Author Archives: Nicholas Jones

Czech New Years Herring

Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”

Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?

Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!

Respect your Siblings

Informant: “When I went to temple school a long time ago when I was a lot younger, we always learned a bunch of sayings and proverbs, or… I’m not sure what the difference is in English. But a very common one which I’ve had used on me a lot was

‘Anh em như thể tây chân’

which means

‘siblings are like your limbs’

The idea was if you were fighting with you brother or sister, they would say this to remind you that, you know, you’re stuck with your siblings so you might as well get along with them. Like, if you’re angry at your arm you wouldn’t just cut off your arm you just deal with it, or if your leg is hurting you, you just deal with it. In the same same way, if you’re angry with your siblings, you can’t just try to cut yourself off from them.”

Informant is a student at the University of Southern California. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Vietnam after the Vietnam war. She was born in the United States, and was raised bilingually by her parents (though she says that Vietnamese “Is definitely [her] primary language at home”). Most of her knowledge of Vietnamese culture comes from her upbringing in he Vietnamese family in an area where a lot of immigrants from Vietnam settled. Additionally, when she was growing up, she learned a lot about her Vietnamese heritage through “Temple School” which she described as “Like Christian Boy Scouts, except for Vietnamese Buddhists”.

Collector Analysis: According to the informant, Vietnamese culture places an extremely large value on respect and family. This proverb is a clear example of this as it both shows the importance of one’s siblings, as they are just as important as your arms and legs, and it explains the importance of working together with your siblings. In much the same way as you need all of your limbs, you need your siblings and your family in life.

You Don’t Start Catching Fish Until You Start Bleeding

Informant: “I know I’ve said this multiple times when I’m out fishing with someone, especially if we haven’t caught many fish yet, is ‘Welp, The reason we’re not catching any fish is because I’m not bleeding yet.’ Well, either ‘not bleeding’ or ‘haven’t hurt myself yet’. And if while I’m trudging along hiking to go somewhere fishing and I slip and fall and get all scuffed up or bruised or hurt or whatever, I think to myself, ‘ok, well now I’m going to catch fish because I’ve hurt myself’. And so these are things I’ve said many times over the years fishing, and I’d say that this is actually a true thing…most of the time. And part of the reason why this has ended up being a true thing is that you have a better chance of catching fish if you’re fishing in a part of the river that’s way harder to get to. Because, the average person is probably a little bit lazy, and they’re also not going to take risks. And so if you drive up to some spot and you get out of your car and you walk right down to the river and fish there, that’s probably where like a million people have fished. But if you’re like walking up the narrow steep river canyon, or trying to go down some spot where there’s not a path, and just try to go cross country to get to the river, if it’s really hard to get there, then hardly anyone or perhaps no one has fished there before. When you get to those spots, and I’ve been to a number of those spots in my life, the fishing can be just absolutely fantastic.

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Washington and Oregon (where he hopes to someday retire so he can “go fly fishing every single day for the rest of [his] life”) and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: In much the same way as there is folklore associated with different professions, there is also folklore associated with different hobbies; in this case, fly fishing. This particular proverb is interesting in that it implies a sort of balance in nature, and that everything has a cost. Specifically, if you want to catch fish, you have to prove that you really want them by bleeding a little. Of course, the informant’s explanation as to why this particular piece of wisdom is more correct than not is spot on. Also, humans tend to have an interesting relationship with pain. This collector has experienced independent times in which, when receiving a mild injury while performing a task, will think ‘well, I knew I was going to injure myself while performing this task, and now that I’ve injured myself, I don’t have to worry about it anymore. This particular piece of folklore is very probably just an extension of a similar chain of thought.

It’s Bad Luck to Walk Under a Ladder

Informant: “I’m pretty sure this game from my Grandad [J] from Boise Idaho, and he was kind of a do-it-yourself-er around his house, and we used to go to his house every year over spring break. He had a ladder propped up against the side of his house, and I was over there and I would have been really small at the time, this would have been before I was twelve. And I was running around in the park next door, and playing in their yard and so at one point I ran under the ladder propped up against the side of the house and that ended up being a whole lecture. I remember I felt like I got in a whole lot of trouble, but the gist of it was that it was dangerous to do, and it was bad luck. So it’s bad luck to walk under a ladder, and you never want to walk under a ladder. So, it was less about it’s dangerous, and more about its bad luck so you never want to do that. From that point forward, I never did. I mean, I never did. Even if I would look at a situation where there was a ladder propped up against something and you know that it would be safe to walk under, there’s plenty of space, it’s not gonna be an issue, and there’s no one on the ladder, I would still always kinda go around the ladder.
Anyways, later on in life, I guess I technically violated that because I was putting Christmas lights on the house in Oregon. I was hammering the lighting clips into the roof, and I reach a point where I needed to climb down to the bottom to move the ladder, and I left my hammer hooked on the top of the ladder. I go to the bottom, and I’m moving the ladder, and I think ‘ok, I’m gonna lift it up and move it over here in a way so it’s perched against the wall the whole time. And to do that, and not have it tilt way over, I had to stand under the ladder and use both had to move it. And as soon as I lift it, the hammer falls about fifteen feet and conks me right on the head! And it hurt, like, Heck! I probably have permanent brain damage from that and I had this giant bump on my head, and all because I broke my Grandfather’s rule of never walking underneath a ladder.”

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: For this particular superstition, it is very easy to see where it may have originated. Most likely, at some point in the past one of my informant’s ancestors had an experience similar to his own, and that stuck. At some point, the exact reasoning for it probably changed to superstition based on the fact that in many cases superstition can be stronger than a simple warning. Consider that if one tells a small child not to do something because it’s dangerous, they may still do it based on the fact that many small children seem to have an inherent belief in their own invulnerability, and might be convinced that they will be ‘careful enough’ to avoid injury. On the other had, if you tell a small child not to do something because it’s bad luck, well, bad luck is something that a small child knows that he cannot escape by simply ‘being careful’.

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned

Informant: “One thing that I remember my grandfather [S] saying to me multiple times, it was ‘[Informant’s name], a penny saved is a penny earned!’ And, so he grew up in the great depression, and that was some really tough times in America, and he saw all the hard things his parents had to do, and he as a kid had to do, and that caused people in his generation to feel like, if you find a way to save money, you know, not spend money you don’t need to spend, then that’s as good as earning extra money because that meant that you had that much money still available to you. I remember when I was little, we would go to California to visit him, and everyday they would be looking in the newspaper, cutting out coupons, looking for what the deal was, looking at the ads… basically figuring out everything for everything they were going to buy, where they were going to buy it from. If they were going to go out to dinner, they would make their dinner decision based off of who had a special, who had a coupon, who had a discount, those sorts of things, with the mindset of if they were going to spend money, but there’s a way to figure out how to spend less, then that’s just as good as making more money at your jobs. I find that I tend to think in the same way, where if I can figure out a way to spend less money, then it’s just like I just made more money from my job.”

Informant is a middle aged banker who frequently travels internationally on business, and is a father of three. He identifies as ‘American’, although his mother is of Czech heritage. He grew up in Oregon and Washington and currently lives in the Midwestern United States.

Collector Analysis: This particular proverb serves to provide financial advice, in this case the importance of spending money wisely. It is interesting how nowadays this particular proverb has almost a different meaning to it based on the fact that a penny today is considered to be nearly valueless, whereas in the time period where my informant first heard this proverb, pennies were not an insignificant amount of money. In this regard, the proverb may not have aged particularly well, but it is still a valuable piece of advice regardless.