Author Archives: Cameron Steurer

The Pink Tutu

When his granddaughter Lauren was a little girl, she was the biggest tomboy in the family. She was entirely devoted to sports and bugs, and hated girly things, especially the color pink and the ballet lessons her mother tried in vain to make her take.

As a joke for her 12th birthday, he got her a pink tutu. Because the entire family, including other aunts and uncles and cousins, lived nearby, the whole family was there when Lauren opened her grandfather’s present. Naturally, everyone including Lauren was incredibly amused.

Lauren ended up regifting the tutu back to her grandfather that very Christmas (again, in front of the whole family), which kicked off a new family tradition. Each gift-giving holiday (Christmas, Easter, any family member’s birthday), the tutu passes to another family member. The gifter always attempts to regift the tutu in a creative fashion. Some have put it on stuffed animals, others opt for more of a surprise regifting by hiding it inside another present or wrapping it in a box specifically shaped for a different gift. It’s always a challenge for each subsequent recipient to figure out a new and funny way to regift the tutu.

The tradition has been going on in his family for a little over a decade now, and it’s well-known even to family members who live too far away to participate as frequently as the group who lives in North Texas. It’s a way to keep the family close to one another, even as grandchildren graduate and go off to college or even move out of the house to start their own lives in new cities. The family always looks forward to seeing who the next recipient of the tutu will be, as it has become a main event during family holidays and gatherings.

Holiday Mashed Potatoes Recipe

Every Christmas and Thanksgiving, the informant’s grandmother would make mashed potatoes from an old family recipe. “We Irish love our potatoes,” she said. The recipe isn’t written down anywhere. Her grandmother only passes it down on her side of the family, and in order to memorize the recipe correctly, one must memorize how the potatoes taste when they’re made correctly. Anyone who wants to learn the potato recipe has to spend several holiday seasons making the potatoes alongside someone who already knows the recipe and correct balance of ingredients by heart. The learning process is like an initiation ritual for that side of the family. Almost everyone descended from that side knows how to make the potatoes. The informant says that she got her grandmother’s permission before giving away the recipe. “My grandma doesn’t think anyone would be able to get the flavor balance right anyway, even with the ingredients list,” she said. The ingredients are as follows:

Fresh and hot batch of mashed potatoes, made from scratch, sour cream, plain cream cheese, butter, heavy cream, salt, and white pepper. Her grandmother says it’s important that the potatoes be tangy, but not too much. “It’s a season to taste type of thing,” says the informant.

The informant and her grandmother have been making the potatoes together for several years. They only make them during Thanksgiving and Christmas when the members of their extended family are around to enjoy the potatoes.

Texan Proverbs/Sayings

The informant says she grew up in Texas, and naturally picked up some Texan proverbs during her years there from neighbors, friends’ families, and teachers. However, she finds that they don’t always translate well to others.

Take, for example, the saying “They tried to hang him, but the rope broke.” It’s a saying that means someone has been incredibly lucky, but the informant recalls saying that to a new friend at college and getting a weird response. “I said this to her while we were talking about one of our friends who forgot to study for an exam, only to have the exam pushed back a week that same day. My friend looked at me, kinda horrified, and asked if we really still hung people in Texas. I had to laugh because I didn’t know how else to respond.”

Interestingly enough, this is one of a handful of colorful Texan sayings that were published in Anne Dingus’ 1994 article about Texan speech in Texas Monthly. The article was published in the magazine itself a day after it ran online. Here is a link to the online article: http://www.texasmonthly.com/content/more-colorful-texas-sayings%E2%80%A6/page/0/1

Another saying that the informant recalls using with frequent confusion is “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” which essentially advises people that if you can’t accomplish something one way, then you should try doing it a different way because it might be successful. “My friends had practically the same response to this proverb that they did to the one about the hanged guy being lucky,” she said. “It took me the longest time to convince them that Texan proverbs are very… metaphorical in the most colorful way possible.”

Swedish Årsgång: The Year Walk

The informant heard this particularly sinister and magical ritual from a Swedish friend from Malmö when she was studying abroad a few years ago in Europe.

The pseudo-pagan ritual of Årsgång, which, when translated to English, means Year Walk, was meant to reveal visions of the future to a person willing to perform the walk. In order to perform the ritual, the walker would have to make several sacrifices and meet multiple requirements. The first requirement was that the ritual be performed on a certain night, most often Christmas or New Years’ Eve, sometimes at the winter solstice, but always at midnight. For an entire day before taking the Year Walk, the walker must sit inside a dark room, and is not allowed to eat or speak. This was meant to disconnect the walker from the physical world, and open them up to the spiritual world before the ritual. The walker was to emerge from the room exactly at midnight and head to the town church, where he or she would walk counterclockwise around the building. The walker would then go up to the door of the church and blow into the keyhole, renouncing their faith temporarily. This would fully open the walker up to the world of the spirits and visions of the future, but it also invited great danger. Year Walking was full of risks.

One could expect to encounter many terrifying Swedish entities, such as the brook-horse (bäckahäst) and the huldra.  The brook-horse took the shape of a normal horse, and it would invite children to ride on its back. Each time a child mounted the brook-horse, its back would lengthen to accommodate yet another rider. When the horse felt it had enough riders, it would jump into a body of water, drowning all of its riders and taking their souls for its own. The huldra was a deceptively beautiful female entity, who often had bark and treelike features growing on her back instead of skin. Said to be the forest guardians, they would lure people to their homes to either marry them or kill them. Either way, the victim would be lost forever.

The walker’s ultimate goal was to look into the windows of the church (or to reach the town cemetery, depending on the locale) in order to receive visions of the future. If the walker encountered any of the Swedish entities, including the two mentioned above, the walker could escape with his or her life if he or she was able to resist the entity’s temptation. Visions of the year to come would appear in the cemetery or in the windows of the church, and the things the walker saw would symbolize the events to come that year. The Year Walk would end once the walker made it back to the church to reclaim his or her faith.

Årsgång was more commonly performed centuries ago, when magical beliefs ran much deeper in Scandinavia. The ritual was a feared one; not all walkers returned with their lives, and others went insane upon returning from the walk. Of course, the steps of Year Walking vary, as it’s a very localized ritual, mostly passed down by word of mouth.

In his doctoral dissertation on magic in Swedish black art books, Thomas K. Johnson, Ph.D. briefly discusses the ritual of Årsgång. I found a PDF version for free online directly at this link: http://media.proquest.com/media/pq/classic/doc/2030700591/fmt/ai/rep/SPDF?_s=mheSU7Ogp7e1UoKhtmSNlGL9Lao%3D

How To “Cheers” Properly on New Year’s Eve

In the informant’s family, it’s unacceptable to clink glasses at a New Year’s Eve celebration without making direct eye contact with the other person for the duration of the toast. She says the tradition – and the superstition behind it – come from her mother.

“My mom always used to remind me to look people in the eyes when we raised our glasses in a toast,” she says. “She believed that avoiding eye contact would not only prevent good luck, but would actively invite bad luck upon the topic of cheers.” So if, for instance, someone made a toast to good health, her mother feared that avoiding eye contact during the toast would most certainly result in the death or illness of someone at the gathering.

The informant says her mother got the belief from someone she met in college. That person’s belief stemmed from a personal belief that looking into one another’s eyes connects people, and that it is this connectedness and positivity during a toast or a wish that determines that toast’s or wish’s success.