Author Archives: Thomas Seli

Flower Gifting Custom in Estonia

Background: The informant is a 51 year-old Estonian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. She continues to participate in Estonian traditions and is a part of the “Estonian House” which is an Estonian community that resides in LA.

Context: The folklore was collected on a scheduled Zoom meeting in which I interviewed two native Estonians who immigrated to the United States and are close friends.

Main Piece:

Informant: “So I remember a couple of things, for example, like you know about gifting I was telling you are already about the flowers that they’ll never give like you know equal amount of plumes. Always give an odd like three plumes. I mean here in America, there are big bouquets always here, but in Estonia, we have like let’s say I’m getting three roses or five roses or, you know, nine tulips.

The informant later explained that you do not give someone an even number of flowers at a wedding or other celebratory gathering, because even numbers of flowers are associated with funerals in Estonian culture.

Interpretation: It seems that flower gifting is quite prominent in Estonian tradition and the number of flowers that one gifts is extremely significant. Because I was unaware of this tradition, I decided to do a little more research. I found that gifting someone a single flower is a sign of love. So, for example, you would gift a loved one a single flower or give someone a flower during a date. However, if you gave that person a big bouquet of flowers that contained twelve flowers (or another even number) that would be seen as somewhat shocking to the recipient as even amounts of flowers tend to be given when mourning the death of a loved one during a funeral. It is quite interesting that Estonians associate different meanings with the number of flowers that one gifts. I am not aware of exactly why even numbers of flowers are associated with funerals, but nonetheless an intriguing gift giving tradition.

Garlic Necklace

Background: The informant is a 14-year-old high school freshman living in El Segundo, California. The informant is my brother.

Context: After family dinner, my brother overheard a conversation about folklore I was having with my parents and he seemed interested, so I decided to explain the field of folklore to him and even interview him on some of the folklore he was aware of.

Main Piece: My brother described that one time when he got really sick, our grandmother (who is an Italian immigrant) put a garlic necklace around his neck to help him with his sickness. He believes that garlic has health benefits when it comes to illness and Italians used garlic necklaces as a folk remedy.

Interpretation: I did not even know that my grandmother had done this. Because I was interested in this folk remedy, I did a little bit of research and found that garlic necklaces were used to ward off evil spirits. I believe that sickness was likely associated with evil spirits and garlic necklaces were used to ward off the evil spirits and heal the sick. However, interestingly there has been scientific research that has found that garlic contains alliin, which is one of the most powerful antibiotics in the world.  

Sea Cucumber Kissing

Background: The informant is a 14-year-old high school freshman living in El Segundo, California. The informant is my brother.

Context: After family dinner, my brother overheard a conversation about folklore I was having with my parents and he seemed interested, so I decided to explain the field of folklore to him and even interview him on some of the folklore he was aware of.

Main Piece: The informant described that on a fifth-grade field trip to Catalina Island off of the coast of California there was a specific point where the local workers at CIMI (Catalina Island Marine Institute) brought out a sea cucumber from one of the tanks they had and told the class that if you kissed the sea cucumber you would receive 7 years of good luck.

Interpretation: This was actually a piece of contagious superstition that I was already aware of. Years prior, I had been on the same field trip my brother went on since we went to the same elementary school. I believe that the reason kissing a sea cucumber yields good luck is because it takes a bit of courage to do it. While it might be easy to sit in comfort and imagine giving a little smooch to a sea cucumber, when you actually have one of those slimy, salty, and gross looking creatures in front of you and you are asked if you want to kiss it, there is a solid chance that you will simply refuse. However, mustering the stomach to kiss one of those slimy things ends up rewarding the brave with a solid seven years of good fortune! 

‘Tarantella’ Dance

Background: My informant is a 52-year-old with Italian heritage. Both his mother and father are from Mola di Bari, a seaside town in Southern Italy. The informant was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Santa Monica, California at a young age. While he was not born or raised in Italy, the strong Italian roots in his family meant that Italian culture and tradition was still very prevalent in his household. The informant is also my father.

Context: During a car ride, I asked my father about interesting Italian folklore he knew about while growing up in an Italian family.

Main Piece: “This is a very famous Italian tradition, basically every Italian wedding I have been to has it. It’s the ‘tarantella’, the dance of the tarantula. Basically, as I understand it: Taranto is a town in southern Italy, which is actually near Bari where our family is from, and in the middle ages someone was bitten by a poisonous tarantula, and the myth had it that she went into a trance and the only way to get her out of the trance was by encircling the woman and doing a really frenzied dance with a unified rhythm. So, whenever you go to Italian festivals, Italian celebrations, and particularly Italian weddings you often times will see everyone doing the ‘tarantella’, which is basically a circle or a group of people surrounding the bride or the groom and they are all kind of moving in unison. You know, obviously they are not trying to remove a demon, but what they are trying to do is just create a spirit of happiness. But the ‘tarantella’ is very prominent in all kinds of Italian festivals, and it was born out of this myth that the only way that this woman could be saved was by doing this frenzied dance around her so that it would basically exorcise the demon that was in her because she was in a trance having been bitten by a tarantula.”

Interpretation: I have never been to a traditional Italian wedding or festival, so I was not aware of this dance. I found it very interesting that a dance whose origin apparently comes from exorcising a demon is now common in traditional Italian weddings. However, from what I can tell these seems to more of a legend then a myth. Nonetheless a very interesting folk dance with an interesting backstory.

Crows and Falling Pictures

Background: My informant is a 52-year-old with Italian heritage. Both his mother and father are from Mola di Bari, a seaside town in Southern Italy. The informant was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Santa Monica, California at a young age. While he was not born or raised in Italy, the strong Italian roots in his family meant that Italian culture and tradition was still very prevalent in his household. The informant is also my father.

Context: During a car ride, I asked my father about interesting Italian folklore he knew about while growing up in an Italian family.

Main Piece: “My mom said, in Italy, whenever a picture fell over on its own, unprompted, or black crows started to appear outside, it was an omen for something bad that was boing to happen or something bad had already happened that had not been communicated. The folklore is a picture literally just falls over unprompted or falls off a wall, or if you are outside and you see a bunch of black crows and ravens congregating outside your house, it’s an omen.

Interpretation: I was not surprised to learn that seeing crows outside of you house is a terrible omen in Italian culture, because I was previously aware that crows are seen as symbols of bad luck. However, what did interest me was the pictures falling down. Perhaps this is attributed to Christianity and the belief of the underworld. Perhaps, when a picture falls down, it is a sign of the underworld calling to someone or something and this is why it is seen as a terrible omen. If you ever hang up a picture in Italy, make sure it is well secured!