Collector: Do you ever say shotgun before you ride in a car?
Informant: Yeah, sometimes.
Collector: Do you have rules for that?
Informant: It’s usually when we’re on my ranch and we want to go for a ride on the four wheeler, on our ranger, which is like a golf cart. If my brother and I want to go, I’ll call shotgun. It’s usually just whoever says it first.
Informant is a freshman at the University of Southern California. She is studying Theater Arts in the School of Dramatic Arts here. She is from Austin Texas. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house. Much of what she told me was learned from her sister or her own experiences.
This is a piece of folklore that I personally see multiplicity and variation in. For many people, the only requirement of shotgun is that you have to call it first. In my experience, we have three rules. The first is that whoever calls it first gets to ride shotgun. The second is that everyone has to be within vision of the car. The third is that everyone has to have their shoes on. This third rule usually trips everyone up, but it has a purpose. It is to make sure everyone is actually ready to get into the car and go. Nobody can run out, call shotgun, and come back to finish getting ready. This type of thing is a funny little ritual, and people put more stock into it when riding in the front is a cooler thing to do than riding in the back, for example if you’re in a Jeep Wrangler with the front doors off.
Informant: There’s like, France. The x. The zero. Something zero.
Collector: Point zero?
SC: Point zero, yeah. In front of the…Notre Dame. And I have never stepped on it, but I have been to Paris multiple times.
MR: I’ve only been to Paris once, and I didn’t step on it.
Informant is a sophomore at the University of Southern California. She is studying Narrative Studies and plans to have a minor in Songwriting. She is from a suburb outside of Chicago, Illinois. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house one day. We were sitting together with some of my other informants. Much of what she told me was learned from her own experiences.
This is something I’ve heard about from multiple people and have read about in books. There seems to be a connection between some part of great cities and either returning to the city or having a wish come true. This is a kind of combination of superstitions and rituals and just might subconsciously influence people to return to the city. I can see a similar type of thing with the Trevi Fountain in Rome, Italy, where if you toss a coin and make a wish the wish will come true. These old cities seem to have a type of magic to them which attracts you to return or fulfill a wish.
Informant: I am scared of everything, so anyone else’s superstitions genuinely become mine because I am afraid.
Collector: Can you give me some examples?
MG: Um… When I was a rower, I, like, had to eat a very specific meal before every race, like, I wore, like, the same underwear every time under my uni, like, wore the same socks… I had a full orange, an orange sports bra, an orange set of underwear, and these orange socks that I wore, and one time, I could not find the other orange sock, and I had to go to Costco and buy another giant pack of socks because there was only one orange one in the set, but there were, like, it was a big set of socks.
Informant is a junior at the University of Southern California. She is studying communications here. She is from Boston, Massachusetts. She spent a while in the southern part of Spain, and speaks fluent Spanish. I spoke to her while we were eating lunch at my sorority house one day. We were sitting together with some of my other informants. Much of what she told me was learned from her own experiences.
We were in the middle of talking about folklore and ghost stories, and the conversation turned toward superstitions because Maya said she was very afraid of everything. She has a very particular way of doing things just because and often picks up habits from other people. This type of superstition is seen, I think, in a lot of different people. It manifests itself slightly differently every time, but for the most part many people who are athletes or performers have this type of superstition where they have a ritual or specific thing they need during every meet or performance.
While talking about family traditions, my friend started talking about a peculiar custom her family does for Christmas.
Informant: “The angry elf comes on Christmas Eve and, um, he like, he’ll hit you with a soft present. It’s usually pajamas wrapped in newspaper, and like it’ll be when you’re not looking, you’ll get hit behind the head and… one time my cousin Lucas like he saw the elf and he jumped out the window to go find the elf. He like, dive rolled out the window. He opened the window to go catch the elf. He never caught the elf.”
Collector: “But like, obviously someone…”
Informant: “Yeah, as I grew up I figured it was my mom, and my brothers. And we still do it like, well, the elf came! And like, I’ll do it to my parents now. Its fun”
Collector: “Where does your mom come from? Like, does she throw it through the window?”
Informant: “No, she wasn’t actually outside the window but like when my cousin chased after the elf, he was like putting on a whole show, like ‘I think he ran outside the window!’”
“Oh, I see”
Informant: “It was intense”
Collector: “Is this something that just happens within your family, or have you heard of anyone else doing this?”
Informant: “I’ve never heard of anyone else doing this”
Collector: “Do you know how it started?”
Informant: “I don’t. Probably when the three kids were there. It was me and my two brothers. It was all like, all my house. Like everyone just put on this big show. Probably the idea of elves came from the Waldorf School that they went to, because you leave your shoes out, and then on Christmas eve the elves fill your shoes with candy. I think that’s a German tradition.”
Collector: “And you’ve done this ever since you can remember? This angry elf thing?”
It’s interesting to see that different families have different Christmas gift-giving traditions. Some have Santa Claus, others elves, and others have both. It’s also interesting to see how families continue traditions of magical gift-giving beings long after their kids have grown up and no longer seriously believe in these beings, in order to continue a family tradition.
The informant was a high school classmate that graduated the same year as me and also is studying at USC. We met up for a snack at one of the cafes on campus and, then sat outside to catch up and exchange news and stories.
If you see a Menehune or hear their drums, you’re supposed to take off all your clothes and lie on the ground without making eye contact, or else they will kill you. To show even more deference, you have to further humiliate yourself in front of them.
The informant learned of this superstitious ritual from K (informant’s friend). He had said that his Aunt and Uncle had gone camping once, and they realized they were actually on a Menehune trail when they saw eyes watching them while they were sitting around the campfire. They then had to get naked and pee on themselves and bow down on their stomachs, in order to show that they were lesser beings than the Menehune, and to show respect.
Background & Analysis
The informant was born and raised in Waimea town on the Big Island of Hawaii. K is a good friend who is native Hawaiian, and his family follows traditional Hawaiian customs and practices. Supposedly if you heed the superstition, you will be okay. K has told the informant many other scary stories about Hawaii as well, and also ones about good spirits.
This superstition was fascinating to me, because I know a different version. In all my life living in Hawaii, I have always perceived the Menehune as mischievous tricksters, yet relatively benign. Also, I have always heard they bring good luck if you come across one. In a way, they have always been the Hawaiian leprechauns to me. The ritual the informant described to me is very similar to the ritual you are supposed to perform if you come across Night Marchers on a Night Marcher trail. Night Marchers were the warriors of the ancient Hawaiian Kings, that continue protect the Kings in spirit form. If you come across them, you are supposed to bow on the ground and avoid eye contact, and hope that the warriors spare your life. It appears that as this ritual spread across Hawaii and over time, the exact spirit or mystical creature it centers around has become confused and interchangeable.
The informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He is a father, grandfather, worked in advertising for 60 years, and loves baseball.
Interviewer: “Do you remember anything your mom used to cook?”
Informant: “Yes, she made brisket. It was so good.”
Interviewer: “Did she make it from a recipe?”
Informant: “No, she made it herself. And it was something her mom had taught her. It was so good, nobody could match it. She gave the recipe to Nancy way back when. She also made the keegal or kugel, whichever you call it, she made that on her own recipe.
Interviewer: “Is that the one Aunt Nancy uses at Seder?”
Informant: “Nancy has it, yes. She makes that one. Although it’s not quite as good as Marcia’s was.”
As with my previous collection of food-related folklore, I see a strong emotional connection to the discussion of food. This could be because the food talked about is usually something cooked by an immediate family member at some special occasion or holiday when family is gathered. So it isn’t so much the food alone that makes the informant emotional, but the memories tied up with the food. When a recipe has been passed down from family member to family member it only strengthens and nuances the connection to a food.
My informant is the mother of a USC student. She is an immigrant from Cameroon and came to America with her husband and son before giving birth to their daughter.
“A pregnant woman would, should…at all cost avoid seeing what she would consider as ugly until the gives birth. The fear, is that uh, her baby will become ugly if she does. It is also believed that if she eats a cobra before giving birth that it will speed the delivery of the baby. Again, this—cobra—is a delicacy usually reserved for only, for only the men. If you have not realized it yet, my people in every way see women as less than equal to men. A good woman is supposed to be behind her husband. He must have the last word, she must sleep behind him, she must please him at all cost. This is of course…changing with the access to higher education and influence of western culture. Divorce rates are soaring and more women are opting to marry later, not get married, and not have children…husbands are even blamed when their wives are troublesome because they cannot control her!”
Analysis: This belief illuminates the importance of beauty within Cameroonian culture. Especially in the case of the birth being a girl, it would be desired for her to be beautiful so she could marry a wealthy and handsome husband. In addition, the allowance of women to consume cobra during pregnancy demonstrates that women who are bearing children are considered of a higher status than women who are not, because they are allowed to eat foods that are typically reserved only for men (who are looked at with more respect within Cameroonian society). My informant made a point of reiterating that men in their society are more highly valued than women, however also made note that within the western world these beliefs have lost value due to women in the United States being able to attend school and support themselves without a husband. Of course there are communities and families who still adhere strictly to these beliefs even though they live in a western nation such as America.
“I don’t know how long it’s been in practice, but like every time like we wear pins, like a pledge pin on the right side [of your chest] when you’re pledging and then you put it on the left when you have been initiated. So, ‘cause the left side is your heart, so like the service pin is more on your heart like, you’re like in. Um, and then during the initiation ceremony we like light candles for each, kind of characteristic we talk about, um, and then we also, when people are ushered in to the initiation ceremony they’re, they have to close their eyes and not look and they get in a line with hand on shoulder, like in lines of maybe ten people and then someone leads them who’s an active member already to lead them to the place of the initiation. And then once they’re all there, um, they can open their eyes and then they, everybody says their name in order and they say the oath repeating after the person leading the ceremony. Um, let’s see. That happens once when you find out you’re gonna become a pledge and that happens another time when you’re initiated to become an active member. The pledging period is, like, a semester long, basically . . . It just seems like it’s always been done that way and so, when I experienced it as a pledge, it’s how I also experienced it as an active, like it, it feels like it’s always been that way.”
The informant was a 21-year-old USC student who studies biology and is currently applying to medical schools. This interview took place in the new Annenberg building when I was having a conversation with another friend about superstition and the informant started to volunteer information about the rituals that have taken place in her life. She is a part of the campus service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega, or APO and has been for all four years she has been at USC. APO is co-ed and is somewhat culturally removed from USC’s other Greek life. It states its principle values are “leadership, friendship, and service” and the members of this service fraternity are supposed to embody those values in their everyday lives.
This ceremony is clearly a liminal moment that has been ritualized. It is a way for new members to join the fraternity on a consistent basis while knowing that they have the approval of the active members. Essentially, it is a way of very clearly establishing who is a part of the frat, who is not, and who is in the process of joining. I thought it was interesting that the informant interpreted the movement of the service pin from the right side to the left side as having to do with the left side being where your heart is. Part of me believes this interpretation is influenced by her studying biology and the human anatomy currently being the most important area of study in her life, while the other part thinks this is probably the original symbolic meaning of the movement. Having the pin on the right side of your chest makes it merely a form of decoration, at most an acknowledgment that you are interested in being a part of this organization. However, as soon as you move it to the left side of your chest, it is a statement that the organization is a big part of your life as it is next to one of your most vital organs.
The repetition of the initiation ceremony is important, as it gives the active members and pledges a period to adjust to the change in the community. It is noteworthy that the active members light a candle for each “characteristic” that an APO member should embody, i.e. leadership, friendship, and service, as this means three candles are lit and three is an important symbolic number in American culture. I think the reasoning behind making the pledges close their eyes when they are led to the ceremony has more to do with symbolism than it does with keeping the location of the ceremony a secret. The pledges are going to find out where the ceremony is as soon as they open their eyes, so there is really no reason to think that keeping the location a secret is an important part of the ritual. Rather, I think it has to do with the fact that when the pledges close their eyes they are in a location that represents their lives before APO, and when they open them they are somewhere that represents the their new lives with this fraternity. This action also increases the suspense and sacredness of this ritual. That an active member leads the lines of pledges into the ceremony shows the approval of the existing members of APO and is an important step in making this outgroup a part of the in-group.
“I remember growing up in Puerto Rico and always looking forward La Noche de San Juan Bautista, or the annual night the patron saint of Puerto Rico was celebrated. The festival began on the night before June 23 and people came to the beaches to party with food and music. The ritual would begin at midnight by people building bonfires and jumping into the ocean to cleanse their spirits for the next year. The waters were supposedly sacred and blessed with magical healing powers that night, though I didn’t really believe in much of what other people told me. We were supposed to swim into the water at least 7 times to be cleansed, while others did 12. Others took the ritual more seriously, sometimes taking three turns then jumping into the water backwards upon each swim. I always loved the ocean and took this as an opportunity to enjoy the warm waters under the night sky without my parents having to worry about where I might be.”
When I come home for the weekend, I often get the chance to talk with our housekeeper who tells me about her history and many of her stories. She grew up in Puerto Rico and is full of both funny and suspenseful stories from her youth in a small townoutside of San Juan. When I told her that I was in the process of collecting stories for my folklore project, she was more than happy to share with me some of her memories. Due to her love of the ocean, this ritual she did with her parents was one of the first that came to mind. I could tell that though she seemed to dismiss the notion of the “blessed waters,” she really missed her family and friends back home and the traditions they partook in. She spoke longingly about the kinds of foods they ate and how the ritual was passed down from generations. She learned all about the celebration from her parents and its meaning, telling me that the ritual had been performed yearly since the end of Spanish Colonization. Though many in the city didn’t celebrate it, it was still a big deal to people in outlying areas and was a huge communal celebration.
I enjoyed hearing about this ritual because here in America, I feel that ritual is not necessarily a large part of our identity, with maybe an exception to Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July. Everyone does have their own personal rituals for one event or another, but they are not apart of a greater communal tradition that have been passed down over generations. It’s very interesting to hear about how something such as the notion of healing waters has been passed down reverently from generation to generation and largely believed and participated in by most of a community.