USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Rituals’
Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Nowruz

Context: I was sitting at a restaurant in West Hollywood with a good friend who is also of Persian descent, discussing our respective families plans of celebrating the Persian New Year. In the piece, my informant is identified as R.M. and I am identified as D.S.

 

Background: My family is one that has assimilated more towards American culture, and does not perform all traditional rituals performed on Nowruz. However, R.M. and her family take the New Year very seriously, and plan large gatherings for the holiday every year.

 

Main Piece:

DS: “So what are you guys doing tomorrow night”

RM: “My mom is going all out as usual. We’re having like 60 people over, I have to help her set up all day tomorrow”

DS: “What do you guys even do? Jumping over the fire and all that?”

RM: “Oh yeah, there’s definitely going to be a bonfire. She bought a bunch of goldfish too, setting up that whole haft table and all.”

DS: “What else goes on the table?”

RM: “A bunch of spices, a mirror, the goldfish, some money, fruits, eggs. There’s definitely some more that I’m forgetting but you get the idea of it.”

DS: “Are you going to jump over the fire this year”

RM: “I think so, I don’t know, I always just get so nervous getting close to it every year but my parents say it’s important so I want to try it out.”

 

Analysis: Each aspect of the setting traditions of the New Year are for specific metaphorical purposes. For example, jumping over the bonfire is thought to ensure good health for the new year. The mirror is to reflect on the past year. The goldfish is to represent new life and rebirth. The money is to encourage prosperity. The eggs for fertility. Each family often celebrates and prepares differently, with each component on their table representing what they want to attract in the year to come. The Persian culture is very poetic and spiritual, so it comes as no surprise that the culture chooses certain items for these grand representations.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warding off the Evil Eye

Context: One night at home I decided to ask my dad for an explanation behind a cultural ritual he had performed almost every single week for as long as I can remember, and was preparing to perform that night. It’s a process using a spice called Esfand.

 

Background: In Iran, Esfand is used to ward off the evil eye. This is a generations-old ritual that has been passed down for hundreds of years. The idea is to burn the spice, and the smoke and popping sounds from the burning are said to burn away the evil eye.

 

Main Piece: “Persians are very superstitious people. Iranians have always been very successful for the most part and it’s a little natural for us to think someone would want to curse us if we are doing well or better than them. Most of your friends from growing up are Persian too so I’m sure they know all about it too. Persian people are a lot of the time looked at as being very flaunty or extravagant, and they are sometimes, but as a culture most people are very conservative about sharing achievements or very exciting news. It’s looked down upon to brag about good fortunes that you are having. I don’t think you even notice but sometimes when our family is out or at parties and someone was giving you or [your siblings] a certain look or a compliment me or mom would say a little prayer until we could get home and do Esfand. I think it could be a myth that there are people that really have an evil eye. But I think there are definitely people who act a certain way but inside don’t mean well for you, or give off a very negative energy that you shouldn’t have around you. So you burn it away. I put the esfand in my hand and I start with a prayer. I circle it around my head, mom’s head, and all of your heads a few times, chanting the same prayers asking for protection. I wave it all around the house. Then I take the foil and put it over the stove, and I put the esfand from my hand on it, and I let it burn until it’s done. It burns the negative eyes and thoughts from others.”

 

Analysis: The concept of the evil eye is definitely not tied specifically to the Persian culture. It’s interesting to look at how each culture or religion carries out their ritual against this superstition. Some knock on wood, some throw salt, some wear evil eye jewelry, but Persians choose to physically burn it away.

 

Annotation: For more on the notion of the evil eye in Persian and Middle Eastern culture, reference to:

Spooner, B. (2004). 15. The Evil Eye in the Middle East. In Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations (pp. 311-320). New York, NY: Routledge.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Name Days

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. While discussing how she celebrates Easter as a Greek Orthodox, she mentioned another tradition that caught my attention.

 

Background: The tradition is referred to as Name Days, and has been a custom of Greek Orthodox culture for centuries. My informant explained that she and all of her siblings celebrate their name days, as they are all named after saints.

 

Main Piece: “For Greeks, your name day is more important than your actual birthday. Your name day is the birthday of your icon, or the saint that you were named after. Me and my siblings are all named after saints, and the same goes for my more distant relatives. Greek Orthodox people are really into using generational and famous names that are important in their history. So I’m named after Saint Katherine, so my name day is some time in November, but my actual birthday is in May. Obviously being in American culture now, my birthday is equally as important, and I celebrate it with my family and friends, but my name day is still a huge deal in my family. On my name day my parents always go all out with the presents, we have my whole family over, and it’s just a big celebration. The same goes for all of my siblings. It’s pretty great because it’s like having two birthdays every year that are equally as celebrated. I also see how important it is to my grandparents especially that we celebrate name days so it’s something I definitely want to pass on to my kids too.”

 

Analysis: I found this tradition very interesting, as I had never heard of Name Days prior to this encounter. After doing additional research on this ritual, I learned that they are actually celebrated in many countries across Europe and Latin America. It’s a nice way to celebrate yourself, as well as the historical icon that you were named after.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Material

Coin in the Cake

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. She wasn’t able to go home for Easter this year, as she usually does, but she described a tradition that her family practices every year on Easter.

 

Background: She explained that this tradition normally takes place in Greek tradition on New Year’s Eve, but that her family celebrates it on Easter instead, as she and her siblings usually spend New Year’s with friends.

 

Main Piece: “So this is usually done on New Years, but we always do it on Easter since that’s one holiday Greek Orthodox people take very seriously, so we’re almost always all together as a family. We’re always separated on New Years so this is just the best time to do this tradition I guess. Basically, my mom or grandma will bake a cake, and they bake a gold coin into the cake itself. They put it in the oven, take it out, and then they cut it all up and serve it. The person who gets the piece with the coin in it is supposed to have the luckiest year out of everyone else. Essentially it’s going to be like their golden year. It kind of defeats the purpose that we do it in April of every year, but Easter also represents rebirth and whatnot so I guess it kind of works when you think about it.”

 

Analysis: It’s interesting to see how much a culture’s folklore can be taken into interpretation. The meaning remains the same, but the tradition is made flexible. I found it compelling how many different traditions there are throughout cultures to ensure a lucky or prosperous year ahead.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Night Before Greek Easter

Context: My informant is a 21 year-old student from New York, who recently moved to Los Angeles to attend USC. She and I were discussing her Easter traditions and whether she still celebrates her Greek Orthodox traditions despite being away from her family.

 

Background: The following ritual is deeply rooted in the Greek Orthodox tradition and takes place the night before Easter Sunday. My informant can’t place the exact root of this ritual, but it’s likely to have been performed since biblical times.

 

Main Piece: “In Greek Orthodox tradition we follow the biblical Jewish calendar, so pretty often Greek Easter doesn’t fall on the same day as American Easter. Like this year it’s the week after American Easter. The night before Easter, we go to church at around 11pm, and we wear all black to mourn Jesus’ murder. We go the night before because it’s the night before Jesus’ resurrection. Everyone lights a candle, and we say a few prayers. Then at midnight everyone starts walking around the church chanting christos anesti, which means Christ has risen. Since coming to school, it’s hard to go back home to celebrate with my family, so my parents make me go to a Greek Orthodox church in Downtown L.A. This is the biggest holiday in Greek Orthodox tradition, so it’s really important to them and honestly for myself that I keep it up even while being away from home.”

 

Analysis: It was interesting to learn that Greek Orthodox culture follows the old Jewish calendar. As a Jew I follow the same calendar in regards to holidays, the New Year, and so on. But I wasn’t aware that other cultures still follow this historical timeline as well.

 

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Re-entry into a Home: Indian Folk Belief

Text:

MM: “See when we return home after a long time, then it is supposed to be pretty auspicious that in front of the main door of the house someone pour oil on like both sides of the door – before you like enter the house.”

MS: “Is it usually when the person is already at the door, or before they show up?”

MM: “No like when you show up, you have to wait at the door, and then someone pours the oil and then you’re allowed to enter.”

MS: “Was there ever a time this ritual was done differently?”

MM: “Yeah there was this one time when we showed up somewhere and they had already put the oil on the doorstep and the door wasn’t even open yet and it was supposed to be like a super bad omen. Like you’re supposed to do it the right way, after the people show up, not before.”

MM: “My grandparents believe in this pretty ardently and some people from my parents’ generation do as well, but we kids like definitely don’t see the point and I don’t think I’d like continue to do it if it were just me.”

 

Context:

The informant is a college student from India, currently doing a study abroad program in America. The conversation was in response to my question about any odd things that happened in the informant’s past that she did not agree with but had to partake in anyway. The informant is also bilingual so the conversation happened in a mix of English and Hindi. I have translated the relevant Hindi parts to English as per my own interpretation and in an attempt to retain the meaning as best as possible. The content has been lightly edited, and the removed content is indicated by ellipses.

 

Interpretation:

The informant does not really understand the reasons behind the ritual herself, and is adamant in not taking part in it, but she still acknowledges the proper way to do it and the consequences of messing up even the order in which the actions must take place. I think this ritual developed because there was a time when people would often go away for long periods of time and the lack of communication abilities would imply that there was no way of knowing if and when they would be coming back. Further, there was implicitly more of a risk in travel earlier than it is now. The ritual seems to be a response of gratitude for a safe return as well as a prayer that even return be as safe and sound as this one.

Game

Hitori Kakurenbo – Hide and Seek Alone

The informant is marked IN.

IN: It’s kind of like a cult game, like in the same genre of the Ouija board, but like different…. And it’s called, like, Hitori Kakurenbo – Hide and Seek Alone. And it’s like, this elaborate ritual where you invite this ghost to come play hide and seek with you. And to do so you need to do like all this crazy shit. Like you need to get this doll, take all the stuffing out, and then you need to stuff it with rice, and they you need to put, like, a .. you need to put like blood, or a fingernail, or like a hair trimming into the doll. Like connect it with your spirit. And then you, what is it you have to like drown it in a bathtub and tie it with a string? Which are all elements of like, there’s some in Japanese folklore culture I believe. I know the rice has something to do with life, which makes sense cause it’s like, a carb. And i have read online that people did it and nothing worked. But then others say they did it and like, the TVs were changing. Apparently a korean version called living  doll, where like you take a doll – and I forgot to mention that in the original, Hitori Kakurenbo, it’s important that you get this stuffed animal that doesn’t look human-like. Because if you get one that looks human it has more power or something like that, which i guess kind of makes sense, like I don’t know? But living doll, you get a real ass doll, and then you invite it to like come, I don’t know, turn your lights off or eat you or something. And apparently people are like scared at shit that happened.

Context: I met the informant for lunch and she brought up an old game she heard about from her friend.

Background: The informant is a second year student at USC who is Korean-American. She heard about this game from a friend in Saint Louis, where she grew up. She believes her friend read about this game online on a website, likely Reddit.

Analysis: This was intriguing to me because it’s like a very ritualistic version of Ouija, calling out a spirit but adding in a physical voodoo-esque doll. It’s also interesting that people out there are willing to try this out in hopes of meeting or playing with a ghost.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Pass the Salt Superstition

Main Piece:

“It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 47-year-old female. She says she first heard this superstition when she was having dinner with a couple of friends.  They were enjoying dinner when one of the ladies asked for the salt.  The person closest to the salt picked up the salt shaker and handed it to the person who had asked for the salt. The lady who had asked for the salt was reluctant to take the salt from the other person’s hand.  She then asked if it could be set down at the table because she did not want to take the salt shaker from the other person’s hand. The lady who had passed the salt asked why she had to set it down. The other lady responded that it was bad luck to pass the salt from one hand to another without setting it down first. My informant says she has since adopted the superstition claiming there is no harm in following the tradition and likes to think she is avoiding bad luck. I asked my informant where she thinks this superstition began, to this she responded she is unsure, but she thought it had something to do with the Jewish faith because the people she has encountered that strictly follow this superstition are Jewish.

I had heard this superstition before but was curious to know where it originates from and why this is the case. In looking into this superstition I found countless of other superstitions, beliefs, and traditions about salt. Such as the bad luck implied with spilling the slat on the table, and if one does so then they must immediately pick up a pinch of the salt and throw it over their left shoulder. It is also believed salt is a protector and would keep away evil spirits. To keep an unwanted visitors away some believed that if one sprinkles salt at the door right after they leave then sweep it up and burn it they will not return. I also discovered a belief in Buddhist tradition making it common to throw salt over your shoulder when returning home or after a funeral to keep the evil spirits away.

After finding so many beliefs about salt I looked into those related particularly just to the Jewish faith following my informant’s intuition this was a Jewish belief. To my surprise, there were also other Jewish superstitions related to salt. These included placing pockets of salt in the corners of a room or the pockets of clothing to drive evils away(myjewishlearning.com), and throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled the salt. The likely reason for so many salt superstitions and beliefs is likely due to the value of salt in the Middle Ages. Salt was extremely rare and expensive therefore the thought of spilling it would be unspeakable; similarly to spilling a bag of miniature diamonds in current day standards(something of very high value). In Judaism salt seems to have positive connotations. It is customary to sprinkle it over the challah(ceremonial Jewish bread) and is used as a preserver making what it touches last forever, elevating its status (jtsa.edu).

I found it very difficult to find any information about the passing of the salt specifically. The most common salt superstition I found was about spilling the salt. I can’t seem to recall where I heard this but remember someone mentioning passing the salt being a taboo due to the high value of salt. Therefore setting the salt down before the other person picks it back up acts as breaking the connection between the holder of the salt and the person who is about to hold it. Therefore, if anyone spills the salt it will be clear whose fault it was. Whoever picks the salt back up is now responsible for the salt. This eliminates any debate or misplacing of fault if the salt is spilled.

“SPILLING SALT.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1876-1904), vol. XI, no. 4, 04, 1881, pp. 413. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/136551260?accountid=14749.

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/popular-superstitions/

http://www.jtsa.edu/sprinkling-salt-on-the-challah

Customs
Earth cycle
Festival
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Willow Branches of Palm Sunday – Ukrainian Easter Tradition

“So a week before Easter–before and on Palm Sunday–we got to the church and bless willow branches. We tap the branches on each member of the family, and say, ‘the branch is hitting you, not me, and a week from today is Easter.’ After this, the willow branches are placed over the icons in the household.”

Context: The informant, TH, is a second-generation Ukrainian-American living in Rhode Island. She lives with her parents, along with her maternal grandparents. TH and I were discussing her Easter plans for this year, and she brought up how she had to go to church one week before the actual Easter date. I asked her why she was going to church, and she explained her Palm Sunday tradition that her and her family partake in. For TH, this ritual has importance because it is a very particular and specific religious custom that her family participates in, and they have been doing it for as long as she can remember. The tradition was also a fun one according to TH due to the fact that she and her siblings would chase each other around their house and hit each other with the branches, much to their parents’ chagrin.

Analysis: Religious traditions vary among various different groups and factions within each religion. Not every Christian participates in the same particular traditions that pertain to each major holiday, though most Christians do partake in Easter celebrations. For example, the act of blessing willow branches and placing them over the icons in the house is not something that Roman Catholics would partake in, but rather is quite specific to Eastern European Orthodox observers. There is a very important reason for this disparity between how Christians celebrate Palm Sunday in western Europe or the Middle East and eastern European factions will celebrate the holiday. Palm Sunday is supposed to mark the day that Jesus Christ, the son of God, returns to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover following his visit to Bethany–at least this is how it was written in the Bible. Upon his return, Jesus’s apostles and supporters laid their cloaks and palm branches down to show their faith. Palm Sunday celebrations around the world usually involve blessing palm branches and building crucifixes out of the plant to commemorate the triumphant return of Jesus Christ. However, in Eastern Europe, it is difficult to obtain palm branches so far north, so the tradition was altered slightly, by replacing palm branches with willow, or more specifically pussy willow. This plant is endemic to northern Europe, so it was easier to use it.

Another important aspect of this religious tradition is the way that children remember the tradition. For TH, the tradition was less about the religious significance–while that was important–but more about the memories she had involving the custom. It was something fun that she and her sibling would look forward to and it brought them joy during a strictly religious and stoic festival.

Childhood
Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Game
Legends

Bloody Mary

Background: This informant is a young-adult college student who grew up in Northern California. The informant discusses a scary ritual that calls forth a vengeful ghost. This is a transcription of our conversation (The informant is “C”, another friend is “Friend” and I am labeled as “me”).

Piece:

Me: Did you ever do any like ghost ritual kind of things when you were a kid?

C: I mean at sleepovers we used to do Bloody Mary

Me: I feel like everyone has done Bloody Mary. How did you do it?

C: Go in a bathroom, turn lights off and say bloody mary three times.

Me: Where does she come from?

C: I think she comes out of the mirror.

Me: Did you ever try it?

C: No I was always too scared.

Context: This conversation occurred one evening while sitting in my dorm room with my two closest friends. We were discussing my folklore collection project and I told them that folklore included rituals and traditions and the like. When brainstorming rituals, the informant brought up Bloody Mary, a common supernatural legend mainly believed by young children.

Thoughts: Bloody Mary is such a common folk legend and I can honestly say that I have never heard of anyone actually conjuring Bloody Mary. When I “played” Bloody Mary growing up, a candle was required for the ritual and in the dark bathroom with only a small flame flickering, it felt incredibly eerie. I had always thought of Blood Mary to be the antithesis of the Virgin Mary, but upon researching it further I found that Bloody Mary is actually based on Queen Mary of England. Bloody Mary is associated with children and childbirth in particular as its based on Queen Mary’s mysterious phantom pregnancy- she appeared to be pregnant but never gave birth to a child.

For more information on Bloody Mary and her origins, see this 2016 article by Krissy Howard entitled “The True Story of Bloody Mary, The Woman Behind The Mirror” (All That’s Interesting):

https://allthatsinteresting.com/bloody-mary

 

 

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