someone on the head in mock sympathy]. And then sometimes I do a variation on it, which I don’t know if it’s even correct or not, but it’s ‘ah ma brune katter,’ which is ‘ah, my little brown cat.’ But honest to god, it’s probably a huge bastardization of German, I know the actual one when I’m saying it is correct, but I don’t know the actual spelling of it, because my mother did not deem to teach me it.”

 

It’s like saying “oh, poor thing,” but it’s a little bit mocking. The informant uses the brune version because sometimes she likes to “mix it up,” and because her cat is brown. Usually, when she is saying this to someone, it’s her mother (because her father doesn’t “get it”), and she uses the brune version because her mother’s hair is brown.

The informant first learned this when she was about seven from her mother, (who speaks multiple languages, including German). Both she and her mother are of German descent.

This is a good demonstration of how foreign languages are kept partially alive and spread throughout generations who may not be fluent in it. Sayings are easy to remember because of their brevity and they also seem to create strong bonds between those who say them (e.g. the informant here shares this with her mother and brother, but not outside her family or even with her father).

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