Category Archives: Customs

Customs, conventions, and traditions of a group

Secret Santa, but make it competitive

C is 32, he was born in Visalia, California. He grew up with a foster family in California’s San Joaquin Valley. He told me about his foster family’s take on secret Santa.

“There was a family tradition I had with my foster family… every Thanksgiving we would put names in a hat and we would draw names on Thanksgiving and it’s like secret Santa… and we buy that person a gift… whoever’s name we got… and everyone would try and guess who got who and if they guess the person that drew their name, they could have their gift but if they didn’t they would have to wait until Christmas Eve. It got really competitive (laughs)”

Secret Santa is widely credited in America to a philanthropist named Larry Dean Stewart. Stewart struggled in his younger years, and reportedly was giving help and hope by the generous contributions of strangers at low points in his life. When he became a millionaire in the cable and telephone business, he decided to “pay it forward” by handing out $100 bills and large anonymous cash donations (https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna15751409). Secret Santa, however, is a tradition that goes back much further. One Scandinavian tradition known as Julklapp, involves throwing presents into people’s doorways and running away after knocking (https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Julklapp). Around the world, other anonymous gift traditions exist around various holidays, like Amigo Secreto or Angelito on Valentine’s Day in Latin Countries (https://blog.willamette.edu/worldnews/2010/02/22/amigo-secreto/).

The Devil is Spitting on your Food

T is 20 years old, his parents immigrated from Bangladesh, he was born in Sylmar, California. He told me about this belief about why you should cover your food if you walk away from your plate.

“Whenever you have food out… if you walk away from your food… basically the devil is spitting on your food, so you always need to cover your food. This is a Muslim, Islamic tradition… and you do it whenever you’re eating but also during Ramadan, which is the month of fasting, we break our fast when the sun sets, right… so what we do is we set the table with the food we’re gonna break our fast with… so we do our prayers before we eat while the sun is setting… so we break our fast with a date and some water and then we go pray formally… because we have to pray five times a day… so we say one of the five prayers and we have to cover our food and after we finish with the prayer then we can eat.”

This website explains the hadith, or statement from the prophet, of covering food, https://www.understanding-islam.com/hadith-regarding-covering-food-during-the-night/, stating that covering food is to avoid disease. The link between the devil’s spit and pestilence is straightforward. For general information about spitting and the devil in Islam, see https://www.opindia.com/2021/03/the-significance-of-spitting-in-islam-how-spitting-can-ward-off-satan/

Simnel Cake or Judas doesn’t get a marzipan egg for Easter

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this Easter tradition of a cake his mother used to bake.

“And then this is something my mom did… I’ve never heard it done anywhere else… for Easter she would bake a cake and make eleven marzipan eggs and put them on top of it… and it represented each of the disciples… except for Judas (laughs). I think it was a white cake… or I think a plain yellow… we always went outside and took an Easter picture with one of us five kids holding the cake.”

When I researched this, I found that this is a traditional cake known as a Simnel Cake. This tradition goes back to medieval times and started out as something more like bread than cake. Simnel comes from the Latin Simila – a fine white flour. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was something more like pudding. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it became recognizable as cake and the marzipan eggs don’t appear until the 20th century. It is described as a fruit cake, but lighter than the traditional Christmas version. S didn’t mention fruit in the one his mom used to make, but the white cake would have been in line with the original use of fine white flour. For more information and a recipe please see https://britishfoodhistory.com/2018/03/19/simnel-cake/

An Orange in your Christmas Stocking

S is 54, he lived in England where his mother is from for the first ten years of his life before his family moved to California. He is soft spoken and pauses thoughtfully while speaking. He told me about this tradition of receiving an orange in his Christmas stocking and carrying it on with his family.

“An English tradition I like is that you would always get an orange in your stocking at Christmas time… because oranges were exotic I think… especially during the winter. That was something my mom shared with me and my siblings. And it was just for the kids, so… that made us feel special… I still do it… only it’s a chocolate orange now… Terry’s chocolate orange because I like chocolate! It’s a good feeling from my childhood…it’s a good memory from my childhood… and even though my family is diabetic now, I feel happy giving the chocolate orange now because it reminds us all of happy Christmases.”

According to an article in Smithsonian magazine (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-we-should-bring-back-tradition-christmas-orange-180971101/), the tradition of an orange in Christmas stockings started in the 19th century and may be related to a legend about the real Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra and three gold balls (bags, bars, or coins?) known as “the Miracle of the Dowries.” The orange was an affordable stand in for the gold, yet still a rare treat. In the early 1900s, the citrus industry incorporated the tradition in marketing campaigns featuring a cartoon Santa offering oranges as a healthy alternative to candy. Later, during the Great Depression, oranges took on renewed importance as an exotic and rare treat during hard times. The trajectory of this tradition reveals interesting intersections with the focus of Christmas moving away from a religious focus to a consumer one.

Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (“Santa Claus and Black Pete” )

Background:

The informant is my father who was born and raised in the Netherlands. Siinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. One of Santa’s helpers is Black Pete, a small black child who was Santa’s helper. Representation of Black Pete in festivals and tales have come under fire in the Netherlands for accusations of racism.

Context:

The story of Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet was related to me over a phone call with my father.

Main Piece:

Dad: It’s pretty much the same as the American version of Santa Claus. Siinterklaas is based off of St.Nicholas and he has his little helper elves. Except I don’t think Siinterklaas has elves, just helpers. He has one named Black Pete, or we call him Zwarte Piet. Black Pete is a little, black boy who’s Siintreklaas’s main helper.

Me: Does he wear an elf outfit?

Dad: Uhhh, no. More like a jester’s outfit. But in the festivals and parades that used to happen throughout Losser and Utrecht, people would dress as Zwarte Piet and use makeup to paint their face black and jump around and dance. We thought nothing of it when I was a kid, growing up. Every town had a festival with Zwarte Piets. But now, of course, a lot of people are protesting against Zwarte Piet being in festivals with blackface. They’re trying to change the story to say that Zwarte Piet just has ash marks from climbing down the chimneys with Siinterklaas, so people don’t do black face but just have some ash streaks across their face.

Me: Black Pete is just like an elf, right?

Dad: He’s Santa’s main helper. He carries a big bag with gifts and treats, but also a switch to spank the children who were naughty.

Me: And do most people in the Netherlands today agree that Black Pete should be removed from festivals and parades?

Dad: No, a lot of the youths think it should be, of course, but most Dutch have grown up seeing Black Pete every year. He’s as common and important to Christmas as Santa is almost. There’s been a lot of protests happening year after year, though, so I think in the coming years more and more festivals are gonna get rid of him.

Thoughts:

This folk belief is of particular interest and relevance to me, as the tradition of Christmas festivals showcasing Black Pete has come under fire recently for being a racist depiction. While I did not grow up in the Netherlands and, therefore, cannot view this tradition through an entirely emic perspective, the phenomenon of historical bits of folk lore clashing with contemporary customs and beliefs is one that I have witnessed in the United States. Just as fiery debates arose over the removal of statues of Confederate generals, Black Pete is a question of what will triumph in the end: A culture’s tradition and history or the culture’s contemporary standards? The Christmas parade with Siinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is deeply engrained in most Dutch towns and cities. Most of the Netherlands’ population has grown up inoculated with the association of Zwarte Piet with the joyful and festive mood that permeates throughout the Christmas season. Zwarte Piet has existed within Dutch folklore for nearly two hundred years. To remove the portrayal of Zwarte Piet as he has been known for two centuries would be to say that the Dutch beliefs and customs are dangerously malleable, and able to be uprooted and altered in accordance with the vacillation of the general public. However, variations and evolutions are integral to folklore and the culture that produces it. When new variations are authored, they reflect the beliefs and standards of contemporary times. When a belief or tradition of the past violates those of today, especially one as severe and prevalent as racism, there must be a serious examination into whether a new variation should be created. The debate over Zwarte Piet is a hot topic every year in the Netherlands around Christmas time. There is no doubt that protests against the use of black face to depict Black Pete in festivals will continue for years to come. Many protestors look to the Dutch judicial system to make an official ruling to ban blackface in these festivals. It will be interesting to see how law and governmental authority can greatly influence the evolution of folklore.