Author Archives: Katherine Cowdrey

A Christmas Tradition – A Birthday Cake for Jesus

My informant is my grandmother, and every year at Christmas she hosts the Christmas Eve celebration. As long as I can remember the Christmas Eve has been the exact same and this had to do with my grandmother’s traditions and her passing them down to her children.

Me: “Explain your special Christmas Eve traditions, and what makes them so important and distinct and who you learned them from.”

DC: “Do you mean the food?”

Me: “Yes, what we eat, and why and from whom did you learn this?”

DC: “Well, since I was a very little girl, my mother would make a special cake for Christmas Eve, this cake would be a vanilla cake with white frosting and decorated with cherries sliced in half on top, and this cake was a birthday cake for baby Jesus. It would be brought out after dinner, and for dinner on Christmas Eve we would always have tamales you know . . .”

Me: “Explain the tamales?”

DC: “I don’t know, my mom always went to a little Mexican woman and bought tamales from her for Christmas Eve oh they were the best, homemade tamales are just the best, and they were different every time. I mean we are in Arizona, why not have tamales at Christmastime. I don’t know why she did it, but me and my brothers would just eat them up and we would have the cake after. But first we would sing happy birthday to baby Jesus just like for anyone’s birthday, then we would blow out the candles together, oh there was candles on top too, just like a birthday cake . . . then we would eat it all together.

Me: “And you learned it from your mom?”

DC: “Yes, grandma Duffy, my mom always did this and I don’t know where she got it, probably from her mother, and I continued it on with my kids and now with my grandchildren and I hope you guys will all continue to have the baby Jesus cake and the tamales because it is just so fun and special. The recipe was her’s as well, she made it up. She was quite a cook, always made the best treats and whatnot, so I have made her recipe all me life. It’s on a little recipe card that she wrote herself.”


This is an example of a holiday tradition that has been passed down  generations and food traditions are very commonly passed down like this. Special food traditions at holidays for certain families are a way of performing that family identity and creating a family closeness and unity by the specific traditions. This being a Catholic family, singing happy birthday to Jesus makes sense and is a fun and silly way of reminding the kids and the adults of what Christmas is all about other than Santa Claus and presents. It is a way of teaching children the significance of Christmas as the day of the birth of Jesus Christ in a way they would understand because they too have birthday parties and cake. The tamales at Christmas Eve would be a result of living in Arizona and having the strong Mexican influence. This is family is not Mexican themselves, but living in Phoenix, one cannot help but be introduced to foods like tamales and so them being incorporated into a special tradition is an example of the cultural plurality of the United States and especially the Southwest.

Carving Initials into Tree Trunks

My informant is a childhood friend, and during a visit home she brought up a grade-school memory of carving initials into tree trunks. I remember doing this with her when we were very young and so I asked her to elaborate on the memory from her point of view.

Me: ” What was it that you carved into the tree trunks and when did you do this?”

KC: “Well, when I was in grade school so like third, fourth or fifth grade I suppose, at recess sometimes the girls, in a group, would get together no more than like three girls I guess, and get either a sharp stick or pen or pencil and pick a tree on the playground. On the tree they would carve their initials and under that, carve a plus sign and under that, they would carve the initials of their crush, so a boy they liked. Sometimes if the girl was really crafty they would carve a heart around those initials. It would supposed to be like, you had a crush on them and you were proving that you liked them or something, or maybe it would make them like you back or maybe like in the future you would date or something. It was all very innocent like super girlie and cute.”

Me: “Who did you learn this from and when?”

KC: “You know, I have absolutely no idea. I just remember doing it, because all the other girls did it and you did it as a group. I don’t remember being taught by like older girls or anything, just doing it and then maybe teaching it to other girls my age and getting a group together. It was kinda like a game I guess, something to do at recess. But, I do remember you could get in trouble for it, like not in trouble for the liking boys thing, but for vandalizing the tree or something like that.”


This is a sort of childhood game or maybe even a version of contagious magic as the little girls wanted their crushes to be reciprocated in the future. This is perhaps an example of gender roles being explored at a young age, as this is young girls in a group exploring naively the future of dating.  Girls are defining themselves as feminine as they perform this ritual of carving initials as they known they are expected to “like” boys in a romantic way some time in the future. They are naive and unaware of what that truly means, but at this age is when they are introduced to the idea of romantic relationships. Thus, this is playing at “liking” boys in the way they encounter in real life. Boys are no longer “icky” at this age and they mix a lot more and as they encounter the world around them and view dating and romantic relationships this is their way of understand it. It may also be a childlike version of contagious magic as usually the girl wants the person whose initials she has just carved to reciprocate the crush.

“I’m Sweating like a Sinner in Church”

My informant is my grandmother, who is quite a devout Catholic and has lived in the deserts of Phoenix most of her life. During one of my visits home this year we went to a baseball game together. We were sitting in the sun and I heard her exclaim on of her favorite phrases, “good Lord, I’m sweating like a sinner in church.”.

Me: “What do you mean when you say that?”

DC: “It means that it’s really, really hot out and you’re sweating quite a bit. Like a sinner, sitting in the presence of God would feel nervous and sweat I suppose. It’s not meant to be super serious, just a funny thing to say when you are sweating a lot and you might be embarrassed about it.”

Me: “Do you remember where you heard it first or learned it from?”

DC: “No, I can’t say I do.  I may have picked it up from my mother, but I’m not quite sure. I’ve always just kinda said it . . . I don’t think your grandpa ever said it or any of siblings for that matter . . . so maybe I picked it up from a friend along the way? I don’t know really.”


This phrase most likely means that a person is sweating like one would imagine someone who has sinned would sweat if they were sitting in church and haven’t repented. Like, they are lying to God and are sweating in nervousness because they suppose God knows, but they are there anyway. It comes from my grandmother who is a devout Catholic, so in using this phrase she is performing her Catholic identity to those around her who are also presumably Catholic or Christian and would understand what she meant by a sinner sitting in church. We also live in quite a warm climate, where any time spent outside between the months of March and October results in sweating, so sweat being the object of a simile makes sense in that it is a common experience felt by everyone around them. It is meant to be comic and making light of the situation because the person exclaiming it, is most likely uncomfortable and is calling attention to the situation in a comic way perhaps in order to alleviate their embarrassment of sweating so much in public.

Upside-down Boots

My informant is one of my father’s friends, he is a long-time ranch owner in the high deserts of Arizona. I was with him on a trip home this spring at a baseball game and he was recounting a night he was camping out in the desert and forgot to turn his boots upside-down one night.

PL: “It was very early in the morning, a little past dawn and we were up and breaking camp, and making breakfast and feeding the horses and whatnot. I sit on my cot and pull my boots over to me, but I forgot to turn them upside-down the night before so I gave them a good shake out. The first one came out clean, so I put it on, but I go and shake out the next one and what do’ya know a dang-ass scorpion falls out! Big guy, scurried away before I could squish it. Dang critter slept in my boot all night.”

Me: “It this something you have always done?

PL: “For sure, it’s something I was taught at a very young age. Scorpions like to sleep in dark, warm places like the toe of a boot, so you keep them turned upside-down at night to prevent the things from getting too cozy in your boot when you’re sleeping out in the desert, and not just outside too, it’s good to do in cabins or in horse stalls or wherever there may be scorpions.”

Me: “Who taught you this?”

PL: “My father taught me this. He lived out here his whole life and had only been stung once. I’ve never been stung so you do it out of caution you know? Those things can hurt you, you grow up fearing them and getting stung in the foot would be the worse.”


This is traditional knowledge known amongst campers, ranchers or anyone who spends time in the desert. Since scorpions are rather regional, at least in the United States, to the southwest region and so this sort of knowledge is a part of the identity of those from the southwest. Only those who have lived with scorpions or encountered them would know to avoid them or have feared them since they were kids and have reason for such precautions. Additionally, the majority of people from the Southwest and Arizona have a deep appreciation for the desert and often undergo “desert safety” days in school, so they spend quite a bit of time in the desert whether hiking, camping or horseback riding. Therefore, this sort of traditional know-how would be passed down from parents to kids or teacher to students, etc. It is simply one of many tidbits of desert wisdom that is passed on, so as to avoid run-ins with scorpions which are hazardous and can be deadly.

“Snowbirds” flock to Arizona in the Spring

Living in Arizona in the spring, we are flocked with what are colloquially know by Arizonans as “snowbirds”. These are tourists from areas who have terrible winters that bleed into spring, so they escape their snow for a few months (march to may) and live in Phoenix. I was in the car with a friend on a visit home, she was driving behind a car driving particularly slow and she turned to me and complained about “snowbirds”.

Me: “Explain what a snowbird is, and why they are called that?”

KC: “Snowbirds are tourists that come to Arizona in our spring, their winter and just live here, they are usually older couples. They are called snowbirds because they like, migrate here in the winter for the warmer weather.”

Me: “Why do you complain about them?”

KC: “Because they are so annoying haha. They are the single worst drivers ever, driving behind this one now is an example, Minnesota plates, they just crawl along because they usually don’t know where they are going or don’t know the speed limit. The sad thing is, is Arizona is so easy to drive in, I mean we are on a grid system, so east to navigate. Also they just cram up the streets, I mean usually Phoenix is so spread out that you don’t see to many cars, but come this time a year the traffic is awful because all you see are the Minnesota, Michigan, Kansas or like Illinois plates mixed in around with the Arizona ones. It’s really just driving that it’s annoying, I mean old town gets crowded, but it’s not bad, and they only go to the tourist place in the day, which are like far out of town anyway.”

Me: “Where did you learn this term from”

KC:”Hmm. I don’t know really, just heard it around growing up, probably my parents complaining about their driving too or something.”


This term is one local to the Arizona or perhaps even the southwest region of the United States, one used only by the locals to describe the tourists. This term is one where the locals perform their identity with one another by creating the “other” of the snowbirds. It brings the people together under a common annoyance of these tourists and those who know and understand the term in this context would be deemed as part of the group. It is creating the locals as a group, as ones who know how to drive properly in their home and instantly can recognize when someone is not simply because of their driving.