USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘luck’
Adulthood
Customs
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Polterabend

The following is a conversation between myself and my parents about a German Jewish wedding tradition called a Polterabend. My dad, Arthur, is of German Jewish descent and grew up in a secular household in Cincinnati, while my mother, Margaret, is from a secular Episcopalian background. They are referred to by their first initials in this conversation; “L” is my first initial.

M: This is actually uh, Dad’s but I was gonna say that in Cincinnati they have um–among reform Jews in Cincinnati–they have a custom called the Polterabend. which is a-
A: It’s a German custom.
M: It’s a german custom, but isn’t- I think it was celebrated by the German Jews?
A: Yeah.
M: Um and we had one of them before our wedding and the idea was um, the night before, you have like a- a kind of a wild party of some kind to celebrate. But “polter” is y’know from “poltergeist” so it’s like, y’know, goblins or-
A: And you’re supposed to break something.
L: You always do it before your wedding or…?
M: Yeah, the evening before your wedding um, y’know you uh, you break stuff, you make a lot of noise to sort of celebrate the marrying couple and chase away the bad spirits.
L: And like, did your parents do that, Dad?
A: Yeah.
L: And like, all the reform Jews in Cincinnati?
A: Yeah.
M: And when they had a party for us, the evening before our wedding here [in San Francisco]-
A: They called it a Polterabend.
M: They called it a Polterabend, although it was just a party.

My dad’s family, like most German Jewish families in Cincinnati, were not at all religiously observant; in fact, they had a Christmas tree most years growing up. Still, most reform Jews in Cincinnati, my dad’s family included, participated in cultural practices like the Polterabend in order to connect to their culture. Although neither of my parents are especially religious, traditions like this one connect our family to our cultural-religious background. My parents were married by a Rabbi in a Jewish ceremony, and had a “Polterabend” before their wedding; though my mom is not Jewish, their wedding celebrated Jewish culture’s place in their newly formed family.

Customs
Life cycle

Filipino Birthday Tradition

Informant:

June is from Chicago, Illinois and is a current junior in college.

Piece:

So a family tradition that we have is for all of our birthday’s um instead of baking a cake, my mom would cook a traditional filipino dish called pancit. It’s basically like noodles with like vegetables, chicken meats. All the things you would want. It’s a very healthy dish and it’s supposed to be that instead of a cake which is very fattening and sugary um something that’s healthy so you can live a longer life. There are various i guess different noodles you can use, but my parents always use i guess these same very thing ones.

Collector’s thoughts:

The idea of eating healthy food at one’s birthday in order to guarantee another year of good health is an interesting idea that makes a lot of sense. Not only does the yearly meal work as a good luck charm for good health, but also connects the informant back to his filipino heritage.

general
Humor

Shitty Luck

Informant is my friend that has grown up in Taiwan and Canada, while also studying in LA.

Informant:

狗屎運 (Gou Shi Yun) literally means: “dog poo luck”. In our culture upon stepping on any type of poop is considered good luck. We just happen to say dog poo because there are more stray dogs that poo on the streets. Stepping on the dog poop on the street is in itself an unlucky event, but doing so is supposed to bring some personal good luck. Walking around carrying the luck everywhere as you go around!

I personally think that this is a pretty funny superstition about stepping on dog poop. It is like feeling bad for yourself to be this unlucky to step on poop, but thinking of it bringing good luck to yourself is a good way to get around being sad for oneself.

Adulthood
Childhood
Initiations
Musical
Protection

An Extra Birthday Candle

Informant: The informant is a twenty-two-year-old named Samantha. She graduated from Providence College last year and is currently working in New York City as an Advertising Sales Assistant for VERANDA Magazine. She lives in Yonkers, New York with her parents and has lived there for her whole life. She is of Italian, English, and Russian descent.

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

Original Script:

Informant: I learned that you when celebrating someone’s birthday, you always need to have one more candle than necessary on the birthday cake. This candle has to be left unlit. I learned this from her grandma. For kids, this extra candle is one to grow on, so it symbolizes the hope that they will grow big and strong in the following year. On the other hand, for adults, this extra candle is for a long life and luck.

Interviewer: Why do you like this piece of folklore?

Informant: I like it because it’s a family tradition. It reminds me of my childhood because I always had an extra candle on her birthday cakes. Also, this concept always excites children who want to grow and become big and strong. As an adult now, I likes the idea of having this candle to promise a lucky year. I definitely plan to pass this tradition on to my children one day.


Personal Thoughts: This tradition is interesting to me because it highlights the fact that superstitions and traditions in general are not only for children; they are important to adults too. While kids love the idea of growing up to be big and strong, adults do not easily forget such traditions they celebrated growing up. They keep the tradition alive by changing its meaning to something which they want in their lives no matter how old they are- good luck in the next year.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

St. Anthony’s Good Luck

Informant:

Dina is a college freshman from Northern California, she comes from a large yet close knit Italian family.

Piece:

“So…. I am very forgetful person and when i was little, my mom and grandma used to tell me to say a prayer to St. Anthony whenever I lost something so that I could find it. And I’d be “like what do I say to St. Anthony” and they would say “well say dear St. Anthony please help me find whatever it is that you can’t find.” And I would say a little prayer and I would look really hard and I would find something and then they would tell me “well you have to remember to thank St. Anthony.” So I would say “thank you st. Anthony.” And then I would always attribute it to St. Anthony that I found my missing item thinking he was the reason I found my missing item. As I got older I began to do it myself without praying to him.

Collector’s thoughts:

The informant performed this piece in an apologetic fashion, seemingly embarrassed to admit that she had done this. To her, the praying to St. Anthony was not so much of a religious performance, but rather as a way to find a physical thing that had been lost.

 

 

general

Lucky Items in Investment Banking

Informant:

Daniel is a first year analyst at a prominent Manhattan based investment bank. He grew up in Northern California from a predominantly irish background

Piece:

“So whenever a huge deal goes through, the company that is acquiring another will give a little gift to everyone on the group that helped. Like we helped MLB buy this streaming service and they gave MLB baseball bats to the 10 guys who worked on that deal. And it’s considered lucky to hold onto a gift from a past deal when you’re on the phone with someone from a new deal. So if you look around the office people are always fiddling with little trinkets and shit that they got for completing deals as like a good luck charm.”

 

Collector’s thoughts:

I find the dichotomy between the the extremely analytic, numbers based aspect of being a banker with the dependence on items of luck to be very interesting. The trinkets seem to remain not merely as good luck charms, but also as visible trophies of past success signaling one’s competence to those around them. In such a quantitative profession, the presence of lucky items suggests that often times the quantitative isn’t enough, even for professionals

 

 

Game

Switching Soccer Shin Guards

Informant:

Karl is a freshman aerospace engineering major. He spent thirteen years in a traditional boy’s chorus. He is also an avid soccer player

Piece:

When I played soccer in high school, my team had this tradition of if we were down we would all take one shin guard out and give it to someone else on the team to wear. SO we would all have like each other’s shin guards on instead of our own. I guess it was sorta a way to like bind us together when we were down and inspire us to try to score another goal and win.

Collector’s thoughts:

The informant explains that the exchanging of shin guards was done as a way to promote good luck when the team was down. Traditions like this are common throughouts sports and can be seen in many different sports. Similar to this tradition, baseball players turn their hats inside out when they are down to promote good luck. It is interesting how in sports one wishes for luck when ultimately it is the athlete using their own skills to accomplish a goal.

 

 

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection
Signs

Nursing Superstitions

Background:

My informant is a twenty-one-year-old college student in Boston, Massachusetts. She is studying to be a nurse and has worked in the emergency room at both Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Performance:

“I’m not technically a nurse yet so I’ve only really seen this stuff happen…but you kind of catch on. The biggest one I think is to never say that you’re having a “quiet” day, because that’s when everything like, blows up in your face. I’ve had nurses seriously freak out at each other for saying that. That’s the big one, I think…there are also a few nurses, no one that I know really well, but some people say that if you tie a nurse in a patient’s sheets they’ll live through your shift. They’d only do it to the really sick people — you know like bad accidents, or kids, or something. I don’t know if it works, necessarily, but I will say that when we think we’re keeping our patients alive, we’re working a lot harder and people tend to stay alive just a little bit longer, if that makes sense.”

Thoughts:

The never-say-quiet superstition makes a lot of sense, though I’m not sure if it’s specific to nursing. I remember at my high school job scooping ice cream, we had a similar rule about not saying that the store was “slow” because that would mean a rush was imminent. The superstition about the knot, however, it interesting. It’s like the nurse is trying to create a bond between their patient’s life and the physical world; like they’re trying to keep the patient physically tied to their life. Though a simple gesture, it speaks to how seriously nurses take their work. They’ll do anything to keep their patient’s alive, even if its as simple as a knot in a bed sheet.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Signs

No New Waves

Background:

My informant is a twenty-five year old USC graduate who splits his time between Los Angeles and his home in La Jolla, CA. The informant is a lab assistant but spends the majority of his free time surfing. It’s both a personal passion and family activity that has taken him all over the world.

Performance:

“Another one is that you never leave waves to find waves. That was one of the first ones that I learned, my Dad is super, like, intense about it. Basically it means that if you have waves, if you’ve found like, decent conditions, you shouldn’t leave to find something better because you’ll never find it. I don’t know if it’s supposed to be like, philosophical or something, but it’s honestly true. Every time I’m like, ‘oh, these waves suck, let’s go to this beach’ or whatever, the waves totally suck. Like I’m cursed because I couldn’t appreciate what I had. So just, like, stay in the moment. It’s worth it.”

Thoughts:

This is another superstition that sheds a light on the spiritual side of surfing. There’s a whole set of beliefs behind the sport and culture. As Doron mentioned, this seems to be equal parts philosophy and superstition. The message is to “stay in the moment” and appreciate what’s in front of you rather than running off to chase something that might be better. Unlike traditional American discourse, this piece of folklore is anti-future; it insists that the surfer lives fully within the present moment and focuses only on what is happening around them.

Folk Beliefs

Penny in a Purse

Informant AV is my grandmother, who was born and raised in Florence, Italy. She was taught by her mother to always put a penny inside a purse or wallet if it was being gifted.

How did you learn to put a penny inside a purse or a wallet as part of your gift giving traditions?

AV: “Well, I was taught by my mother that you never gift a purse or wallet without placing a penny inside. It is supposed to assure the pursing who is receiving the gift to have good luck and it is to ensure that the person who receives the gift will not be without any money.”

How did your mother learn about this belief?

AV: “This was a tradition that was upheld within my Italian family for generations. My mother learned it from her mother. Once I became old enough to understand the value of a dollar, my mother shared this tradition with me. I think it’s a nice little addition of positivity that accompanies a gift. My friends over the years have asked me why I put a penny inside certain items like a purse or wallet and I just explain to them that it was just something I grew up with as a young girl that I have carried along with me and to help ensure that the gift that I am giving provides positivity and good luck. It’s funny, now some of my girlfriends do the same thing as I do ever since they asked me about it.”

Does this have any significance to you today?

AV: “I would say so because it was a tradition that my mother and my grandmother passed down to me and my sister and it is something that is still very much a part of my traditions. I have also taught my daughter when she was little the same gesture who has now taught her two daughters. I think it is very special that my traditions that I have learned growing up are continuing to be passed down to the next generation.”

Analysis

My grandmother identifies with this tradition because it helped her to understand the importance of money at a young age through the teachings of her mother and grandmother. It was a tradition that was sustained in her family for generations that still holds value and serves as a tool to pass on good luck to others. As her granddaughter, I have learned to follow in the same tradition.

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