AA is an 18 year old high school senior. She is a member of her school’s show choir group, a performance ensemble that incorporates elements of musical theater and choir. She often goes to competitions with her team. Here she describes a pre-show practice for good luck that is deeply significant to her:
“So for show choir- our team is not very good. We’re not known as the high school that wins every competition or has elaborate dance routines or great costumes. A lot of it is because we’re so underfunded. But one thing we are really good at is teamwork.
So, before every show, the whole group will gather backstage, including the choir director and the choreographer. We all get together in a big circle and we hold each other’s hands, and then we pass a squeeze around the group to each person. Basically it symbolizes that everyone is involved, everyone’s talents are appreciated, and we’re all in this together. There’s this great sense of unity, and whatever happens, happens, that’s fine- we’re here for each other.”
I think it started as a way of calming everyone’s nerves before a big competition, but we always make sure to do it for good luck too. We never go onstage without doing this first because otherwise we might not perform as well as we could.”
Do you know who started this, or how long ago?
“I think it’s been around in our school’s show choir for a very long time. I know our choir president has been doing it all four years, and that the previous president- before any of us were even freshmen- did it too. So it’s been around for a while.”
Do you know about any other teams or schools that do this?
“I think it’s just us, at least in show choir. Only people in our show choir, in this group, know about this. When we go to competitions, we notice that each team has their own thing that they do- we notice it too. Like we saw one group put their heads together and go “caw caw!” and flap their arms or something like that- there are some weird ones! They’re all very different. But no matter how weird it may look to us, it’s special to them. It’s comforting. It’s kind of a way to relieve your stage fright and whether or not it actually gives us good luck, it’s good to have some peace of mind when you’re going onstage.”
My thoughts: Pre-show rituals for good luck are often a great way to make a group feel closer to one another- they denote you as an official member of that group. The informant mentions that each team has their own unique ritual that brands them as belonging to a specific school. I think this ritual also ties into the anxieties many high schoolers feel regarding their identities- they are often looking for a group to belong to. Also, the ritual helps to dispell any stage fright the performers might have, so it doesn’t matter as much whether it actually grants good luck or not because it’s a reassuring gesture either way.
Tradition: The Club Swim Team at the University of Southern California always does a chant involving bananas before every swim meet.
The informant is a 20 year old female USC student, who is on the swim team.
Informant: Before every swim meet, we always do this chant with bananas. Everyone on the team holds a banana in their hand, and we all chant:
“Are you ready to go bananas? (Everyone screams)
Peel bananas, peel peel bananas!
Swim bananas, swim swim bananas!
Fight bananas, fight fight bananas!
Win bananas, win win bananas!”
Collector: Why do you guys like to do this chant?
Informant: I think that it it gets everyone excited, and it’s a lot of fun.
Collector: What do you do with the bananas after the chant?
Informant: Most people just eat the bananas after the chant.
Collector: Where did you learn this chant from?
Informant: One of the members on the team taught it to us. He learned it from his swim team before joining our swim team.
I think that the swim team does this chant to get pumped up for their competition. I don’t know why they chose to use a banana, but it reminds me of the idea of ‘going bananas’ (going crazy), in a good way that gets everyone excited. Another reason may be that bananas are a health food and helps relieve muscle cramps for swimming. The words in the chant itself “swim,” “fight,” and “win” are suggestive of what the team wants–to swim, fight, and win the competition.
S is a 21-year-old Filipino woman. She is currently majoring in Business Administration at the University of Southern California. She grew up in the Philippines and therefore identifies as Filipino, however, she also identifies as Chinese. S speaks English, Mandarin, Tagalog and Hokkien, the last being two of many languages specific to the Philippines.
S: So for like the Chinese culture there is so many, like it’s so crazy, but I guess, like the most popular ones, like would wearing red for like a birthday count as folklore?
Me: Yeah. But why wold you wear red for a birthday?
S: So like, so it’s the belief of the Chinese that red is like the ultimate like color for luckiness, and just like power and everything, so for your birthday you want everyone to be wearing red. And if anyone comes in wearing black, like that’s a big no no, ’cause black would mean like death or just like negative things, and like wearing black to a birthday or like any happy celebration would be like, it’s a sign of like disrespect and like wish that person like that bad luck. so never do that.
Me: Is it something that you do even now that you’re here? Like now that you live in the U.S.?
S: Um, no, not here, but if I’m with like family, or if I know that it’s a Chinese family, it’s like a more common known thing. So like even all around the world, you know. Yeah, so, but like you can wear other colors actually, as long as it’s not black though.
S talks about the Chinese culture in which it is customary to wear red on birthdays because the color red symbolizes luckiness, power, and in general just has good connotations. She says that it is okay to wear other colors as well, though it isn’t the same thing as wearing red, as long as you don’t wear black. Black symbolizes death and has other bad connotations so black is not to be worn on happy occasions, and it is considered disrespectful if people do wear black on happy occasions. Though she does not follow the practice so much now that she lives in Los Angeles, she still does when she is with family or other Chinese people.
Then there’s the folklore of Testudo. It’s the statue at the University of Maryland, of a land turtle, a terrapin, it’s this big turtle it sits on a big granite, uh…pedestal, in front of the library. And his nose is really shiny, because people rub his nose for good luck. Whenever you pass by him. And the legend is that when a virgin graduates from the University of Maryland, the turtle will do a backflip. And no one’s ever seen the turtle move. Put that in there!
Do you remember when you first heard it?
Orientation! Freshmen orientation.
Who told it to you?
The Orientation leader.
This turtle statue is clearly a point of pride and identification for the University and its students. Located in the middle of campus, and symbolic of their school pride (it being their mascot), it is in the public eye and everyone seems to participate in the traditions surrounding it. First, there’s the belief that if you rub its nose you will have good luck – which is a unifying ritual that all students can share, and enforces their school culture. Second, the joke that implies that no virgin has every graduated from the University of Maryland is also clearly a point of pride and culture. And third, the fact that orientation leaders distribute this tale to new students as a kind of intitiatory introduction to what the school culture is all about, shows that the students pride themselves (and make fun of themselves) for “getting around” and having fun in college. This is saying to the new students, welcome, you will have fun here and I promise you will get laid in college – with a subtle warning that if you don’t, everyone will know you’re a virgin because the statue will do a backflip! You don’t want that humiliation or want to kill the tradition.
Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.
An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:
“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”
Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.
Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.
This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.
Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.
For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.
“So when I was a little girl my grandma, I used to live with my grandma in Hawaii and whenever she told me to get ready for bed, I would get ready for bed and you know how, like, little kids will sometimes, um, like put their clothes on inside out or backwards. Well, my grandma, I would do that occasionally and my grandma ended up convincing me that that . . . like that brought good luck and like if you do that, then it brings good luck. So then I started purposely, purposefully, um, wearing my pajamas backwards and inside out and my mom never understood it, but I always would tell her, obviously, that it brings good luck.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies communication and minors in dance and is a part of a prominent sorority on campus. She grew up in a relatively small town in southern California (with short stretches in other areas of the country) and was the captain of a prominent sports organization. She has danced for her entire life and, when she was growing up, would often drive for long stretches of time with her family to dance competitions. This interview took place while the informant, whom I live with, was making lunch and telling me about her grandmother’s superstitions. Of her grandmother, she said, “My grandma’s a very spiritual person. She still believes it, she’ll still tell me.” She went on to say, “It’s like a family joke now. So like if I come down now wearing my pajamas inside out and backwards, my grandma will always be like, ‘Oh! It’s really good luck, right?’ . . . My mom thinks it’s a joke, but my grandma’s like super serious about it, she’s like, ‘It is. It is for good luck.’”
When I asked the informant what she thinks it means, she said, “My grandma’s very spiritual and thinks everything happens for a reason and so, like, the average person puts on their clothes the normal way that it’s supposed to be worn, so if you think you’re putting on your clothes a certain way and it turns out it’s actually backwards or inside out, well then it must mean something else. Then it must mean that there’s good luck coming to you.” When I said I had never heard of this folk belief before, the informant noted, “It’s interesting because I brought [the folk belief] up in my practice, and one of the girls said that she was taught that growing up, if she were to wear her pajamas inside out or backwards that it was gonna bring snow. And so during the winter seasons, she did that as a young girl hoping it would bring snow.”
At the end of the interview, the informant said, “And the thing is, I still do, a little part of me still believes that it’s gonna bring me good luck.”
This folk belief was interesting to me because it’s such a simple action, yet it is thought by some to make something happen, such as bring good luck or make it snow. I think it is partially performed because it is a relatively silly thing to get children to do, and it gives them a sense of control over the world. It could also serve as a way to teach them to embrace the unusual side of their personalities. When they perform this folk belief, they are doing something that goes against social norms. However, they are told this action causes good things to happen, and so the thought process behind it is reinforced.
Informant (“A”) is a 19 year old, female from Rancho Santa Fe, California, and attends The University of Southern California. She is a Human Biology major. She is of European descent and her family includes her mother, father, and older brother who attends college in Texas. Informant has studied ballet for 17 years, including work in a professional company.
A: “…Now this one is going to sound really weird but recently there was a production of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ and there was this kinda offensive song sung in it.
This sort of got turned into a backstage chant, and like I’ve also heard other people do this too. We all huddle in and whisper this ‘We’re gonna rape, kill, pillage and burn, we’re gonna rape kill pillage and burn, eat the babies’. We say this multiple times getting louder each time until all of us are full on screaming it backstage. You know how people can like to scream vaguely offensive stuff, but its not that bad to us because we all know where it’s from. Then right before I go on stage I’ll do like a cross, you know the like Catholic one. I’m not really religious but I’ve been doing it for years. I think it started when I did a really hard solo and it had that cross in it. It basically tells me that I’ve done all I can and now I just have to perform. It’s another aspect of getting mentally ready, because so much of performing is about being physically but also mentally on your game.”
Analysis: The crossing seems to be a sort of parody of superstition. It may be an attempt to ‘use’ a previously accepted superstition in a socially accepted way or to comically parody their own use of superstition before the performance.
This backstage chant seems to be a sort of ‘trust building exercise’ that uses both humor and chanting to reinforce a sense of community. In high stress situations like ballet performances, such reinforcement likely serves to cater trust in other dancers, as the difference between an effective performance and a mishap could rely on other dancers.
Informant H is 19 years old and was born in Inglewood CA. She moved to a place near Valencia just outside of LA soon after she was born. After 5 years, her little sister was born, then her little brother, and then her youngest sister. The family then moved to Bakersfield. H homeschooled for many years and then transitioned into a public high school.
H: So the very first people who started Xpressions started this um I guess its like a pre-show ritual where they have this little purple fuzzy stuffed animal and he’s about, I don’t know, he’s very small like this size, like a small ball. And we stand in a circle um backstage before its time for our show and the director holds the little fuzzy bear and he goes around and he puts it in front of everyone and everyone has to kiss the fuzzy bear for good luck.
Me: That’s really cute. Do you think people believe this will actually give them good luck and if they don’t do it like maybe they wont have a good performance that night?
H: Not necessarily. I think we know that the amount of effort and time we put into it is what’s gonna make it a good show but I think its just something that everyone has done every semester. So just knowing that from the very first group of people who did it now were doing it its cool that connection to the people who started it.
Me: So it’s about the history and the tradition more?
Me: Do you think the bear itself has any significance? Other than it was picked sort of randomly, do you know why it’s purple…?
H: I don’t know why its purple, I think its just a personal article, I don’t know any other significance to the bear.
Me: Do you believe personally that if you had done this or if you don’t, do you think something is going to happen?
H: Nope! I just think it’s a cute tradition.
Me: Do you think that’s why people do it? They just do this because it’s a nice bonding exercise?
H: Yes, I think it’s very much like a bonding exercise.
Me: Do you think it serves any other function besides a bonding thing between you guys?
H: I feel like bonding is mainly…and just that you know that that’s something you have in common with the Xpressions people because I know its changed over the years. So that’s something you have in common with someone who is an alumni of Xpressions, like oh you remember when you kissed the fuzzy bear?
Me: Is this like a secret thing? Do you guys talk about it very much?
H: Um no its just something we do like right before the show just like oh remember guys kiss the bear.
Me: And all the new members everyone together…?
H: Yeah everyone.
This dance group uses this fun tradition and ritual to bring all its members together and prepare them to work together as a unit for the show. Like other rituals, it ties them to the past and the origins of the group while keeping them in the present as they are about to perform. Also like other rituals, this takes place on a liminal moment in time, right before the dancers perform and is used to bring the dancers good luck. This ritual also includes a kind of folk item, the fuzzy bear.
“When USC students go to football games, as they head off of campus they kick the flagpoles on the edge of campus. It’s suppose to be for good luck. It’s supposed to help the team win. I heard about it when I was at orientation and the guide pointed at the poles and told us that ‘All the students kick theese poles on the way to the Collesium.’ It’s like a superstition thing. I have done it once during freshman year when I went to a game and sure enough when I did it I saw tons of other people doing it too. It’s definitely caught on.”
As a fellow student at USC I know this tradition to be true. It is interesting to note that this was taught during the orientation process to the university. During orientation at USC students are not only taught official protocols of the university but they are also taught about the unofficial culture of the campus, through an official medium. The kicking of the flag pole could even be considered a ‘right of passage’ for students attending football games. As if only the true fans and devoted students partake in this good luck ritual. This tradition is not only to ensure success for the football team during the game, but also an initiation into true fandom.
홍두깨도깨비(Hong Du Kkye Dogyebi) – Dokgyebi’s Club
Born in Korea before the split, she managed to escape to South Korea during the Korean War with her husband and family. She immigrated to the U.S. and resides in New Jersey with her eldest son and her grandchildren.
도깨비가 자기의 홍두깨를 치고 다니면 돈이 가득하게 찬 우물하고 분수들이 땅에서 나타난데. 도개비는 머리위에 유니콘처럼 뿔이있고 마술사 같아. 사람들에게 “넌 뭘 갖고싶니?” 하면서 돌아다녀. 좋은 사람들한테만 주지 근데. 나쁜 사람이 돈 달라고하면 아니면 소원을 빌면 그 도깨비는 얼굴이 화나게 변신을하고 그 나쁜 사람에게 불행을 빌지. 도깨비는 밤에만 나타나. 어떤 귀신이라고 생각할수도있고, 하지만 무섭지는않아. 착한 귀신이지, 좋은 사람한테는.
When the dokgyebi hits its club around wells of money springs out. It has a small horn on its head, like a unicorn. It is like a magician and can make things appear or make wishes come true. It walks around and asks people what they want. When a bad person asks a dokgyebi for money or a wish, the dokgyebi face become mad and wishes the bad person illness. When a good person asks a dokgyebi for money or a wish, it is granted. A dokgyebi only appears at night. It is a type of ghost, but it is not scary to nice people.
A dokgyebi appears randomly and only at night. It is a mystical figure, almost a cross between a ghost and a fairy. Instead of a wand it carries around a club, which signifies that it is not only nice but also can be bad. However, it is mean to only people with bad hearts or ill intentions. The meaning of the story is that one should be careful of how one lives, no matter the time and space. You never know who is watching you and so you should always try to lead a give life, inside and out.