Author Archives: Marie McCoy-Thompson

Polish Name Day

My informant was born in Boston, but his parents immigrated to the United States from Poland. He is an American citizen, but he has spent a few summers in Poland, and his parents keep many Polish traditions alive in his household. He told me about one Polish holiday that he and his family celebrated when he was younger. This is his account:

“In Poland, there’s a tradition called Imieniny, which means Name Day. Just like how we celebrate birthdays here, uh it’s like a special day for everyone—but primarily kids and young people—and it’s just like a day where you’ll get chocolates and small gifts. The gifts are really cheap stuff from your family. Because even though you celebrate birthdays too, they’re not like, quite as big of a hullabaloo as they are here. And it’s just like, a nice day that is about you. So every traditional Polish name—and they’re constantly adding new ones, once they become popular—they get added to the calendar, so if you buy a calendar in Poland, each day has names at the bottom of each day. You get candy and sweets, and maybe a small toy. The gifts aren’t as big or expensive as the ones you might get on your birthday. So one year, just like I usually would, I got nice boxes of chocolate, and my mom cooked my favorite traditional Polish dish: kashanka, which is basically sausage. As I got older, we kind of stopped celebrating Imieniny in my family.”

Analysis: My informant’s description of this particular holiday seemed to bring back fond memories for him. As he said, it was a special day during the year that was “about him.” He got to enjoy special attention and receive gifts from loved ones; in those ways, it is quite similar to a birthday. Yet, I think, this holiday was not only “about him,” but also about Polish pride on a larger scale. This holiday celebrates people with traditional Polish names, thereby commemorating their historic ties to Poland. People have to consult Polish calendars if they want to find their name day, and then they will only find their name if it is considered to be traditionally Polish. For an immigrant family in America, Imieniny might have induced a sense of nostalgia; they were able to spend a day commemorating not only one member of their household, but also the culture that they came from. I would imagine that this kind of celebration would be comforting to immigrants who may feel homesick from time to time, and who value the ties they have to the country they were born in—and where most of their family still resides (as is the case for my informant’s family).

Rakhi

My informant was born and raised in Fresno, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from India. He described the traditions his family has to celebrate the Indian holiday of Rakhi:

“Rakhi takes place in late August, and it basically resembles protection from one sibling to another sibling, mainly from a brother to a sister or a sister to a brother. I personally have a sister, and every August we celebrate Rakhi. What happens in Rakhi is we pass each other bracelets made of twine, sort of like friendship bracelets. And it’s not even just to my sister. My cousins from Canada, India, and like other parts of the U.S. like Chicago and New York, they always send us little bracelets in envelopes every single year. And um, we… My sister and I, we tie them on each other. We select a few and tie them on each other. And my parents do the same thing too, it’s not just for people our age. My mom has three or four siblings, and she always gets bracelets form her brothers and sisters, and same with my dad. Rakhi is really nice because it just shows the love between a brother and a sister, and it shows how much a brother protects a sister, and the love that a sister provides. And usually the guy gives his sister money, and the sister gives the brother some gifts.”

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are widely celebrated holidays in the United States, but in the U.S., the relationship between siblings is not commemorated in the way that Rakhi celebrates it. My informant is glad to have the chance to specially acknowledge his younger sister and to honor her in a traditional way. The actual actions involved seem relatively simple; the bracelets and gifts exchanged between siblings are not fancy and the phone calls shared between relatives would not take a huge amount of effort. Even so, it is wonderful to have a special day reserved for these small gestures that can make a big impact. It is interesting how this holiday perpetuates gender roles in a subtle way. The males are expected to protect the females; my informant says part of the reason the holiday is important is because it commemorates the way brothers protect their sisters. The females are expected to support their brothers in return. Even so, the underlying message of the entire holiday is the love siblings have for each other, and that is what my informant focuses on.

Diwali traditions

My informant was born and raised in Fresno, California. His parents immigrated to the United States from India. He described the traditions his family has to celebrate the Indian holiday of Diwali:

“What Diwali basically is, is actually the festival of lights. Me and my family, we celebrate it every year around October. It’s always towards the end of October but the actual date changes every year. So this year, it was actually when I was away at college. So what we did is I ‘webcammed’ with my mom, and the webcam was right there, and I saw all the rituals they were doing. And there’s actually two days of it. So we light candles, and the candles are supposed to represent purity and they’re supposed to guard us from all the impure things that happen in our house, like greed and dishonesty. And by lighting the candles, that gets rid of all of that. So the first day, they light up twelve candles, and the second day, which is the main day, they light up twenty-one candles. There’s twenty small candles in a circle and in the middle is one bigger candle. By candle, I mean something called a diya, which is like a wooden pot, so to speak. The bigger candle is supposed to be lit all night, and my mom usually stays up all night to like, protect it and see if it’s lighting up. And usually, our tradition is we stay up all night and play games and invite some family friends over. What we do on the second day is, after we’re done with the prayers and stuff is we eat. My mom always makes really good food. It changes every year based on our preferences, but it’s always our favorite food. So it’s a really huge deal for us and other Indian families. And three, four weeks before and after Diwali there’s always parties—Indian get-togethers—where everyone wears Indian clothes. And it’s always a big deal. We always call our relatives in India, wish them a happy Diwali. We light fireworks. Decorations include lights around our whole house—like Christmas lights—so usually our lights stay up from Diwali until Christmas.”

Diwali is a holiday rich in rituals that have been around for centuries, but my informant updated it in a way by participating in the rituals via webcam. They used new technology to perpetuate their old traditions. Like many folklore traditions, Diwali is unifying for my informant’s family; they make an effort to call each other to wish each other happy Diwali despite being thousands of miles away. It is interesting how one element of the holiday—the lights strung around the house—carry over so seamlessly from Diwali to Christmas. Despite the vast differences between these two holidays, they both incorporate decorative lights. Yet as my informant explained, the lights for Diwali are integral to the significance and meaning of the holiday in a deeper way than they are for Christmas. He said that the lights around the house and the candles lit inside the home are believed to protect the family from impurities. It is a pretty literal symbol, with the light combatting the darkness in the way that pure virtues should combat evil ones, but it is a beautiful one nonetheless. The beauty of the holiday paired with its religious and cultural significance as well as its unifying nature make it a very special one for people all over the world.

King Cake

My informant moved around quite a bit when he was younger; he spent a couple years in Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi. In his adolescence, his family moved to Louisiana. Because that is where he went to high school and is therefore the last place he lived before coming to college, it is the place he considers his home. He is proud of being “from” the area near New Orleans. Here is his description of a traditional cake he ate around Mardi Gras:

“A King Cake is a circular cinnamon-roll like cake with green, purple, and yellow icing, the traditional colors of Mardi Gras. It’s named after the three kings from the Bible. Growing up, I consumed King Cake at school with my classmates as well as at home with my family. The cake is consumed during the season of Lent and contains a small plastic baby, which represents baby Jesus. The person who gets the baby in their slice of cake is obligated to bring the King Cake for the following week. So we had King Cake every Friday at school during Lent, since on Fridays you’re allowed some reprieves from the strict Lent rules. The King Cake is very symbolic of one of the most festive times for Louisianans, and it brings all of the community together in celebration of the season. However, while delicious, the cake also serves as a reminder of the obligations one has during the season of Lent.”

This cake became such a significant tradition for my informant that when he went away to college, his grandma mailed him one. Mardi Gras is not nearly as big of a deal in Los Angeles—where my informant attends university—as it is in New Orleans, so he greatly appreciated the gesture. It reminded him of his home and the traditions he spent years celebrating, so it does make sense for him to be sentimental about a cake. What may seem like a simple dessert to an outsider actually has quite a bit of symbolism. As my informant said, even the colors of the frosting have meaning: they are the festive Mardi Gras colors. Food is often intrinsic to special celebrations, and Mardi Gras is the biggest celebration of the region my informant lives in. It is comparable to a birthday cake in that it is a cake eaten at a special time with family and friends, but the King Cake has an added community-building element. The fact the person who eats the piece with the little plastic baby in it has to bring the next cake means that the King Cake itself perpetuates the gatherings of those people. It provides a kind of assurance that they will all come together again in a short time to share the same food and celebrate the season. Therefore, one of the functions of this folklore is the guarantee that those people will meet again.

Oh, Hell

My informant told me about a special card game that is unique to her family. This is her explanation of the rules of the game and the context it is played in:

“Okay, so this family tradition is  a card game that we play, and my grandparents brought it to the family. It was my grandmother’s grandma who taught it to her, and then my grandma taught my grandpa, and now it’s a big part of that side of the family. So whenever we get together for family traditions or for weddings—even if it’s not for everybody, even if it’s just my parents getting together with my grandparents—we always play this game. It’s called ‘Oh, Hell’. Everybody starts with ten cards, and you work your way down. The first round is ten, then nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, and you go back up to ten. And so every time you have your cards and there’s a card that’s trump, so that suit is trump, and you bid on how many cards or how many tricks you will take. It’s kind of like you’re bidding on how many you will get, and you want to get that many tricks. But then, sometimes you’ll get too many or too little, and there’s a point system that goes along with that. And we made our own score sheets for it. And it’s very much so a family thing, because it’s not a common card game that many people know of. We have taught other people, but nobody knows it right off the bat. Um, and… yeah. So I just went to wedding in Arkansas for a cousin on my mom’s side of the family, and all our relatives were there, so of course we played ‘Oh, Hell’. And we had—like we always do—we had multiple tables playing the game. And then, I guess we had two tables going, and then the top winners at each table created a winners table, and the losers at each table created a losers table. Um, and it went form there. So we had the big winner, and then the winner of the losers, and all that stuff. So it is a big thing, definitely on just my mom’s side of the family. We don’t play it on my dad’s side; it’s just a [name redacted] family tradition.”

My informant’s description of ‘Oh, Hell’ indicates how important this card game is to her family. It signals to them that they are all members of this family, because the people that immediately know how to play are all related. This is one activity that unites all the relatives, and as my informant said, it is especially meaningful when played at large family reunions or weddings. It brings all of the extended family together. My informant’s relatives live all around the country, so I can see that traditions like this are quite valuable in the way that they unify everyone. My informant is extremely close to her parents and to her brother; she is used to growing up in a very tight-knit family. ‘Oh, Hell’ allows her to grow closer to all of the people she is related to on her mother’s side. It is evident that one of the reasons her family stays so close is because of games like these that they can bond over. Thus, it is evident that one of the many functions of folklore is that it can be used to strengthen family bonds and build connections between relatives.