USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘religious’
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech

Know How To Make God Laugh?

“You know how to make god laugh? Tell him your plans.”

Clip from Interview

Informant: I know a saying, I think its pretty common though:

“You know how to make god laugh? Tell him your plans.”

Interviewer: “Who did you hear that from, was there any background to the occasion you heard this saying?”

Informant: “I don’t know who told me, I think it was my mom, I want to say. I don’t know, I come from the south so it is like bible belt, so I definitely heard it while I was back home in Nashville. I don’t know it is just a very Christian community, I think I was like telling someone about what I wanted er what I what I wanted to do with my life or something and that is what they came back with. I think it was like you never know sort of what lies ahead of you. God has it all planned out and you have no idea what it is.”

Interviewer: “Why did you like this saying, like why did you remember it until now?”

Informant: “I just think that it’s a good way to look at the world. I believe in God and I believe he does have a plan for all of us. Um, and I also just I never thought I would be a screenwriting major um until junior year and its like you know you just…” “and I also believe that… I’ve just been looking back on my life and I go there is no way this is all just circumstance or this is all just random. It was obviously because A has led to B which has led to C which has eventually led me here. I just think it is a good saying and like you know, just trust in God cause he has answers. You never really know what’s in store”


The informant is a student at the University of Southern California studying screenwriting. She is a Caucasian female and comes from Nashville. She is Christian herself and comes from a religious background. The informant heard this folklore from another person in her community, possibly her mother, when asked about her college plans.

As stated in the interview, the informant was impacted by the saying. She still remembers it and can recall the saying rather quickly. She does believe in Christianity and so she found the statement to ring true with her beliefs that God is an omniscient figure who “has it all planned out.” The informant interpreted this saying as an instruction to have faith in God because he will take care of it. The informant related her understanding of this saying to the movie Marley and Me stating that although the main character “had all these plans, they didn’t work out, but she was happy in the end.”

In comparison to some of the other folk beliefs I was able to gather, this informant had a very close connection to this saying; a connection which was apparent in her mannerisms and speech during the interview.



God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Proverb: Помогни си сам да ти помогне и Господ.

Transliteration: Pomogni ci cam da ti pomogne i Gospod.

Literal Translation: Help yourself so that God may help you too.

Meaning: God helps those who help themselves.


This proverb urges people to act as well as to have faith in God. Not many things can be accomplished only through prayer or self-pity, so actions must be taken in order to reach success.

My mother told me this during spring break when she was urging me to apply for a program I wanted to get into but I wasn’t sure I had a chance. She encouraged me with this proverb, claiming that I had to put in the effort so I could at least have the potential, and theoretically, if God saw how hardworking I was, he would reward me.

This saying is similar to the American one, “You can’t win until you try,” though with a more religious emphasis. The proverb indicates that the Orthodox Church is prevalent inBulgaria, and that the culture encourages people to both work hard and to be strong in their faith.

Folk Beliefs

Kissing The Mezuzah

The informant is from Malibu, California and grew up in a Jewish household. She was the president of “Malijew”, her high school’s Jewish club.

This tradition was taught to the informant by her mother when she was very young. The informant grew up in a Jewish household and her mother was of particularly strong faith. Before explaining the tradition as a whole, the informant first described what a mezuzah is. It is a metal tube with Hebrew prayers inscribed on it and it also usually contains a scroll of Holy prayers. These prayers are inscribed by designated scribes and are not considered holy or authentic if they are written by anyone else. The literal Hebrew translation of mezuzah is “doorpost”. This is because they are hung on top of or on the side of a door frame. The informant was always told that this was to protect the house from evil and also to be reminded to obey the instructions of the holy verses contained in the mezuzah.

Beyond hanging the mezuzah, the informant also always makes sure to touch the mezuzah and then kiss her fingers whenever she enters or exits a room with one hung on the door. When asked why she does this, the informant said “because it says so in the Torah”. While it is true that the Torah commands, the act of kissing the mezuzah seems to be a calming act. Though it may be a small, simple thing, it is a way of acknowledging one’s faith throughout the day and keeping God in one’s thoughts. The use was obviously first disseminated through the institution of the Jewish religion, but it is spread today mostly through familial lines.


To some extent, mezuzahs have been a point of contention. This is because they are often left nailed to the doorway after the Jewish owner moves out. When a new owner moves in, they often keep the mezuzah, regardless of their faith. Some owners reportedly kiss it even though they are not Jewish, which has caused some controversy with the Jewish community. The informant recalls going to  a friend’s new apartment in New York City and kissing his mezuzah before entering. Her friend was not Jewish and asked her why she did that, having never seen the tradition take place. As far as the informant knows, he has not taken it down. Kissing the mezuzah is not just a cultural or regional tradition; it is seen as a sacred, religious act. People hold these acts dearly and can take it personally if they feel they are being robbed of them.

Farmer, Ann. “In Mezuzas, a Custom Inherited by Gentiles.” New York Times. September (2010): n. page. Print. <>.


Abdul-Beha looses his pants in Paris

In the following, my informant recalls a childhood story which he still remembers and finds significant:

This next account is one that comes from Baha’i tradition, more so in the Baha’i faith, which was founded in the mid eighteen hundreds by our prophet founder Bahá’u’lláh, you can Google that, it means “glory of god,” um, he founded the Baha’i faith, and uh, Baha’i all around the world look to this figure, the son of Bahá’u’lláh, his name is Abdul-Beha, it means servant of god, and Abdul-Beha for Baha’i all around the world, his title is “the perfect example,” so there are many stories of his life recorded, and it’s very common to tell children stories of his life as an example of a perfect example, and how one should emulate their life by him. A story that stuck out to me that was told when I was a child was: One day Abdul-Beha was walking in the streets of Paris. He was walking in the streets of Paris and – I’m gonna fast forward, he answers the home of one of the Baha’i who was hosting him, and he has a cloak wrapped around himself, he’s laughing very heartily, he comes in in a kind of strange way – why is he laughing? all this stuff, they ask him why he’s laughing, and he pulls the robe up a little bit and they see that he’s not wearing any pants, his pants are gone, and they ask him “Abdul-beha” and he’as a very, hes a very revered, respected, intelligent, divine figure, “why are your pants gone, what’s happened?” and Abdul-beha tell the story of how, as he was walking, he comes across a homeless person, who, in the weather of Paris, which is very cold, he was cold, and his pants were very tattered, and they have holes in them, and the man was cold, and Abdul-beha, his title is the servant of god, so to be servant of god he is the servant of god‘s children, so he removes his pants, this extremely holy and divine figure, and gives it to the beggar, and he just clothes himself in his cloak, which was customary to wear in the day, and comes back to the believers, and that’s a sign of humility, and a sign of selflessness, and all of the stories of Abdul-beha have a certain similar message,  that, like, all Baha’i can learn from – all people can learn from – but are specifically told to children.

In this story, my informant claimed to be affected morally and religiously, and remembers it even today as guidance for his life. He said that many similar stories are told to children, and the idea behind them is that they will remember the stories and the messages within them when they grow up, and guide their lives accordingly.


Song about Catholic Schools

“The dearest spot in Phoenix,

Here in the Golden West,

Is our old dear St. Mary’s.

The school we love the best.

Hurrah for St. Mary’s,

The school we love the best,

(repeat these two lines.)


We are proud of our schools

And our unbroken rules,

Obedience to God and our country.

Since this nation took birth

Catholic schools have proved their worth,

Always first in American teaching.”

My informant reports that this song was customarily sung in his school when he grew up. Somewhat cynical about his Catholic upbringing, he postulates that Catholic schools invented songs such as this one in order “to justify their existence.”

This song seems intended to foster school spirit and strengthen the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, however, the song also intertwines Catholic and American identities to fashion a new, Catholic-American identity; it teaches children that they should be proud both to be Catholic and to be American. In this way, the song is both religious and patriotic. Children are taught to be obedient both “to God and our country,” although it should be noted that the song places obedience to God before obedience to the United States.

Folk Beliefs

If you tell a lie, god will strike black spot on your heart

“If you tell a lie, god will strike black spot on your heart”

My informant was first told this by his father when he thought he was telling a lie. It reflects the strong religious beliefs of his father. I asked my informant what would happen if he had a black spot on his heart, and he wasn’t sure. Despite this, this threat succeeded in scaring my informant into telling the truth.

Folk Beliefs

擲筊 – Fortunetelling Blocks

擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) Blocks and the Different Responses擲筊 (Bwa Bwei) is an ancient from of fortune telling. My informant, a Buddhist, uses these wooden blocks as a way to ask Buddha questions. Bwa Bwei comes in the form of two curved red blocks; one side of the block is flat and the other is round. The blocks are thrown onto the ground and the way they land represent different answers. In figure A, one lands on the flat side and the other lands on its round side. This represents a "yes" answer. Both figures B and C represent "no" answers, but have different meanings. For figure B, Buddha is angry at the question being asked. For figure C, Buddha is laughing at the question. The blocks have to be thrown three times and get the same answer all three times in order to be a confirmed answer.

My informant told me about this ritual when we were visiting a Hsi Lai Temple, a Buddhist worshiping center.  She told me she had learned this from a monk when she was little girl attending Temple.  She uses this method to answer a lot of personal and financial question.  An example of questions that she was ask are “Will this business deal be good for the company?” and “Will my daughter get into college?”  I asked her if she truly believed that Bwa Bweis revealed the best answers and possibly, the future.  My informant replied that for her, they have never been wrong.

I think that this form of fortune telling is a way to emphasize and support the idea of destiny.  Since the questions asked tend to be ones that reveal what will happen in the future, the answers seem to suggest that the future is set in stone and is just waiting to happen.  At the same time, I also view this practice as a stress reliever of sorts since the questions are usually associated with stress-inducing topics.  By getting an answer, the person no longer has to really worry anymore since the result is inevitable.

Folk speech

Finnish Lutheran Saying

The informant is 77 years old. She was born in Minnesota and is of Swedish and Finnish decent. She was raised as a Lutheran but converted to Catholicism when she got married.

I interviewed the informant during Easter Brunch. She gave me a piece of family folk speech:

“‘No one goes to heaven except a Finnish Lutheran.’” This was something my grandmother used to say all the time. Eventually my mother and my aunt picked it up, too—my aunt especially. She used to tell me this all the time. She really believed that Finnish Lutherans were the only ones to go to heaven so when I converted to Catholicism, this was a big issue for everyone. My aunt thought I had damned myself! I never really believed that kind of stuff, but I think it was such a big deal in the family because they really identified themselves as Finnish Lutherans. They considered themselves a part of that close-knit community and took religion very seriously.”

This is a really interesting piece of folk speech, particularly because it appears that the informant’s family really did believe it and placed a lot of faith in it. Even though my informant didn’t necessarily believe in it herself, she still felt the effects of the belief when she converted to Catholicism. While she didn’t mention this specifically, this piece of folklore could also have been her family’s way of instilling a type of fear in the children, trying to get them to be good and to abide by religious doctrine.

Folk Beliefs

Long Ear Lobes, Long Life: Vietnamese Belief

The informant is a 20 year old, Vietnamese American female. She is a junior at the University of Southern California, but was born in Boston, MA. Both her parents are Vietnamese and were born in Vietnam.

the informant described a particular folk belief in Vietnam where people think that if a person has long earlobes, then he or she will have a long life. I asked her where she thought this belief came from and while she wasn’t certain, she thought it might have to do with the Buddha, who is always depicted as having very long, stretched out earlobes and who is considered to be somewhat of an immortal or at least transcendental figure. This made sense to me because it was what I immediately thought of when I first heard this particular folk belief. The informant also made the point that this approach to the belief was indeed plausible because Buddhism is the main religion in Vietnam.

Rituals, festivals, holidays

Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

I recall participating in a festival just once many years ago, as a child, in Whitehall, New York, with my paternal family.  Apparently, this traditional celebration on July 16 has been part of their tradition since my great grandparents immigrated to the United States.  My informant said, “One of the greatest traditions that Italians brought with them was the establishment of the ‘Sons of Italy Society’ which all young men enrolled in.  They continued to foster all the customs and activities from their heritage.”  In particular, she described a parade that was part of the event, calling it one of the “proudest achievements” of the society.  Marching through the village of Whitehall, people of all ages in the Italian community took part in the parade, which included bands and floats.  My informant also mentioned other festivities associated with the July 16 event.  “In the evening a band concert was held.  Ethnic food was sold in various booths in an open field.”  She recalled her favorite part of the event being the grand display of fireworks that was held in the late hours.  She said, “It was the culmination of all working together to bring the best entertainment to all the folks in Whitehall and all the nearby communities.”
My informant associated this event with a certain Mass that was held on that day, but gave no other detail other than that it was a “solemn Mass” and that it was conducted by three priests and celebrated by three generations of family.  More details about this celebration, its origins, and its association to the religious calendar can be found in a report from another informant on this same event, and in the annotation.

My aunt also participated in the July 16 festival (mentioned in the previous report) growing up.  Her slightly differing recollections that may illustrate changes that were made over the years, or perhaps are just details that my great aunt forgot or left out.  My informant, my aunt, also provided some information on the festival’s name and association with the Catholic church.
According to her, the festival was a three-day event, from July 14 – 16, called the Tritium.  The church conducted a special service and benediction at night on the fourteenth and fifteenth, and on the third day everyone celebrated a feast called the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  My aunt said there were two bazaars during the Tritium when she was growing up.  The first occurred on the fifteenth, and included food, fireworks, and a concert band.  The second bazaar, celebrated in Mt. Carmel field in Whitehall, was a town-wide event and was more extravagant than the more local festival on the fifteenth.  According to my informant, my great grandparents cooked and served hot dogs and sausage and my grandfather served beer at the event.  There were other activities and games such as roulette, as well, and everyone wore costumes.  Like my other informant, my aunt also called the eleven o’clock fireworks “the highlight of the summer.”  My family (great grandfather in particular) also used the event to collect donations for a charity, the Mount Carmel Society.

Annotation/additional comments:
The New Advent Organization’s Catholic Encyclopedia (article by Frederick G. Holweck:( gives a detailed account of the history of the Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.  The holiday was originally established in the late fourteenth century to honor the victory of the Carmelite sect over an enemy sect.  Throughout the years, it eventually came to be accepted as a holiday universally throughout the Catholic church.
Blood is only one aspect of ethnicity.  People groups are held together by many factors, including language, lore, and religion.  This religious festival helped to define and preserve an ethnic group in their new location.  As many Italian immigrants were Catholic in the nineteenth century (and continue to be), celebrating their Catholicism also helped to affirm their identity as the Italian-American community.