USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘good luck’
Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Fruits of the New Year

Main Piece:

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

ZM: Okay so, when I was at your house, you have grapes? over the…

CS: Mhm

ZM: What are those about?

CS: So um, it’s like a, I think it’s an Asian thing, it might just be a Filipino thing, but it’s like um…At the beginning of every year, fruits are like symbols of like Mother Mary and her bearing the fruit of Jesus. So, it’s sort of to bring good luck. So, you always have like before the new year comes in, in every, like, living space, you have to have a bowl of twelve fruits. So, in the kitchen, in the living room, you have to have a big bowl of twelve fruits. Twelve different fruits.

ZM: Why twelve?

CS: Each month of the year.

ZM: Okay.

CS: And then above each entry into a room you have to do twelve grapes to symbolize like the same thing. So like, it’s supposed to bring you like good wealth and good luck into the new year and it’s like a symbol of Mother Mary and like how she was blessed because she was gifted with like the fruit of the womb of Jesus or whatever.

ZM: That’s cool.

CS: Yeah. So my mom always has to go out and buy like twelve different fruits. It’s a struggle.

ZM: Yeah, how do you get twelve different fruits.

CS: We have grapefruits in the backyard, lemons in the backyard. Sometimes if she can’t find more, she cheats and she gets avocados. (laughs) It’s always like melons, like she’ll get a watermelon, a cantaloupe, and a honeydew. And then like, apples, peaches, and then the ones in our backyard, and then like, if she’s really tryin’ it she’ll like get a lime and a lemon.

ZM: Do you leave the fruit up all year?

CS: Yes! And it gets DIsgusting. Absolutely gross. Like one time, the grapes started falling on the one over, like going outside to the patio thing, like, the atrium, back there. We have one over there, and I was like “The grapes are falling. Like, you need to fix it.” My mom grabbed saran wrap, and then she like (laughs) she like made a saran wrap bag and then pinned it there and then when I was taking them down towards like… You usually change everything towards like, Thanksgiving/Christmas. So you don’t do it like right before the new year. You like start preparing for the new year around like, after Thanksgiving, like before Christmas. As we were changing them, I took down the bag and it’s like MOLDY, cause like usually they’re just out in the air. So it’s like, they just turn into raisins, but like this one had a bag because she was keeping all of the ones that fell and it was literally wet and moldy and it was like green and white mold, and I almost vomited, and I was like “This needs to never happen again.” Yeah you keep it the WHOLE year. If it falls down you HAVE to keep it up there somehow.


Context:Over the weekend I visited CS at her home and noticed fruit hanging from the doorways. A few days later I asked her about them and this conversation was recorded then.


Background: The performer is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. She is first generation American and her parents came from the Philippines. They are Roman Catholic.


Analysis:I thought this was a very interesting tradition. I have heard of fruit being a sign of fertility, but mostly in spring, but this tradition takes place around the new year.



Folk Beliefs

Chinese Homonyms

  1. The main piece: Chinese Homonyms

“Oh, okay, so homonyms. The way the Chinese language works, there’s four ways you can say every sound, basically.

“So. I feel like all the sayings I do know, they’re homonyms, and the reason they’re prominent is because they sound like other words that are either good or bad. So like, the number 4 sounds like the word for death, and that’s why the number 4 in China is like the number 13 in America. Like in China, a lot of buildings don’t have a fourth floor. They don’t like having 4 in their phone number, license plate, things like that. On the other hand, the number 8 is lucky because it sounds like the word for treasure. And the word for red sounds like fortune or treasure or something like that, so that’s why we use those red envelopes.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

“I’ve only been to China once, for a class trip over spring break. My parents and grandparents don’t know much Chinese, but we know most of these…homonym rule things because they’ve kinda been, like, the little bit of Chinese that has been passed down from, like, my grandparents’ grandparents. So it’s cool, I always feel a little more, like, Chinese when I follow these rules because they’re some of the Chinese things I actually do know.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Because the word for the number 4 sounds like the word for death, it seems that this number has become a taboo in Chinese culture. The extent to which it is a taboo shows just how much folk beliefs that are not backed by any science are still extremely believed in by the people, so much that it has been removed from daily life as extensively as possible—building floors, airplane rows, phone numbers, and license plate numbers all try to exclude the number 4. The extent to which nonscientific folk beliefs are valued in society is also shown in the positive connotations of the color red and the number 8. Just like the number 4 is removed everywhere, the incorporation of red and the number 8 as much as possible show that these folk beliefs are rooted in the people from the time that they grow up.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old female of Japanese and Chinese descent. She grew up in Oahu, Hawaii in a family that had moved there five generations earlier, and explained how none of her parents or grandparents knew any Japanese or Chinese. Celebrating Japanese and Chinese cultural traditions helped her feel more connected to her heritage growing up, because she felt that her parents and grandparents were very disconnected from the culture other than with these traditions.

Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Coins and the New Year

Main Piece:

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

ZM: You guys had like, coins, like gold coins, over by the like pictures? I don’t know

CS: Mhm. I know what you’re talking about. So, it’s another New Year’s thing. Um, when you’re, so, coins are just symbols of like wealth, like the sound that they make like the clink like the, you know what I’m talking about? Like the shhh

ZM: Yeah

CS: So, when it’s New Year’s, like normal people New Year’s, and Chinese New Year actually, ‘cause we celebrate that too, you have to have, well first you have to be wearing like dots, like polka dots because of the circles. It symbolizes coins. And then, when, you know how people like jump and they like blow stuff in like the countdown? A lot, like every Filipino literally has just like, either like cups of coins, or like bags of coins and they shake it while they, while the New Year’s coming in. So, they shake it while the new year’s coming in so it makes the noise and that’s like another symbol of like bringing wealth into the new year.

ZM: And you just keep them around? Like, the whole year?

CS: Well those are just normal coins. And then the gold coins that my mom has laying around are just like… fancy ones. The gold coins are for the Chinese New Year because like you know how, well I don’t know if you’re around like Asian people but like, we get like red envelopes with money in it?

ZM: I vaguely, like that sounds vaguely familiar.

CS: So, I have one, wait I have one… (Brings out small red Hello Kitty envelope) We get like red envelopes that have money in it and you’re not supposed to spend the money technically for like the whole year because it’s like good luck.

ZM: Wait so when ARE you allowed to spend it?

CS: After the new year. So, this one, you can open it though, I think this one’s shaped in a heart. (the cash was folded into a heart shape)


CS: They don’t always do this they just, it’s just some people decide to get fancy with it. So, it (the coins) kind of goes along with the red envelope. So, you give red envelopes with money for luck and then the gold coins are sort of the same symbolism of like keeping wealth throughout the year. I just realized Asian people really like their money. Cause everything we do is about keeping their wealth.


Context:Over the weekend I visited CS at her home and noticed gold coins laying around on various coffee tables and such. A few days later I asked her about them and this conversation was recorded then.


Background: The performer is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. She is first generation American and her parents came from the Philippines. They are Roman Catholic.


Analysis: The red envelope tradition wasn’t completely unknown to me, but I had never heard of people shaking containers of coins at the turn of the new year. I also thought it was very interesting that CS celebrates both the Western New Year as well as Chinese New Year even though she is not Chinese. Like she said towards the end, most of the traditions were about money which can be seen in the rich lifestyle practiced in a Western New Year’s celebration. Party goers get dressed up and drink champagne like the upper class.


Folk Beliefs

Lucky Socks

Main Piece:

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

CB: I wore the same pair of socks every volleyball game from junior year and senior year of high school and both years within our like league of ten teams, we beat every other team, or every team and went undefeated, not including playoffs.

ZM: Why did you decide to keep wearing the socks, like what happened?

CB: Because we kept winning.

ZM: Did you wash them?

CB: Yeah, cause that was gross, but, and they smelled, but… They were bright green neon socks.

ZM: Was it just you or did other players…

CB: Just me. Umm, and it’s funny cause, like I’d be in the bathroom and someone would like look under the stall and see my socks and know immediately it was me. Like it got, it got to that point of like popularity.


Context: CB and I were having lunch when I noticed he was wearing a volleyball tournament shirt. I asked him if he had any volleyball rituals or lucky socks or anything. This conversation was recorded then.


Background: The performer is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. He transferred from California Lutheran University where he played Division III volleyball but did not continue at USC. CB attended a medium-sized public high school in Santa Clarita where he was born and raised.


Analysis: This is a pretty common example of a sports ritual. A lot of athletes have stories of a lucky piece of clothing. Some even go to the extent of not washing said pieces of clothing so they don’t lose the lucky powers.


Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year

Main Piece:

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

ZM: What do you do for Chinese New Year?

HH: Umm… In terms of when I’m here in college or when I’m back home?

ZM: When you’re at home.

HH: When I’m home um my parents would clean the house, like um frantically because we need to be clean for the new year and we also can’t wash our hair on the first day of New Year’s too because if you wash your hair, you’re washing your luck. Yeah. Very interesting. Um, it’s nothing really special, it’s just being with your family, um… The whole day you um… Do you know what Yum ta is?

ZM: No.

HH: Like going out for morning tea, like with dim sum…

ZM: I’ve never heard of that. I don’t, I don’t know.

HH: Okay um so uh we do yum ta, which is like going to um a local, um a nearby restaurant around our house and inviting all of our relatives and…

ZM: Is that New Year’s day?

HH: New Year’s day yeah. Um, and all of our relatives will come and we exchange um red envelopes with money inside and um its umm… If you’re married you give, you give a red envelope to the kids so…As long as I’m not married I can still receive them.

ZM: But you don’t give any?

HH: I don’t give any until I’m married. Yeah it’s a perk. (laughs) Uhhh yeah and then um on the day, or like… Chinese New Year goes for like a few days like up to fifteen days. It depends on how long you want to celebrate it. Umm, like the first few days um either relatives and friends come to your house or you can go to their house and you bring gifts like oranges or like crackers or whatever to uh to bring to their house and you get to exchange gifts, and you guys talk and drink tea and all of that.

ZM: Do the oranges have any significance? Like why oranges or…?

HH: Umm… I feel like they do, but I don’t know (laughs) Uh that’s pretty much what we do. And um we eat chicken. It’s for a reason, but I don’t know why also. But, chicken is like a good kind of meat like… Um you always want um, like for dinner you always, for like the first few days, my brother’s in-laws and us we all eat together as a big family. Like a sign of um, a union. Um, so we have like up to ten dishes for like not even ten people. Like, um it’s very lavish dinner with like chicken, umm duck, fish, all kind of veggies, noodles, noodles really important as a sign of longetivity in life. So, yeah.


Context: This is from a conversation I started with HH about her Chinese culture.

Background: HH was born in China and raised in Oakland, CA. Both of her parents are Chinese, and they speak limited English. She is a sophomore studying at the University of Southern California.


Analysis: I thought it was interesting that you only begin giving red envelopes when you are married. Even if you are an adult and you are not married, you do not have to give the envelopes, you only receive them. But, if they’re married and they don’t have kids to give envelopes to they exchange red envelopes between husband and wife. While marriage and adulthood would’ve previously been equivalent, in today’s society they can be very separate, and this changes the tradition a little bit.


Rituals, festivals, holidays

12 Grapes on New Years

I interviewed my informant, Brianna, in the study lounge of the band office. When I prompted her for her knowledge of folklore/folk tradition/folk beliefs, she was reminded of her family’s New Years tradition.


Brianna: “We eat twelve grapes each — one for every month of the year. And when you eat each grape you make a wish. Oh, and you eat your grapes at midnight. It brings good luck for the year.”


Me: “And how do you know this tradition?”


Brianna: “I learned it from my grandmother. She passed the tradition down.”


Me: “And what does it mean to you?”


Brianna: “It’s just a nice superstition. Start of the year with something fresh.”



Like my informant shared, this is a good example of a superstition or folk belief. It is also similar to a few other New Years traditions of eating special dishes with family members. My informant did not share why grapes were particularly magical, so it’s plausible that her family does this ritual out of tradition to feel a family connection.  


Folk Beliefs

Haircuts Kill Uncles

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as HZ.

HZ: This involves a Mandarin wordplay, so it might not translate into English, but I think it’s funny. So there’s a saying in China, that in January—like lunar calendar January, the whole month of New Year—you can’t cut your hair.

BD: Why is that?

HZ: Because it will kill your uncle on your mother’s side. Your mother’s brother. Because in Mandarin, we differentiate your mother’s siblings and your father’s siblings.
So your mother’s brother is “舅舅” (pinyin: jiù ji), and your father’s brother is “弟弟” (pinyin: dì di). The saying goes “正 月 剃 头 思 旧” (pinyin: zhēng yuè tìtóu sī jiù) meaning that if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle is going to die. In the Qin dynasty, when the Qin government took over, they forced all the Hun people to shave their heads, and change their hairstyle. So if you look it up, the first half of the head is shaven, and there is hair only in the back half. But a lot of people who didn’t like the new government and were reminiscent of the old regime, they protested by not cutting their hair. Being nostalgic, the word for that are the last two characters in the saying, “思 旧” (pinyin: sī jiù). But it sounds very much like “死 舅” (pinyin: sǐ jiù), which means “to kill your uncle.” So people just started saying that cutting your hair will kill your uncle. A lot of people still choose to not cut their hair in the New Year’s month.

BD: Does your family believe it?

HZ: It’s obviously silly, and I don’t think it really matters. But everyone keeps saying it, and Chinese people are very superstitious. So if they really don’t need it, they will try not to cut their hair. It’s totally baseless, but people still avoid that. Old barbershops just close their businesses in the lunar new year month.



The article above discusses the same saying, as it is thought about today in modern day China. The informant is quite accurate in that many people today do not believe the idea that an uncle will die, if they cut their hair during the first month of the lunar year. But the article also introduces another saying into the mix—”a time for the dragon to raise its head.” So there’s two contrasting ideas about getting a haircut during the lunar new year month. The photo caption introduces another superstition, that “getting a haircut on the second day of the second Chinese lunar month, which falls on March 6 this year, is likely to bring good luck.”

These varying superstitions around hair cutting and luck (whether it be good or bad) are all related to how words are spoken and thought of in Mandarin, or related to numbers and numerical values. I feel that this marks the significance of attributing specificity in meaning in Chinese culture. My informant, a linguistics major, would definitely agree.

Folk Beliefs

Paying for Pearls Superstition

Informant: The informant is Janet, a fifty-six-year-old woman from Yonkers, New York. She has lived in the Bronx and Westchester County, New York throughout her entire life. She is of Italian descent, is married, and has two children.

Context of the Performance: We sat next to each other on a couch in the living room of her house in Yonkers, New York over my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: I learned that you cannot give pearls as a gift, not even anything that contains a pearl. Pearls represent tears, meaning sadness, so if you give someone something with pearls, they must give you money in compensation, even if it as little as a penny. Then, it’s like they purchased the pearls from you and did not receive them as a gift. My mother taught me this at home when I was a teenager when she gave me a piece of jewelry with pearls. She asked me for a penny.

Interviewer: Why is this piece of folklore important to you?

Informant: This piece of folklore is important to me because I don’t want tears brought into my life because I associate crying with something bad happening in my life. I also don’t want this to happen to others. I am very superstitious, so I feel better and safer following this tradition, even though none of my friends had heard of this.

Personal Thoughts: I think that this piece is interesting because I had never heard of something like this. Providing compensation for a gift is unusual, and I have never participated in anything like that. I also like this tradition because while it requires the receiver to provide money, it promotes the selflessness of the giver. The receiver must only provide a single penny, and the giver is not only giving a gift but also looking out for the the luck of the receiver.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

“Rabbit Rabbit” Superstition

Informant: The informant is Janet, a fifty-six-year-old woman from Yonkers, New York. She has lived in the Bronx and Westchester County, New York throughout her entire life. She is of Italian descent, is married, and has two children.

Context of the Performance: We sat next to each other on a couch in the living room of her house in Yonkers, New York over my spring break from college.

Original Script:

Informant: I was taught a habit of making sure that the first two words I say at the start of each month are “Rabbit, rabbit.” Doing this apparently provides good luck for the month. I learned this idea from one of my co-workers at American Home Products Corporation in 1980. I have followed it ever since. Later, another one of my co-workers from England said that they only say “Rabbit, rabbit” on the first of March in England. I don’t know which story is “true,” so I say these words every month just to be on the safe side.

Interviewer: Why do you like this piece?

Informant: I likes this piece because I was told that if she were to start the month off with this phrase, I would be safe throughout the month. So I likes this piece of folklore because it gives me peace of mind. It’s almost like a security blanket for the month in my opinion. I even have a paper on my bedside table where I wrote “Rabbit Rabbit” so that I don’t forget to say it.

Personal Thoughts: What interests me about this piece is that the words she says are “Rabbit Rabbit.” Why would the tradition be to say that specific word, and why twice? I looked into it online and found an article written by a woman whose family follows this tradition as well. She, however, only says the word once. She found that this sort of superstition has been around for hundreds of years and originated in England and that some say the word three times in a row. Yet, the meaning behind saying that particular word is unknown, though it might suggest jumping into the future of the new month with happiness. For more information on her experience and research, visit rabbit/.

Folk Beliefs


My friend from Paraguay told me about this special drink which wards off illness.

Me: What is it?

Friend:”Carrulim is a drink that’s made from sugar cane alcohol, lemon, and some other herbs and spices. It started with the medicine men in the Guarani tribe, which is the tribe of people native to Paraguay before the Spanish arrived.”

Me: When do you drink it?

Friend:”Well I don’t drink it, I think it’s mostly old people and people who live in the country. But it’s only for the first day of August, because August is the month where the weather is worst and a lot of people get sick. There’s a saying that goes: August is the month when skinny cows die.” So yeah if you drink it, it’s only in August.”

Me: Have you ever tried it?

Friend: “Yeah. It’s a disgusting drink. I thought it sounded good but it tasted so bad. I probably will like it when I’m an old man- then again, I’ll “need” it when I’m an old man so I make it through August!”

Analysis: This custom harkens back to a time when people were worried about the harsh weather and how it would effect them. Today, we can control our living conditions with a button (at least in more modern countries) but back before this, people had to ward off illness any way they could. Today this custom serves more as a protection or good luck charm for older people. Perhaps it is psychosomatic– if you drink this, you will believe you won’t get sick, and if you don’t drink it, you will worry about being sick.