Informant is a 20 year old college student at the University of Chicago. She is a creative writer, activist, and political science major. She grew up in Highland Park, Illinois with her two parents and two younger brothers.
Informant: “So here in Chicago, we have a thing called snow. It actually gets quite cold if you remember.”
Interviewer: “I remember!”
Informant: “Just wanted to remind you since now you live in sunny, always blue-skied, 70 degree Cali. Anyways, there are times that so much snow accumulates that school is canceled. Not very often, but every now and then. Usually ever year, but sometimes just once every two or three years.”
Interviewer: “I totally remember those! They were the best…”
Informant: “They were! Do you remember what we all used to do in the hopes there would be a snow day?”
Interviewer: “Sort of, but not entirely.”
Informant: “Okay, let me refresh your memory. We would put a spoon under our pillow before going to bed—some people put it under their bed, and some people didn’t put a spoon but a fork—and that was supposed to make a snow day happen. But not just out of the blue. IT had to already be pretty snowy, or supposed to snow heavily.”
Interviewer: “Do you remember who told you to do that? Or who told you that worked?”
Informant: “No specific person that I remember. I think we all just sort of knew to do it. Like everyone talked about it working, or having worked.”
I can’t figure why a spoon was the object placed under one’s bed or one’s pillow to conjure a snow day, but I do remember doing this once in the hopes of a snow day. I can’t say for sure if it was my having placed the spoon under my bed or Mother Nature, but we did in fact have school canceled the next day…
I actually googled the practice and found several articles as well as some other ways to conjure snow days! For more snow day “magic,” see http://www.grandhaventribune.com/article/strange-grand-haven/265096.
The notion of “conjuring up snow days”, talked about in the article, brings to mind Voodoo. It’s fascinating that magic or voodoo was so looked down on for so long, and even to an extent is now in the very hyper-scientific society in which we live, but that it holds such an important role for people. This again speaks to belief, and how strong it is despite changing times or new scientific discoveries.
The informant is a 19-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. I mentioned that homeopathic remedies were a form of folklore and she told me about this remedy her mom taught her.
Informant: “I got colds a lot when I was a kid, so I remember this one very well. My mom used to take eggs, boil them and then take the warm boiled eggs—two of them—in a towel. You use two because they go on either side of your nose so that your sinuses get released. It’s super weird sounding and it looks funny too. But it works! It actually felt really really nice. It was super comforting.
Interviewer: “Wow, I would never think to do that! But it makes sense.
Informant: “Yea, well Russians had them, the eggs, because chickens were a thing they had. Even in the Soviet Union where there was so much poverty and people had almost nothing. They still had chickens! So I guess this was a way to alleviate sinus pressure when it was cold as hell and people would get sick.”
What the informant said about eggs being something readily available to people in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union makes a lot of sense. Homeopathic remedies from different places often involve plants or food with similar properties, but that grow in different regions, native to whatever area the person giving the remedy is from. This says a lot about the nature of folklore, and once again reminds me of the film, Whose Song is it?, in the variety of folklore concerning one topic, or the variances of a particular piece of folklore.
“I remember a religious custom which I think my paternal grandmother brought with her from Sonora, Mexico. It utilized a dried palm frond that had been blessed on Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Good Friday which commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus.
In the New Testament Jesus is described as entering Jerusalem seated on an ass where he was greeted by crowds of people, cheering and waving palm fronds in welcome. Thus was fulfilled the messianic prophecy of Isaiah.
In the religious Mexican folklore I refer to, the dried palm frond blessed on Palm Sunday bore special power. That is, at the onset of a thunder and lightning storm (a sometimes powerful phenomenon in Arizona), a small piece of the palm frond would be burned to ward off any potential lightning strike.
It worked. Our home was never struck by lightning.”
Today, my informant regards this practice as a superstition, rather than a religious practice. Yet, this unusual ritual seems to exemplify the fine line between religious ritual, folk ritual, and superstition. Although not specifically sanctioned by the Catholic Church, this practice was clearly a spiritual experience for my informant’s family, as they believed that the palm frond bestowed their home with divine protection. At the same time, however, this practice seems rather like homeopathic magic–it employs palm fronds due to their association with Jesus in the New Testament.
Background: “I grew up in Lithuania, and in Lithuania, you have Poles and Lithuanians who are Catholic, Russians who are Russian Orthodox, and Jews. We were a Jewish family, and I was always told that Jews do not have superstitions. But all my friends were either Polish or Russians, and they had superstitions, and eventually, I felt like, ‘well, it’s safer to believe in it.’”
Superstition about Fixing Clothes: “If something was torn on me and needed to be fixed fast, my mom would take a thread and sew, let’s say a button or something like that. I would be given a little piece of the thread to keep in my mouth, in order not to sew my brain out. If you don’t suck on the thread, then your brain can get sewn onto the garment and you would be stupid.”
Q. Do you know where this came from?
A. That came from my mother, and she came from Belarus, so it must come from Belarus.
Analysis: It is fascinating to compare my informant’s account with a description of this same superstition that Alan Dundes gives in International Folkloristics: “Or take the Jewish superstition that claims it is very bad luck to repair a garment while that garment is being worn by an individual. Once one realizes that the only time a garment is sewn on a person is when a body is being prepared for burial, one can understand the custom. In other words, repairing a garment—for example, by sewing on a button—is enacting a funeral ritual . . . In such instances the person wearing the garment being repaired must chew on bread or thread to counteract the potential danger” (Dundes 115).
When I shared this passage with my informant, she said that his logic makes sense to her, although she had never heard his explanation before; she had always thought the warning about one’s brains being sewn to be silly, but had never been told any better reasons for the tradition. Perhaps, this is because in more recent societies, people are far enough removed from the practices surrounding death that they no longer carry the associations responsible for this superstition. Meanwhile, although my informant comes from a Jewish family, she knows nothing about this superstition being Jewish, only that she learned it from her mother. She also never heard that bread—as opposed to thread—can counteract the potential danger.
“The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics. Alan Dundes, ed. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. Print.
Informant: “There are more explanations to this superstition than the one I know, but the one I am aware of is that peacock feathers have all these eyes. And that you either don’t want all those eyes staring at you, or you don’t want all those extra eyes taking away your eyes as an actor. But I think there are more versions of that story. There is something that is connected to the past on that one. And that is one that, more than the others that I know of, some of the old actors take that one really seriously. And I’ve always felt that if someone involved in the production does believe in that superstition, honor the superstition and don’t use the peacock feathers in the production. But that is one that they have the right to have that superstition, because you don’t want that competition with all those eyes.”
In my research I was not able to determine the historical reasoning behind why peacock feathers are unlucky in theater. However, the idea that peacock feathers are unlucky is not unique to theater and can be found in British superstition and Greek superstition, which features the idea that the peacock feathers contain the Evil Eye. Perhaps because the theater has such a strong heritage from England and Greece, these superstitions have become integrated into theater superstitions.
My informant draws particular attention to the idea that having extra eyes on the actor is bad luck. In this logic, I don’t understand why having extra eyes on the actor would be a bad thing because you want the attention to be on the actor. But if the extra eyes are symbolic of the Evil Eye, and we are looking at the superstition in that context than the lore makes more sense to me. Having all those Evil Eyes on you is seen as bad luck in English and Greek cultures because they are thought to bring personal injury and misfortune to the person the Eye is on. When an actor is trying to perform, all their focus should be on the performance at hand. They can’t focus properly if they are worried about the ill fortune that the Evil Eye will bring to them.
The final idea is that you don’t want all those eyes to take away the audience’s attention or ‘eyes’ is also a possible theory. In theater the attention should be on the performer, and it is considered bad taste to upstage the actor through the use of a flashy set or costume. This is because it is the costume, lighting, and set designer’s job to make the actor look good, the focus should be on them. As another one of my professors at USC wisely puts it, “if the audience is looking at that little detail on the set, than there isn’t something wrong with the set, there is something wrong with the actor.” Therefore, the use of peacock feathers taking away from the attention of the actor possibly comes from the idea that they are very beautiful objects and thus distracting.
My informant was born in 1949, Connecticut. He works as a costume designer in the entertainment industry occasionally, and serves as the head of the USC costume shop in addition to being a faculty member for the USC School of Dramatic Arts. He has more than 40 years of experience in the theater.
Informant: “My grandma who was living in Ukraine had many domestic animals. And one day one of her neighbors stole one of her pigs. And she says, ‘Well it’s my pig. Just give it to me back.’ And he said ‘Nope. I went to the market, like farmers market during the weekend and I got it.’ And she said ‘No you didn’t. Because that is how my pig looked like.’ And the dude was refusing to give the pig back and grandma made a kind of, she just said like ‘Well, when you will eat my pig. You will choke on that.’ And that is exactly what happened like several- the dude died. And after that everybody in the village thought that my grandma was a witch, you know? Or that she had extra powers. So everybody was scared to upset grandma. And that’s actually coincidence you know, but it’s kind of… She said it with that intention you know, so like because you stole it and you are not admitting it that, and you are not giving my pig back it means my family will not have enough food for the winter. So it’s kind of you will eat it, but you will choke on it.”
The legend my informant mentioned reflects the strong belief in superstitions and in the supernatural people of Slavic origin have. This strong belief comes from the fact that historically life in the Slavic countries such as the Ukraine has been very difficult, due to political and environmental factors. There is a basic human desire to try and make life’s events logical, especially when things seem to beyond your control. As my informant mentioned perviously in the interview where she talked about Russian superstitions, people want to feel safe and find the reason behind why good things and bad things happen. Therefore people use superstitious beliefs to set up a system of rules to follow, which gives them the illusion that they have more control over their lives than they actually do.
My informant’s grandmother probably wasn’t cursing the man who stole her pig, she was saying that he will choke on the pig because her family might starve if they don’t have enough food for the winter, therefore the act of causing the pain of others will reflect back on him. It is possible that when the man was eating the pig, he was thinking about the ‘curse’ that the informant’s grandmother had said and in this kind of homeopathic thinking he actually choked. This kind of event seemed to strange to the village people because it was such a coincidence, therefore in trying to make sense of the situation they believed that the most logical response was that my informant’s grandmother was a witch. Not only did the woman say that he would die with such conviction, but it also came true. This added to the legend’s believability. Wither or not my informant’s grandmother was actually a witch depends on what you believe, but the fact that this story has endured with my informant’s family reflects a fascination with the supernatural.
My informant was born in 1977, Moscow, Soviet Union (now Russia). On completing her undergraduate education in Moscow, she moved to California to earn her graduate degree in theatrical design from Cal State Long Beach. She now works as a faculty member for the USC School for Dramatic Arts. She became a US citizen in 2012.
Informant: “Ok, so you want to hear the story about why you don’t whistle in the theatre? One reason is that supposedly the first riggers* in the theatre were sailors. And sailors received their orders via whistles, which supposedly carried better than voices in the wind. And so you didn’t want to be backstage randomly whistling ‘Two Gentlemen from Veronia’ and have the scenery come crashing down on your head because you were whistling the cue* for the sailors who were doing the rigging.
The other supposed origin of that superstition is, in the days of gas lit theatre there were a couple of stage hands who’s job it was to wander around and relight any gas jets that had gone out because other whys you would get sort of a large pocket of unburned gas that would eventually get to another gas jet and you would have a big fireball and the theatre would blow up and… that was bad. So they were listening for a particular whistling sound that supposedly this gas jet that wasn’t lit would make and you didn’t want to distract them from their fairly important work.”
This superstition was not one that I was aware of prior to my informant mentioning this belief in one of his class lectures. The belief is that it is bad luck to whistle in the theater, and doing so will doom the production you are working on. There are no known ways to cut the curse. The superstition of whistling in the theater is similar to the superstition that walking under a ladder is bad luck. Both superstitions serve as a way to teach safety, because if someone were to break those beliefs they would get hurt. Something could fall off a ladder and hit them on the head or a piece of scenery could fall on top of them. You are more likely to get told to stop whistling in the theater because you are distracting the production crew than you are to be told to stop whistling because it is bad luck. Working in theater can be very dangerous if you are not aware of your surroundings because crew members are constantly moving heavy equipment. Distracting people from their job not only serves as a danger to yourself, but to others as well. In that sense, whistling in the theater becomes homeopathic magic because it really will bring your production bad luck due to the destruction and distraction it can cause.
However it is unclear which one of the two stories is the true origin of the superstition. There is a possibility that the true origin of the whistling superstition came from the first story my informant mentioned, because that theory is more well known to people in the theater than the gas-jet theory.
My informant was born in 1961, Connecticut. He has more than 30 years of experience in theater and has worked on over hundreds of productions. He continues to work on theater productions today, and serves as the associate professor of theater practice and technical direction at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
*Riggers: is term that describes someone in charge of moving or lifting heavy objects using a pulley system. The term comes from sailing speech, in which a rigger is someone who uses ropes to hoist the sails on a ship. This is exactly what a rigger in theater does, but instead of hoisting sails they are hoisting scenic pieces.
*Cue: is a term used in theater that means a signal to do something. A signal or cue indicates that it is time to move a part of the set or play a certain song for the production.
Informant: “So growing up I played basketball, and my dad was a basketball coach. And basketball was the most important thing in my life. I played basketball- I was like Jack across the street, I played basketball every day. Every year, every day I would be out shooting hoops and what not. I was pretty good, I was a good shooter. But shooters are very superstitious and there was a certain amount of you get hot, and you don’t get hot, right? Where your shooting is off, so you have good nights and you have bad nights. Well, part of that is psychological. So my dad, my dad who was the coach, he had a really nervous stomach. And so he would buy not rolls, but boxes of Rolaids. These white tablets, and he kept them in this brown cardboard box with no writing on it. So the players would notice that Coach Paul had these, so he got the idea that he would tell his players that these were shooting pills that would help you shoot the ball better. And so, it became a big joke, but he used to hand them out before the game to everyone and they were the quote “magical” pills. And everyone knew that they probably weren’t, but we all felt like it was good luck to eat one of Coach Paul’s Rolaids before the game to help our shooting. So I became very superstitious, I always had to have a Rolaid before every game. And my socks, my Pete Maravich socks. Pete Maravich was a great basketball player who died very young. His dad was also a basketball coach, and he wore these grey old army socks. And he was a great player, and he wore these baggy old army socks that he was always wiping his hands on. And uh, so I bought some and I had some baggy grey army socks and I used to wear them because Pete wore them.”
As an athlete, there is a tremendous pressure to do well. While the outcome of the game is largely from the collective or individual effort of the players, there is a psychological necessity to create familiarity and order in your sport so that your mind remains calm and focused during the game. To create a sense of peace, athletes have come up with many different rituals to perform before the event so that their mind becomes free of anxiety and focused on what they need to do. This can be a number of things that vary on the sport or individual, such as taking time to stretch by yourself before running a race or picturing yourself doing well during the game. This kind of homeopathic thinking is also very common in basketball.
The superstitions my informant mentioned are ones that are unique to him, though I have heard of similar rituals in my research such as basketball players having a lucky pair of shoes they always wear for a game. The Rolaid superstition serves as two functions. One, it is a unique tradition that the Arcata High School basketball team shared during the time my informant played that created a sense of community with the players by having this ritual. This sense of community is important with playing in a sport that relies on the collective effort of a team. The second function is that the Rolaids are part of a homeopathic magic that helps the players get into the mind-set that they will succeed. Having a winning attitude is an integral part of performing well in any sport.
The other superstition involving the Pete Maravich socks is also a form of homeopathic magic. The informant believed that by wearing the same kind of socks Pete Maravich wore, he would be able to perform as well as Pete Maravich. Thus creating the same kind of winning attitude that the Rolaid ritual gave to the players. While my informant no longer plays on a basketball team, he has taken his sock superstition with him into his professional life. He once mentioned to me that he has a favorite pair of socks he likes to wear for important business presentations. In this sense he is using the ritual he learned as a basketball player to create a winning attitude in business, which is also integral to successful proposals or negotiations.
My informant was born in 1957 Arcata, California to a high school basketball coach and his wife. After earning his undergraduate degree in engineering from the University of California, Davis, he moved to southern California to obtain his MBA in business from the University of Southern California. He now a partner at Ernst & Young. He lives in Manhattan Beach, CA with his wife and has two children.