Author Archives: Yi Lin Valerie Tan

My Mother’s Favorite Ghost Story

Context

This is a tale that my mother often told me and my sister when we were children. Tales like these are common especially during the Hungry Ghost Month or Ghost Festival. The Ghost Festival takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar and is a time to pay respect to one’s deceased ancestors. The term ‘jie’ refers to my elder sister.

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Performance

The following is transcribed from a conversation between me, (M), and my mother, the interviewee (I).

M: Can you tell me the ghost story that you always tell jie and me when we were younger?

I: Which one?

M: The one I hated the most.

(I laughs)

I: Yes. So, you used to get a lot of bruises on your arms and legs when you were younger.

M: Why did I get so many bruises?

I: You just ran around a lot I think. But so, I used to tell you that whenever you get a bruise and you don’t know why, it’s because you did something wrong that day, and there’s a ghost living under your bed that comes out during the Hungry Ghost Month and pinches you in your sleep. And you get one pinch for every wrongdoing.

M: That’s terrifying. Why did you tell jie and I that story?

I: It was funny, you girls always get so scared. It also wasn’t real, and I didn’t think you girls would believe me.

M: What things would we do wrong that would warrant the story?

I: Small things like picking up your clothes or finishing your food.

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Analysis

This story has always frightened me as a child, but today I can look back and laugh at the tale and also understand where this myth comes from. The myth of a ghost pinching children at night for their wrong behavior is to encourage good behavior. The behaviors that were encouraged were never significant things of not hurting someone or not lying, they were often smaller things like finishing all the food of your plate or learning to tie your shoelaces properly. I think with smaller behaviors, it’s often harder to justify because there isn’t huge moral reasoning behind it. And thus it can be easier to come up with a myth and use fear to get children to behave well.

The Yulenissa

Context

The interviewee is one of my housemates and we often engage in conversation about his Danish heritage. This folklore is a myth that he continues to practice as part of a family tradition.

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Performance

The following is transcribed from the story told by the interviewee.

“On Christmas growing up, we have this thing called the Yulenissa, they are these gnome things in Scandinavia. Kind of these small creatures. So every Christmas they visit and we have to leave a bowl of porridge out before night. And in the morning, we would see their footprints outside the house and there will be this whole set-up of how they snuck in. There’s a string down the fireplace and you’ll see ashes of small footprints around the house or something like that. And the Yulenissa is this trickster that’s meant to do tricks and he’ll bring presents but he’s not meant to be Santa. He doesn’t do nice things, you’re meant to put the porridge out or he would trick you. My mom did this when she was growing up with her Danish Dad and so it became a thing that we did in the family.”

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Analysis

This story feels very familiar perhaps because it closely resembles the myth of Santa Claus. But unlike Santa Claus, the Yulenissa is known to be a trickster. Because the Yulenissa is a trickster, there are specific steps one must take in order to ensure that their family is kept safe, which is seen in putting the porridge out. On a personal level, I think the Yulenissa is important in upholding tradition. In this myth, there are consequences if the members of that culture do not uphold the tradition. This Danish tradition is seen to have been passed down from one member of the family to another, and the spirit of bringing the family together to thwart the trickster remains.

Almond and Luck

Context

The interviewee is one of my housemates and we often engage in conversation about his Danish heritage. This folklore is a food ritual that he practices as part of a family tradition.

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Performance

The following is transcribed from the story told by the interviewee.

“Every Christmas eve we would eat pickled herring and rice pudding. The tradition is that we would have a bowl of rice pudding and at the bottom of one of the bowls there would be an almond. And whoever would get the almond would have good luck the next year. And in order to celebrate this good luck, the person who got the almond would get a marzipan pig. Sometimes if we got too lazy to go to the store to buy the pig, we would just make a different animal out of marzipan. Last year we made a penguin out of marzipan and I remember once we made a spider. It’s just a fun thing that we would do every Christmas eve.”

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Analysis

This is a Danish tradition that serves to celebrate a festival. The ritual happens near the end of the dinner and is meant to bookend the festival by giving a person luck for the coming year. For the interviewee, this custom is very much about having a shared experience with the family, and one that is fun and wholesome. The tradition has clearly developed over the year, the family not just using a marzipan pig but allowing the children in the family to create new and interesting animals such as the spider or penguin. But ultimately, the spirit of the custom remains the same. On a cultural level, this custom helps enforce the end of a year and celebrate new beginnings.

The Rodeo Queen

Context

The interviewee is one of my housemates and we often engage in conversation about our different hometowns. This folklore about a festival comes from a dinner where the house was sharing various stories from our childhood.

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Performance

The following is transcribed from the story told by the interviewee.

“In my hometown, we had a frolic and rodeo. There were lasso cows and ride bucking broncos and barrel racing. And at the Rodeo, they would select a Rodeo Queen that will represent the rodeo until the next year. And there is always a parade right before the rodeo of all the log trucks in my hometown that would drive down the main street. And you get to eat carnival food and do the classic carnival things”

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Analysis

Carnivals are fairly common around America. What I found unique about his story were the log trucks that were paraded around. This is very specific to his hometown of Philomath where logging is the main source of income for the people that live there. Putting log trucks on display and parading them around shows how the people recognize the importance of that industry and how they celebrate it. It is meant to reinforce and instill a sense of pride in people of the industry that their town relies on. While it can seem like a festival about fun and games, it is very much about building a spirit of community and getting everyone to gather around a single and common idea. To have a Rodeo Queen is an example of creating a symbol is which people can rally around. And while America is clearly not a monarchy anymore, the concept of it is used in order to build a sense of hometown belonging.

Tekong Stories

Context

Ghost stories or Tekong Stories as they are commonly known in Singapore are very often passed down in families or during military service. In Singapore, where there is mandatory national military service for every eligible male individual aged 18, ghost stories in the army camps are thus incredibly common and circulate widely around the community in Singapore. The following ghost story comes from my father recounting a ghost story he was told when he was serving the military in Singapore.

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Performance

The following is a story told to me by the interviewee.

“One of the Tekong stories is about a young girl and her grandmother that walk around the bunks and count the number of sleeping recruits. The grandmother is teaching the girl how to count. And they will count one… two… three… four… And as they come closer and closer to your bunk you’ll hear the number louder and louder five… six… seven… eight… And you cannot open your eyes because if you do they will take you away with them.”

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Analysis

Ghost stories are very common, but what specifically is unique about this one is that it is a military ghost story. Singapore practices mandatory military service for every eligible man, and thus military stories are much more widespread in the everyday community than it might be in other countries. Almost everyone knows of some kind of army camp ghost story, male or female. This ghost story in particular is given to new recruits. I belive it is meant to instil fear and make sure that the new recruits go to sleep instead of waking up in the middle of the night and trying to talk to each other.