The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.
Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.
Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”
Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”
I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.
The ritual: “My high school’s cross-country team…our sectionals which was like the last meet of the year, cause we always lose sectionals…it’s always at the same place, it’s at this elementary school in Noblesville. And we would go there and there’s like this random path into the woods, and all the guys on the team would go there together, and we would take one lollipop and everyone had to kiss the lollipop and it was super weird.”
The informant carried out this ritual for his high school cross-country team. He said that one guy on the team never did it because he thought it was too weird, probably because he thought it was too close to kissing other guys. This ritual was probably more ironic than for good luck, since the informant himself said that the team lost sectionals every year. Going in knowing that they’ll lose, the ritual for “good luck” was probably just a parody, since the ritual itself is kind of weird to begin with.
The superstition: “If you step on a book or piece of paper, then you have to touch it to your forehead because otherwise it’s disrespectful. It’s because books are like instruments of learning which is next to God and practically sacred so to put it to your feet shows disrespect so you put it to your forehead, which is a sign of respect, to counteract that.”
The informant is Indian American. Her parents are both from India, but she was born in California. She’s not very religious, but she considers herself culturally Indian. She grew up hearing this superstition from her parents, so she has always followed it.The gesture of putting to your forehead to negate it seems similar to another Indian superstition, that people can’t step over you, and they have to reverse their step to negate it. Although the informant isn’t religious, she still follows this religious superstition, since she is still rooted in Indian culture. I imagine education is very important in India and in Hinduism, since learning instruments can be likened to God, and sacred. Both of the informant’s parents are doctors, and she herself is studying engineering and computer science, does a lot of research, and tutors children; so I think it’s fair to say that she takes education very seriously herself. This may also be another reason she follows this superstition.
“Hahah in retrospect it sounds ridiculous — yelling ‘Whammy whammy whammy’ while wiggling our fingers. But man we took it so seriously, you didn’t just do that shit light-heartedly, that was a big deal.”
When the informant was in 2nd grade, there was a gesture children at school could perform to curse another person. It involved placing one hand over the other with palms down, interlocking the fingers, extending the arms to point at the “target”, and saying “Whammy” three times in a row. It would supposedly give that person terrible luck. It was only performed in serious cases of disliking someone, not to be taken lightly. There was no way to break the curse.
This friend of mine said he learned the gesture from his older brother, who claimed it was something passed down for many years. The curse was taken most seriously by his own friend group but not ignored by others. The nature of the “bad luck” or the curse isn’t clear, but the implications were severe. They wouldn’t do it to eachother but to people outside of their friend group. They performed it for only about a year before they stopped doing it. He claims they simply outgrew the concept of it.
“Cursing” or “hexing” other kids on the playground definitely seems like a widespread thing, especially around the age of 2nd graders. In part it seems to be a way to cope non-violently with someone you dislike, but also has a lot of tones of exclusivity associated with it. In this particular case it was performed primarily by one group (my friend and his group) but recognized by people outside of the group. Around that age, a lot more aggression crops up and kids get in fights, form exclusive groups, and deal with new confrontational issues. With schools and parents obviously trying to diminish this resulting in physical altercations or anything beyond children disagreeing with eachother, it seems fitting that kids would find indirectly harmful ways to affect someone, e.g. casting a curse that gives a target bad luck. Then, the things that happen to the person aren’t the fault of the curse-caster, but rather the curse itself.
“I always feel obligated to pet Tirebiter when I walk by. Depending on my mood, I’ll even go a bit out of my way to do it.”
Members of the Trojan Knights at USC (a fraternity dedicated to the spirit of USC and its history) are required to pet the statue of Tirebiter, a dog, whenever they walk by it. The statue is located near the edge of campus, but nonetheless is passed enough for this to be a somewhat regular occurrence. The tradition began because of an actual dog by the name of Tirebiter. The unconfirmed origin story is that a Trojan Knight, about 70 years ago, was on a Los Angeles beach and came across a stray dog. He took it under his care and brought it back to the fraternity’s house. It was taken care of by the group and brought to football games. It eventually became the unofficial mascot of the fraternity, and subsequently for USC given the fraternity’s close association to the school. Because Tirebiter – and his many replacements – have since passed, it’s the responsibility of the Knights to “take care of Tirebiter” by petting the statue. It serves as both a memorial for the original Tirebiter and an homage to part of the fraternity’s history.
The informant shared the tradition and says it’s something almost exclusively done by the Knights. It’s not bad luck to not do it, or good luck to do it — it’s simply a part of their history and a courtesy paid to the memorial of Tirebiter. How the action of petting Tirebiter emerged is unclear, but the reason behind it is passed down between the brothers.
It’s sort of nice to see a school tradition that doesn’t have to do with winning at sports, insulting another school, or going crazy in the name of graduating. Paying homage to a dog the fraternity once took care of is nice. Something funny mentioned by the informant is that bringing a dog to a football game is a standard long gone. The most interesting part of this piece of folklore is that the school adopted a third mascot out of it, and made a rather nice statue out of it. There’s already Tommy Trojan and Traveler — adding a dog seems a bit overkill.
For this joke, you make a peace sign with your fingers (V) and high-five someone with your fingers in said position while saying: “Roman five!”
The joke here is an erudite one since you have to have an understanding of Roman numerals to know that the roman five was written as ‘V’. This joke was told to me by my mother who heard it from a friend in the O.C.
Form of Folklore: Gesture
Informant Bio: The informant was born and raised in Glendale, California. Most of the folklore he has been exposed to comes primarily from his father, who is of Arabic decent. Other folklore has been attained either through media sources (i.e. Reddit) or through personal life experiences in America.
Context: The interview was conducted in the living room of another informant’s house in the presence of two other informants.
Item: In Arabic culture it is rude to show others the bottom of your foot. So when you sit cross-legged, the bottom of your foot should not be pointing towards them; it should be pointing towards the ground.
Informant Comments: The informant grew up with this idea that showing the bottom of his foot to someone, particularly an elder, is very disrespectful. He developed this etiquette of not showing the bottom of his foot because he was raised in an Arabic cultural surrounding where this disrespectful gesture is considered very rude. The informant does not know exactly why this gesture is considered to be so rude, but has decided to simply stray from doing it so that he never accidental offends anyone.
Analysis: This gesture is considered rude in many Middle Eastern cultures. It seems that the idea behind this gesture is that the bottom of your foot belongs on the floor and showing someone something that belongs on the floor seems to indicate that that person is like the floor. Essentially, this gesture implies that the person doing it is in some way superior to (on top of) the person that it is being done to. While in America, no one would be offended by this gesture, many Middle Easterners would. Thus, this gesture is not universally rude, but one can see how it may be considered rude by those who grow up in an environment where it is disrespectful (i.e. in Arabic culture).
My informant was born and raised in the small town of Hanford, California. She describes it as a town so small that everyone knows each others’ business. The industry there is largely rural, and my informant belongs to a wealthy family that owns a successful mill. She spent much of her time as a teenager with her friends driving around the country roads because there was nothing much else to do.
A Driving Gesture
My informant was driving us to an event when I saw her kiss her ring finger. I asked her why she did it and she told me that she does it every time she drive under a yellow light. We had talked in my Forms of Folklore class about the practice of hitting the ceiling of the car when you drive through an intersection, and that there are variations that make this a game (to see who hits the ceiling first). When I told my informant this, she told me that its different in her town.
My informant explained to me that she had a friend in high school who kissed the ring on her ring finger every time she drove through an intersection. Though she never knew why her friend did this, my informant suspected, based on her personality, that she preferred kissing her hand to hitting the roof of her car because it would be easier on her hand. Sadly, this girl was killed in a car accident in town when she tried to beat a yellow light. Ever since her death my informant, and many of the young people in town who knew the girl, have taken up the practice of kissing their ring finger when they drive through an intersection when the street light is yellow.
This variation on the common gesture acts as a severe reminder to the people of Hanford of the poor girl’s memory. I believe that the practice may have once inspired some guilt in those who would speed up to beat a yellow light instead of slowing down; guilt over not being more cautious. However several years later I cannot say that I’ve noticed that my informant has driven any more cautiously. It has become a reflex action for her. Underlying it however is the grief for the loss of a friend, and when traveling in a car with someone else who kisses their hand in Hanford, those who knew her share their loss.
Sports fans at the University of Southern California take their traditions very seriously, even right down to the Homecoming Game tailgate on campus. There are certain things that the football fans of the Trojans, (USC’s team name), do before, during, and after the home games.
USC has become a very big partying school in the sense that the day of home games are the only time that you can have open containers of alcohol on campus. It has become such a tradition to party before the game that the school has recognized this and allows tailgating on campus.
My informant told me about the rituals involved in attending the games. First, everyone walks over to Exposition Park, which is near the Coliseum where the team plays. On the way there, everyone kicks one of the light posts that are on the very edge of campus before crossing Exposition Blvd. As a matter of fact, my informant told me that if someone does not do this, other fans to kick the light posts sometimes turn them back. This is just a superstition to ensure that the team wins. My informant did not know when this tradition was started, just that it has become so widespread that all students, fans, and alumni perform the ritual.
Another tradition is to make the fight on sign with your right hand. It looks like you’re giving a peace sign, but it is actually a symbol of the team’s slogan, “Fight On,” and is often shaken to the beat of the fight song that the band always plays at the games.
When the game is over, everyone walks back across Exposition Blvd. and once again kicks the light posts for good luck for the next game or the next season.
Traditional dress is the school colors, Cardinal and Gold, and sometimes traditional food is labeled as ‘death dogs,’ the hot dogs that local vendors sell right before and after the game all along Exposition Park.