Author Archives: Jack Heerink

Splitting the Pole


Refusal to “split the pole” is a belief held by the informant that two people should never walk in two separate directions around a pole or an object obstructing their path. The informant adopted this belief from his father.


This belief was related to me by the informant after walking with him down a sidewalk in Los Angeles. We saw a light post ahead of us, and as I began to walk around the left side of it as the informant walked right, he shouted in a frenzy, “never split the pole!” After looking at him in confusion, he told me what “splitting the pole” meant.

Main Piece:

Me: What are you yelling about? What is splitting the pole?

PF: When you’re walking with someone down a sidewalk and there’s something like a light post or a traffic sign in your way, you have to walk around it the same way. If you walk in different directions, you split the pole, and you have to say, “bread and butter.”

Me: Bread and butter? What does that do?

PF: I don’t know man, it’s just what you have to say. My dad doesn’t split the pole neither. No one in my family does.

Me: Where does “splitting the pole” come from?

PF: No idea. It’s just something I’ve been doing since I was a kid. If you do split the pole and don’t say, “bread and butter,” you get bad luck.

Me: Like walking under a ladder?

PF: Yea, but way worse (laughs). When my dad and I are going somewhere, even if there’s a massive crowd, we’ll wait for people to pass and stuff just to make sure we don’t split the pole.


Neither myself or anyone I’ve asked has ever heard of “splitting the pole”, so its origins remain unclear. It seems to be just one of those superstitions that a select number of people have heard and adopted. There is something to be said about the metaphysical gravity some allot to customs and beliefs despite having no rationale or origin to validate the belief. There is no utilitarian value in refusing to split the pole, yet the informant was driven to yelling in public after realizing we were about do so. Just like walking under a ladder or breaking a mirror, it is a superstition that some adopt despite not aligning themselves with the culture or community it comes from. Despite not being part of the culture or community it comes from, people still act in accordance with the belief out of the potential threat that violating this belief will endanger them.

Ooh Ah Up the Rah

Background: “Celtic Symphony” is a song performed by the Irish band, The Wolfe Tones. The song is sung at gatherings of Irish people. The line “Oh Ah up the Ra” is emphasized and belted out. The phrase is a declaration of support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Context: I witnessed my Irish friend’s family perform this song while at his house for Thanksgiving last fall. While singing songs after dinner, this song came on and all of his Irish family members sang it together, most of them quite drunk. My friend explained that it was one of the songs Irish people always sing together. “Oh Ah up the Ra” is basically a “big ‘eff you’ to the British,” he told me.

Main Piece:

Here we go again,
We’re on the road again,
We’re on the road again,
We’re on our way to Paradise,
We love the jungilty,
That’s where the lion sleeps, (yeeeaaaaahhhh)
For in those evil eyes,
They have no place in Paradise.

graffiti on the walls just as the sun was going down,
I seen graffitti on the walls( Of the CELTS, Of the CELTS),
Graffitti on the walls that says we’re Magic, We’re Magic,
Graffiti on the walls…….Graffiti on the walls……..
And it said…………..
Ooh ah up the Ra, say ooh ah up the Ra (x6).


I felt quite a lot of jealousy while watching and certainly hearing my friend’s family sing this song together. Even the youngest of my friend’s cousins, at ages seven and eight, were singing at the top of their lungs as everyone paraded around the room. It is clearly a song sung with immense patriotism and pride. However, the reference to the IRA must infuse the song with a certain vigor, as nearly all of my friend’s family was still in Ireland during the British occupation and have lost friends and loved ones in the conflict. There is a juxtaposition between the hearty and jubilant performance of this song and the horrors and pain upon which the song is founded. While many nations sing songs in unison out of love for country and shared experience, it seems that the Irish certainly have the most fun doing it and doing it the loudest.

What, You’re Coming Empty Handed?


The informant is my grandfather, who spent his teens living in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City. This joke was one he heard every now and then. He calls it New York Jew humor.


I heard this joke a few years ago while out to dinner with my grandfather and his brother. When they get together, they tell jokes for hours on end, like they used to growing up in New York.

Main Piece:

The woman says to her friend, “Rachel, is it true you just moved into a big, new apartment?”

Rachel says, “It’s true. Why don’t you come visit. It’s on 1584 8th st. What you’ll do is you’ll take the train down to 8th st and get out. You’ll walk up to the door, there’s a big double door, and open the door with your left elbow and then use your right elbow to prop the door open and walk in. There’s another door, so you have to go to the list of buzzers and with the left elbow, buzz apartment 680. It’ll ring me upstairs and I’ll buzz you in. Then you use the right elbow to press down on the handle of the inside door and push in. You’ll be in the lobby and you walk up to the elevator and with the left elbow you press ‘up.’ You’ll get into the elevator and with the right elbow press ‘six’ for the sixth floor. The elevator will take you to the sixth floor and then you’ll walk to the left down the hall to apartment 680. You’ll ring the doorbell with the right elbow, and you can give some knocks with the left elbow. I’ll come open the door and you’ll come in and I’ll show you around and we’ll have some coffee.

“Wait, Rachel! What kind of directions are these with all the ‘right elbow’ and ‘left elbow? What’s with all the elbows?’

She says, “What? You’re coming empty-handed?”


Per my grandfather’s own words, this joke epitomizes Jewish humor, at least Jewish humor originating out of New York City. The joke distills the customs and character traits of New York’s Jewish population down to a joke. The meticulous nature of the idiosyncratic details that Rachel describes with all the elbows reminds me greatly of my aunts and uncles that still live in New York. It also conveys the expected hospitality and custom of bringing a gift when someone invites you over to their home. My grandfather also tells the joke with a voice, using a nasally, baritone voice when speaking Rachel’s part, making a mocking imitation of a middle-aged Jewish woman from New York. Much of this Jewish humor that my grandfather has described to me is somewhat masochistic and self-degrading. It makes sardonic, comic relief of shared experiences between New York Jews, such as the ones shared between my grandfather and his brother.

South of the Mason-Dixon


The Mason-Dixon Line is a demarcation line along on the East Coast that separates four states: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and Maryland.


I’ve been hearing this phrase used since I was kid, and adopted it into my own vernacular early on.

Main Piece:

The speaker will make a statement, usually in reference to the superiority or inferiority of a person, place, or thing, and then end by saying “… south of the Mason-Dixon.”


“She’s the prettiest girl south of the Mason-Dixon.

“My grandma makes the best pork chops south of the Mason-Dixon.”

“He’s gotta be the biggest dude south of the Mason-Dixon.”


As a born and raised Virginian, I heard this phrase flung around time after time. The understanding of this phrase is confined to communities living around the Mason-Dixon line itself, as most people not from that region of the United States are unaware of what the Mason-Dixon line is. The phrase is hyperbolic, used to exaggerate and emphasize the statement one is trying to make. Viewing the phrase from an emic perspective, I can say that it is often employed in a comedic manner, often to make disparaging remarks about someone, such as “That has to be the ugliest shirt south of the Mason-Dixon.” The phrase’s meaning and hyperbolic nature is known to all in these regions, so one’s opinion or joke can easily be inserted into the phrase to augment their meaning. Much of the South also has a spiritual connection to the land. Their identities are tethered to the physical nature and landmarks of their home. This may be due to residual sentimentality over the Civil War and the lives lost on the battlefields in the South. Nevertheless, there are a multitude of phrases and bits of lingo in the South that pertain to landmarks and the features of the land that Southerners inhabit. While the Mason-Dixon itself isn’t necessarily in the South, the use of this phrase intrinsically identifies one as belonging to the South.

Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (“Santa Claus and Black Pete” )


The informant is my father who was born and raised in the Netherlands. Siinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. One of Santa’s helpers is Black Pete, a small black child who was Santa’s helper. Representation of Black Pete in festivals and tales have come under fire in the Netherlands for accusations of racism.


The story of Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was related to me over a phone call with my father.

Main Piece:

Dad: It’s pretty much the same as the American version of Santa Claus. Siinterklaas is based off of St.Nicholas and he has his little helper elves. Except I don’t think Siinterklaas has elves, just helpers. He has one named Black Pete, or we call him Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a little, black boy who’s Siintreklaas’s main helper.

Me: Does he wear an elf outfit?

Dad: Uhhh, no. More like a jester’s outfit. But in the festivals and parades that used to happen throughout Losser and Utrecht, people would dress as Zwarte Piet and use makeup to paint their face black and jump around and dance. We thought nothing of it when I was a kid, growing up. Every town had a festival with Zwarte Piets. But now, of course, a lot of people are protesting against Zwarte Piet being in festivals with blackface. They’re trying to change the story to say that Zwarte Piet just has ash marks from climbing down the chimneys with Siinterklaas, so people don’t do black face but just have some ash streaks across their face.

Me: Black Pete is just like an elf, right?

Dad: He’s Santa’s main helper. He carries a big bag with gifts and treats, but also a switch to spank the children who were naughty.

Me: And do most people in the Netherlands today agree that Black Pete should be removed from festivals and parades?

Dad: No, a lot of the youths think it should be, of course, but most Dutch have grown up seeing Black Pete every year. He’s as common and important to Christmas as Santa is almost. There’s been a lot of protests happening year after year, though, so I think in the coming years more and more festivals are gonna get rid of him.


This folk belief is of particular interest and relevance to me, as the tradition of Christmas festivals showcasing Black Pete has come under fire recently for being a racist depiction. While I did not grow up in the Netherlands and, therefore, cannot view this tradition through an entirely emic perspective, the phenomenon of historical bits of folk lore clashing with contemporary customs and beliefs is one that I have witnessed in the United States. Just as fiery debates arose over the removal of statues of Confederate generals, Black Pete is a question of what will triumph in the end: A culture’s tradition and history or the culture’s contemporary standards? The Christmas parade with Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is deeply engrained in most Dutch towns and cities. Most of the Netherlands’ population has grown up inoculated with the association of Zwarte Piet with the joyful and festive mood that permeates throughout the Christmas season. Zwarte Piet has existed within Dutch folklore for nearly two hundred years. To remove the portrayal of Zwarte Piet as he has been known for two centuries would be to say that the Dutch beliefs and customs are dangerously malleable, and able to be uprooted and altered in accordance with the vacillation of the general public. However, variations and evolutions are integral to folklore and the culture that produces it. When new variations are authored, they reflect the beliefs and standards of contemporary times. When a belief or tradition of the past violates those of today, especially one as severe and prevalent as racism, there must be a serious examination into whether a new variation should be created. The debate over Zwarte Piet is a hot topic every year in the Netherlands around Christmas time. There is no doubt that protests against the use of black face to depict Black Pete in festivals will continue for years to come. Many protestors look to the Dutch judicial system to make an official ruling to ban blackface in these festivals. It will be interesting to see how law and governmental authority can greatly influence the evolution of folklore.