USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘gifts’
Customs
Foodways
Material

Birthday Traditions

Context & Analysis

The subject, my mother, and I were getting coffee for breakfast and I asked her if she could tell me some stories about her childhood. The subject’s father (who has recently passed away) was a history professor in the Midwest. The family moved frequently because of this, which made it difficult for them to settle in a single area for too long. The subject’s mother was a stay-at-home mother; she also has four other siblings. The subject’s parents were both the children of Norwegian immigrants and emphasized the value of hard work and wise spending habits. The tradition of giving special foods or sweets as gifts is interesting because it reflects the family’s emphasis on not valuing material goods over kindness. The tradition of wrapping their birthday presents in comics is also a reflection of the family’s income level and how fiscally conservative they were in order to have enough money to send all of their kids to college.

Main Piece

“When we had birthdays we—my mom we didn’t have a lot of money first of all, so my mom would just get stuff that we could share ‘cus she wanted to teach us that we could share our gifts. So they would give us candy like licorice, cashews, Andes mints, or sometimes a box of sugar cereal—like cookie crunch or something like that—‘cus we usually didn’t get sugar cereal so we would get, like, candy or something like that that we could share and we could keep it in our room, but after dinner we would have to bring it out and share and the birthday person would bring it out and, um, it was always wrapped in the comic section from the Sunday paper which was always colorful ‘cus my mom didn’t want to spend money on wrapping paper that would be ripped off and thrown away [laughs] so it was always wrapped in the comics.”

Holidays
Humor
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Texan Christmas

Informant Info: The informant is a 20-year-old female who was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. Her mother is Caucasian, and her father is Hispanic. She currently lives in Orlando, Florida and works for Walt Disney World.

 

Interview Transcript:

Interviewer: Do you have any major holidays that you celebrate? How do you celebrate it?

 

Interviewee: My family has celebrated Christmas the same every year since my brother was born almost 25 years ago. We start Christmas Eve as you would any holiday by prepping “dinner” for around 3 o’clock. We all get in our Sunday best and eat Christmas Eve dinner as a family. After dinner, dessert, and a lot of laughs we sit in the living room reminiscing old Christmas memories. My personal favorite is the one my Grandaddy used to tell about how ecstatic I was to receive a hot wheels toy at a mere 3 years old. After story time we each open a few presents which are the same every year. We start with our matching Christmas jammies and we all change into them immediately. Then my grandma hands us each three boxes. One has pistachios (And uhh..I don’t know the origin of that one). One has a check. And the last has an ornament she found earlier in the year that reminds her of us. After we hang our ornaments on the tree we write our letter to Santa. Each sibling alternates writing it each year and since there’s 4 of us we get a pretty decent break! Last we set out milk and gingerbread cookies for Santa and hang up our stocking, including ones for our fur babies. Then we all go to sleep and wake up not so bright and early Christmas morning!

 

 

Analysis:

Within this one family, there are several interesting pieces of folklore, that I was unfortunately not able to fully get out of the informant. Her family seems to hold on to old traditions and memories, yet the origin is unclear. She says that her family has been doing this for at least 25 years. By the sounds of it, many of the traditions, such as the matching pajamas or the pistachios, fall into the genre of practical jokes. She claims that she loves everything about her Christmas and plans on doing the same thing for her kids, once she has a family of her own. In addition, this tradition seems to share similarities on a macro level, such as a large family dinner on Christmas Eve, writing letters to Santa (a common folk tradition), hanging ornaments, and leaving out milk and cookies.

 

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

A Portland Christmas (Childhood)

Informant Info: The informant is 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.

Interview Transcript:

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.

Analysis:

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.

Childhood
Customs
Game
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Christmas Pickle

Title: The Christmas Pickle

Category: Ceremonial Object

Informant: Kurt A. Gabbard

Nationality: American, caucasian

Age: Upper 50s

Occupation: Princeton Seminary—Vice President of Business Affairs/Financial Consultant/CPA/CFO

Residence: 5031 Mead Drive/ Doylestown PA, 18902 (Suburban Home)

Date of Collection: 4/08/18

Description:

The Christmas Pickle is a tradition that takes place on the eve of Christmas. After returning from Christmas eve mass, the children are sent upstairs while the parents hide the pickle within the branches of the Christmas tree. The ornament in the shape and color of a normal pickle. After the pickle has been hidden in the tree, the children are then called downstairs to search for it. The first child to discover the pickle is then granted the first gift of Christmas.

Context/Significance:

The Christmas pickle is believed to be a German Christmas tradition but has recently been proven to have originated in the United States sometime around the late nineteenth century. The tradition is for a specific child to win the first gift of Christmas. The gift is usually a smaller preemptive Christmas gift that can usually be shared between children (i.e. a coloring book, or family board game). The tradition was passed down from my Father’s side of the family and our family has participated in the tradition for at least the past twenty four years.

Personal Thoughts:

My family has been involved with the tradition ever since my eldest brother’s birth and has evolved with our ages. When we were younger, the pickle was usually on the lower branches of the Christmas tree and was more easily located. As my brothers and I have gotten older, and since my family did not want to abandon the tradition, my parents have begun to hide the pickle more strategically to make the game more difficult to win. In recent years, the pickle has been found in the Christmas tree, in both indoor/outdoor wreaths, outdoor trees/bushes, and hidden within Christmas garland or within our Department 56 Christmas village.

Additionally, the Christmas gift has evolved into more adult items that we would like, for example: a gift card, a DVD, etc.

Image: 

Unknown

Holidays

The Baby Jesus gave me my presents

Background

The informant spent the early years of her life in Venezuela, but her family moved to the United States when she was 9 years old. She only remembers some of her life in Venezuela.

Context

The informant shared this story while having a lunch break during a leadership retreat. People were discussing when and how they discovered that Santa Claus wasn’t real and she laughed and explained that at the age we were finding out that Santa wasn’t real, she was just learning that the idea of Santa even existed.

Text

[I was unable to get a direct transcription of what was said]

The informant said that she had never heard of Santa Claus until she got older when talking to other American children. Instead, on Christmas, her parents told her that her presents were given to her by the Baby Jesus himself (Niño Jesús). She would have to place her shoes in front of the nativity scene, and the next morning her presents would be on top of them.

Thoughts

The informant talked about this tradition as if it was humorous because of how different it is from American tradition, but in a way that celebrated that difference rather than making fun of it. It seemed like she is able to use her Venezuelan Christmas traditions as a way differentiate herself from her purely American peers and connect herself with her Venezuelan upbringing, even though she seems very much American now, having spent over half of her life in the U.S.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
general
Legends
Rituals, festivals, holidays

La Befana

The legend: “In Italy theres this old woman called La Befana who has magical powers and she gives children gifts on January 5th. If you’re nice you get gifts but if you’re mean you get coal. January 5th is the Epiphany Day, I don’t know what it is but it’s some type of like God revelation or something.”

The informant is half-Italian (mom) and half-German (dad) and grew up in Belgium. She moved to the United States at 11 years old, and now resides in Canada where she attends a university. She heard this legend growing up from her mom and Nonna (her grandmother). I asked her if she ever believed in La Befana’s existence, and she said that she “did at one point because once Nonna brought it up and I was scared of her because she’s a scary old woman witch.” La Befana sounds like other gift-giving figures around the Winter Solstice, such as Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, etc. January 5th is just around Christmas, so it matches with other Winter Solstice celebrations. People already celebrated the Winter Solstice, before Christianity made it a Christian holiday, so it makes sense for Italy to have its own version of the celebration. It’s also just after New Year’s Day, which means that Epiphany Day also represents a celebration of new beginnings; good children can celebrate the past year by receiving gifts and going forward into the next year being good again. Bad children can reflect on their bad decisions in the past year in order to strive for better in the coming year. Although La Befana can be a benevolent figure, she is presented as an old witch, which scares children into being “good,” reflected by the informant’s fear of the witch.

Holidays
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

CHRISTMAS STOCKINGS

ABOUT THE INFORMANT:

My informant is a mother of three who lives just outside of Boston with her husband of over 30 years. She is originally from Cape Cod, the part of Massachusetts that is full of beaches and is a world known tourist destination. She is a lover of all thing water; she has worked extensively in water policy and water pollution as an environmentalist.

EXAMPLE:

Interviewee: My dad never did any Christmas shopping for anybody. He always left it all to Mom. As he got older, I guess he got much more free time. He would spend all year going to flea markets. Just searching for Christmas gifts. Sometimes something would catch his eye and he would not even know what it was. The year I ruptured my Achilles tendon playing tennis, I got Tennis For Dummies.

He would just give everyone a massive bag full of stuff. A bag for each person. All this cheap stuff he found at these yard sales and Salvation Armies; sometimes it was thoughtful, but most of it was crap.

It was the worst for the people dating into the family. When Lynn, my sister-in-law, first starting coming to the family Christmas, she got all these random things that no one knew anything about. Weird pieces of wood. A styrofoam ball. But she just took it and said thank you, trying to be polite, while he was just laughing because he knew that he gave crap. But then she surprised us all one year when she turned around and glued it together and created a figurine. Then she gave it to him.

We would come home with so much crap, we couldn’t keep it all, but I do have a farting Santa doll.

Interviewer: What about when he got sick?

Interviewee: When he passed away, we wanted to keep it alive. It was so much fun. We couldn’t all give everyone presents; that was just too much. But we all picked names and gave personalized stockings with funny and outrageous, sometimes nice, gifts to the person.

Interviewer: And you still do it?

Interviewee: Yeah, I mean, no one wanted to give it up. It is hard though. It is all tailored to them. There are no gift certificates. You have to really go out and think about them. It’s nice, even if it is crap. It’s crap tailored for them. Thoughtful crap.

ANALYSIS:

There is so much stress around Christmas. It clearly has become so overwhelmingly commercial and impersonal, that I feel like what her father was doing was almost the anti-version of that. Not to be a hipster or part of a counter culture or whatever, but because that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to give hand picked crap. Just for the joke or shock. Because he was such a strong figure in this family and because he would not stop doing it, it became a tradition.

When he died, that is when it took on a whole new dimension. Not wanting to give him or it up they modified it, so that people kept getting these personalized stockings. Even though he was gone, the stockings and laughter did not have to go. That is most likely the sentimental aspect of it. On a practical level, it is a really good way to make sure that people get gifts for Christmas that feel as though they were personally chosen for them. An added benefit.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

German Tradition: Saint Nikolaus Day

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “So Saint Nikolaus Day is on the 6th of December. And that is just Germany though, and I’m not sure about other European countries.  I know that for example, people in Spain do it on the 6th of January.  I don’t know why we choose that date, I’m sure it has some religious background, as everything in that time. But I don’t know why we celebrate it in December and not January.  Maybe it is to get people excited for Christmas. It’s kind of the beginning, like the very first Christmas event.  So when St. Nikolaus Day arrives, everybody is getting into the Christmas mood. And it somehow commences the Christmas time. So on the evening of the 5th of December, children have to clean their shoes, like their boots, and place them on the windowsill. But only very clean shoes are allowed to be on there.”

Interviewer: “And that is to show that the children are good children?”

Informant: “Well yeah, that is part of it. And you clean you shoes to ask St. Nikolaus to put small treats inside, overnight. So on the 5th of December, children place their shoes there and go to bed. And on the 6th in the morning, they wake up and check their boots to see if something has been put in there. Usually, if the children have behaved fine over the year, St. Nikolaus brings treats. But they are special treats… like walnuts, and also oranges, the small ones… clementines? And also some chocolate stuff.  And if you are bad, you would get sticks and stuff. I don’t know, I never had that. But they have a special name… a rod? And that would be to express that the child was misbehaving.  And St. Nikolaus Day is only for children.  Oh! And you can put spices on the oranges, like cinnamon or nutmeg? And it is arranged in small stars, like they put stars on the oranges.  And usually the boots are supposed to be red boots.”

Interviewer: “Why red?”

Informant: ” I have no idea. Probably the same reason… that the Christmas man… how is he called?”

Interviewer: “Santa Claus.”

Informant: “Santa Claus! Right. Because he is wearing a red coat.”

Analysis:

Saint Nikolaus Day is very similar to the tradition we have in America of hanging stockings over the fireplaces to get little gifts from Santa Claus.  Much like our stocking tradition, Saint Nikolaus Day puts a high emphasis on rewarding good children and punishing bad children.  In both traditions, good children receive gifts for their good behavior and bad children receive something that is symbolic of their naughty behavior such as coal in American tradition or a rod, which is used to spank bad children, in German tradition.  Saint Nikolaus is essentially the German version of Santa Claus.

In addition to what my informant told me, I also found some more interesting information on the legend in my research.  Saint Nikolaus, or Saint Nicholas as he is commonly called, was known to leave coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.  Sometimes a Saint Nikolaus impersonator would visit children at their school or at their home and ask them if they had been good, helpful, and polite.  The impersonator would then check his golden book to for the child’s record to see if they were right.  This is much like our idea that Santa Claus is ‘making a list, checking it twice, and he’s gonna find out who’s naught and nice’.  During the interview I asked if she knew about the Krampus, which is a demon who accompanies Saint Nikolaus and takes away naughty children to eat them for Christmas dinner.  She said she had never heard of the Krampus before.  I thought this was odd because I was sure that the Krampus was a German legend, but I was only half right.  The Krampus is legend found in the Alpine regions of Europe such as Austria and has it’s roots in Germanic folklore, which is why I thought the Krampus was a part of German tradition.

In my research I was not able to determine why the 6th of December is the chosen date for Saint Nikolaus Day, but I agree with what my informant said about Saint Nikolaus Day marking the start of the Christmas season.  In America we seem to start Christmas season the day after Thanksgiving, because this is when people generally start shopping for Christmas gifts.  I do not know why Saint Nikolaus Day is done earlier than Americans version of the day, which is on Christmas Day when children open their stockings that they had set out the night before on December 24th.  However I agree with her in that Saint Nikolaus Day is a great way to start of the Christmas spirit and get into the gift giving mood.

My informant was born in 1992 Hamburg, Germany.  She studied at USC from 2010-2011 before moving to Brussels, Belgium to study international policy planning for her undergraduate degree.  She lives part time in Brussels, Belgium and part time in her hometown Hamburg, Germany.

Game
Rituals, festivals, holidays

White Elephant – Christmas Game

Rules:
-Each person has to bring in one present that is worth $20
-Once a present has been taken three times, the present can no longer be taken.

Directions:
1) Everybody picks a number out of the hat. That number determines the order for gift picking
2) The first person picks a present from the gift pile and opens it.
3) When it is the second person’s turn, he or she can pick to open another present from the gift pile or pick the gift that the first person opened.
-If person #2 takes the gift from the first person, the first person has to open another present from the gift pile.
4) After that, each subsequent person has the choice of either choosing to open another present from the gift pile or taking one of the opened presents from the previous people.
-If a person’s opened gift is take, then that person then also has the choice between opening another gift or taking another person’s gift.
5) The game ends when the last gift is opened.

My informant told me that White Elephant is a Christmas tradition at her household.  She adopted this tradition after she attended a Christmas party seven years ago at a friend’s house.  She liked the game so much that she decided to incorporate it into her Christmas celebration.  Every Christmas, my informant hosts a Christmas dinner for her entire extended family.  This game was quickly accepted by everyone and has now become a yearly tradition in her household.

I believe that this game must have started as a way for people to save money on buying gifts.  My informant told me that after adopting the tradition, all of the family members have stopped buying gifts for every single relative.  Instead, they have all just focused on finding that one gift for the white elephant game.  At the same time, my informant believes that the game is a great way to bring people together as it is very fun to see what gifts are taken and the reactions of those who gets their gifts taken.

Currently, NBC has ordered a new game show based on this game that will be hosted by Howie Mandel.

Annotation:
Hibberd, James. “NBC Orders New Howie Mandel Game Show: ‘White Elephant'” EW.com. 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://insidetv.ew.com/2012/04/17/howie-mandel-white-elephant-nbc/>.

Game
general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ritual

“The And Game”—a game on Christmas Eve where everyone gets in a circle and passes little gifts around every time the word “and” is mentioned from the book The Night Before Christmas

Notes:

The informant told me that every Christmas Eve, his family gets together with his wife’s side of the family at one of the relative’s house. After they eat dinner, but before they open presents they play what they call “The And Game.” Basically the host of the party buys an array of little gifts (like $5 dollar Best Buy gift certificates or boxes of chocolate) and wraps them up and gives one to each individual. They sit in a circle and pass the gifts around every time the word “and” is mentioned in the story The Night Before Christmas. One of the kids reads the story, making sure to emphasize each and, so that the passing goes at the right pace. There are enough “ands” in the story so that you don’t end up with the original gift you started with. He mentioned that they have been doing it for over 20 years now, and that he isn’t sure how it exactly started, but that every year they would read the book, and the game evolved out of it. He also said that it has become a pretty funny game because the children are getting older and the men like to try and unwrap the gifts before the game is over, so that you can peek at the gift. The men were unwrapping the gifts so much, that the informant’s wife decided to double wrap the and gifts one year, with packaging paper (virtually un-breakable) as the first layer and wrapping paper on top. When they attempted to unwrap the gifts, all they saw was brown paper.

I think that this ritual represents the many different customs people have around the holidays. The holiday season is full of different traditions families participate in, whether it be dealing with presents, Christmas decorations, or Christmas dinner. I think this particular ritual was born out of a tradition of reading the book, but when people got bored of the book or little kids got antsy to open the presents, the family adapted the tradition to a more interactive experience while keeping the tradition alive. This custom seems unique, as there is no real tie to it in anything online, however it does have similar elements to Hot Potato, in which a hot potato is passed around the group with the last person holding the potato when the music is turned off being out of the game.

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