Tag Archives: ancestors

Eritrean Wedding Day 1: Day of Blessings

Background provided by DG: DG was born and raised in Redlands, California. Both of their parents were born in west Africa, but more specifically Eritrea. Eritrea is located on the Horn of Africa and adjacent to the Red Sea. They belong to a specific tribe of Eritrea, called Blen (spelled Blien) After war broke out, both of their parents migrated to America.

Context: DG was approached about folklore, which they shared in the middle of the day. They were very enthusiastic about sharing parts of their culture because not many people are aware of Eritrean tradition and culture. They explain some general details about Eritrean weddings, which span for a minimum of three days. 

Main Piece Transcription of interview (contains the context of particular performance and additional background information):

DG: “ So, the first day is … like … the day where they get married, where the bride and groom get blessings from their elders. Ummm … typically there’s A LOT of dancing. It’s like … shoulder dancing (raises shoulders up and down, almost like  shrugging)  … and like … they like kneel over their ancestors … and do their … like prayers.  They also dance with a stick like this (proceeds to pump fist in the air in a very rhythmic manner) … but there is also at one point …. I don’t know the cultural significance of it … but the bride and the groom … individually … like sit and everybody dances around them and they get this white blanket … it’s called a Gabi (proceeds to spell G-A-B-I). And they’d have someone sit with them … so for … like the bride, a little boy sits with them … and like the groom … a little girl sits with them … and they take the Gabi and throw it over (motions as if casting a net over an object) … and like that I guess. You go up … like that … and put it on like that … while you’re singing.” 

Me: “ So … is the Gabi … like … a cloth … or … is it ….?” 

DG: “It’s like a blanket. It’s … like handmade … I wanna say it’s like a cheese cloth, but like … it’s not … it’s cotton. It’s … like … multi-use. It’s like bringing .. the bride and … groom together like bringing the bride and groom over the threshold … or something like that .”

Analysis: This portion of an Eritrean wedding emphasizes the union of two individuals through symbolism and customs. The Gabi seems to be a tangible unifying object that close family and friends use to represent their approval. It seems like past, present, and future is represented in this ceremony. Ancestors are honored and respected. The married couples celebrate their union with loved ones. The young boy and girl who sit next the groom and bride are symbolic of future happiness either to have children or for the children to be happily married.

For more information about traditional Eritrean weddings including images please visit https://omar-safeer.blogspot.com/2014/08/wedding-tradition-in-eritrea.html.

The Story of Mulian

Background: My informant, CL, grew up in Taiwan, and speaks Mandarin, Hakka, English, Japanese, and Cantonese. Interview conducted in English over FaceTime.

Me: Do you know why Taiwan celebrates Ghost Month?

CL: “There’s a famous story in China regarding ghost month. The story of Mulian. He sees that his mom did a lot of bad things when she was still alive. So after she died she became a starving ghost. Mulian tried to use his powers because he’s a Buddhist, just tries to bring food to his mom because she’s a starving ghost. But whatever he served to her became burning…ashes right away. There was no way for his mom to eat it. He cries out, sees that his mom is tortured, and asks for a blessing from the Buddha. Buddha told him that because his mom did bad things, she has to suffer. Buddha told him that to reduce his mom’s suffering, the only way is to do good things, which is why they started Ghost Month: to worship ghosts, pray, and hopefully they can go to heaven. And finally the mom got released from the devil because Mulian did a lot of good things.

Me: So is Ghost Month just a thing for Buddhists then?

CL: No. Most people in Taiwan are Buddhist, but the Mulian story is famous–when I was a kid, a lot of TV shows talk about it because we didn’t know why we had Ghost Month. It’s about doing good things so your ancestors won’t be punished. In the old times less people could read, most people were farmers. So using drama or live shows let people in the countryside understand the purpose of the story: to do good things so your ancestors won’t be punished.

Me: Are ancestors just for Buddhists?

CL: No, we all have ancestors. Buddhists go to the temple to pray for them, but we still respect ancestors.

Analysis: Although the Mulian story is seemingly grounded in a more institutional presence like Buddhism, from my knowledge Ghost Month is widely celebrated throughout Taiwan regardless of its religious implications, much like Christmas in the US. Ancestor worship goes back to Confucian and perhaps Daoist ideology as well, so there’s a convergence of beliefs and practices at play here. Its structure is very much the classic cautionary tale, that shapes an idea of what “good” behavior would look like, particularly conveyed in an oral retelling to illiterate villagers. It’s clear to see why the story has stuck around, because its narrative progression is logical and points to a fairly universal moral message–respect your elders and ancestors, or else face karmic retribution.

FengShui: Where to Bury a Body

Clarifications:
Chinese (Simplified): 风水
Chinese (Traditional): 風水
Romanization/Pingyin: fēngshuǐ
Literal Translation: wind water
Free Translation: “Chinese geomancy” (Wikipedia), essentially harmonizing with the natural world

Text:

Informant: My grandparents talk a lot of stuff. They also, they also told me a lot of my great father where bury, his location, how good it is, that kind of stuff. I- at that time I was quite young I don’t quite understand. He uh my grandparents basically looking everywhere to find a a a place to bury to bury my great great parent father. He he obviously he not expert, but he got somebody who claim to be expert. They found location in some mountain point in a certain direction, it’s just well, I mean, whatever you want to saying say it makes sense, they believe.

Informant: I mean, when people bury need to find a optimal location and direction. Well supposedly we find a good location and direction, we you you you can benefit your your offspring and all this stuff. That’s what they… claim. That’s fengshui.

Informant: That’s why I mean everything. House, location, direction inside the house furniture how to put it… is all fengshui.

Context:

Q: How did you learn about FengShui?

Informant: I mean, the thing is I, I didn’t get as much knowledge as I should because when I, when the high school already away from my parents grandparents. […] Yeah, but, even then they aren’t experts. They always found somebody pointing a certain thing to them.

Q: Did a lot of people believe in FengShui?

Informant: Well… more and more now. I think the, in China, when Cultural Revolution came, they kinda destroyed a lot of those believes. But like, people in HongKong, Taiwan, they believe a lot more than mainland China. But in mainland China now, they have more and more people believe. Especially uh in my side of the area, those people.

Q: As in like in the country side or in your province?

Informant: Well in the province, but well I think now more and more people believe. In the whole China. Because they they, I mean, this is traditional culture so. So even though Cultural Revolution interrupt for a period of time, they those things coming back. Yeah, they have all kind of stuff, but as I say I don’t do a lot of study for this kind of stuff. 

Q: Do you know when it originated? Like what Dynasty? 

Informant: I’m not quite sure, I, I obviously I mean, follow the tradition I don’t know when it started. I’m not quite sure.

Q: How did the Cultural Revolution affect FengShui?

Informant: Well cultural revolution, Chairman Mao basically want to break all of the traditions, right. This this fengshui is tradition, I mean they they go through all this Well basically Chairman Mao break everything that is tradition. basically want a brand new culture, everything brand new. So it last for 10 years, obviously affect uhhh some people. I mean when I came to U.S., I found out a lot Taiwanese family, HongKong family, a lot more tradition. I mean they you go to their house, or even I work for a restaurant they always have some food put aside to to try to what you call, to feed your ancestors that kind of stuff. But in my time, in China, Cultural Revolution those things stopped. So we haven’t practiced for until a little bit later on, when Chairman Mao died, Cultural Revolution end. So maybe another 10 years people slowly slowly bring back the practice.

Personal Thoughts:

China is incredibly, incredibly old. While people in England can trace back their family line centuries, people in China can trace back family lines even further. I think the meticulousness in choosing a burial place for passed family members is in part because of this massive traceable family history. In addition, Confucianism – one of the main philosophies in China that has existed for a long, long time – also places a heavy emphasis on family and the obligation of each member of a family. Confucianism also emphasizes the duty of young people to respect their elders, which is reflected by younger people finding a perfect place for their elders to rest. What I find particularly interesting about this though is the intersection between family dynamics and harmony with the natural world.

Additional Notes:

For a similar discussion of the oppression of culture under Communism and Post-Communist revival, read:
Valk, Ulo. 2006. Ghostly Possession and Real Estate: The Dead in Contemporary Estonian Folklore. Journal of Folklore Research 43: 31-51

Qing Ming Jie (Tomb-Sweeping Festival)

Context:

B is a 17 year old Taiwanese-American high school student who is from Northern California.

This happened online through a zoom call after I reached out to them about sharing any folklore that they may have. For more context, their grandfather had recently passed away and they had gone to visit his grave recently for the holiday described below. 

Text: 

B: The thing is just known as Qing Ming Jie, otherwise known as the Qing Ming Festival. And in English it kinda just means like… tomb sweeping day. And it’s a Chinese tradition, I’m Taiwanese but we hold a lot of the same traditions as China. But basically, during this festival or Qing Ming Jie, you clean your ancestor’s tombs. I think it’s pretty well known but like Asian cultures are very big on familiy and honor and like respecting the dead like especially your ancestors. So this is like a part of that and it’s basically like the most important thing for like, one of the most important things about honoring your an cestors. You clean their tombs and then like make offerings to them, like give them food typically. You can also, we don’t do this here because I’m not in Taiwan right now, but in American we do it in an easier way. But I know you can also, it’s kinda like also a festival, Qi Ming Festival-

Me: Yeah

B: So I know you can also fly like kites. I know flying kites is pretty popular. Americans don’t do that I realize. I thought Americans flew kites but they don’t.. Or at least not commonly. Basically you just eat food and honor the dead. It’s just very… respect.

Me: Do you guys like, because I know when I visited my Grandpa’s grave when I was in China, it wasn’t on Qing Ming Je, because it was just when I was visiting, but we like burnt the offerings? At least some of them.

B: Yeah. So like for us, you can visit the grave anytime, it doesn’t have to be on Qing Ming Jie, but everyone or most people do go on that specific day because it’s special. My mom goes every sunday or so, obviously because its her father so she goes to see him. But all of us went on Qing Ming Jie, to like honor the specific day. And for offerings, we burn the paper that we make. I don’t know if thats specific, I think it might be specifically buddhist.

Me: is it like, I know I burnt like paper money?

B: Yeah, paper money but we also like fold origami paper like.. You know how gold nugget dumpling things? Those are like specifically for the Buddha. I mean not just Buddha but also just money, currency whatever. But it’s a very specific paper that we have to buy that’s like a specific material thats like very thin and like in the middle has fake gold or fake silver. And we fold it into the shape, its really easily to fold, or at least for me because I’ve had to fold so many. But at the grave we just burn all of it so they can use it in the afterlife and stay rich. So we fold like a lot of many so our grandpa can spend to his liking.

Me: I remember burning the money because we bought it at like the graveyard place because they had a stand for it. But I think it’s also like in China they’re probably more likely to have it because more people are doing it.

B: Yeah over here, we don’t have that. On Qing Ming Jie specifically they had like Buddhist stands, they didn’t sell paper but they sell flowers. Which is fair because the place he was buried is not for Asians, it’s majority asians, but its just flowers being sold there. 

Reflection: 

Qing Ming Jie is a holiday that embodies the values of Chinese traditions of respecting your elders and honoring your ancestors who came before you. While the informat is Buddhist and therefore had specific traditions that tie their religion and the holiday together, these rituals that are conducted on Qing Ming Jie are a common practice in order to honor our ancestors who helped us. This also brings up how many Eastern cultures like China and Taiwan are primarily focused on the past because of its impact on the future and the present. While I have never explicitly celebrated Qing Ming Jie, it was interesting to see the connection between my experiences visiting my Grandfather’s grave in China and the informant visiting their grandfather’s grave for this particular holiday in the US. The festival is one that is celebrated in order to show respect for your ancestors by cleaning up the tomb leaving offerings that the person enjoyed in the living for them to enjoy in the afterlife. Paper money and incense are also often burned together in order to reach the heavens for the person to use in the afterlife. 

Meredith, Anne. “What Is Qingming Festival and How Is It Observed?: Tomb Sweeping Day.” CLI, Chinese Language Institute, 1 Apr. 2022, https://studycli.org/chinese-holidays/qingming-festival/.

Traditional Arabic Dessert – Ka’ak

Text/Context

EM – Ka’ak is a traditional Arabic pastry that is usually a cookie. However there is a version that is more like a sweet bread that is traditionally made for Easter. This is the version that’s been baked in my family for generations. My mom would watch her grandmother make it (she wasn’t allowed to touch it until it was done). It’s always a special time of year and a special day when it’s made. It takes most of the day and the whole house smells delightful.
Also in my family, we usually make a quadruple batch.
First, the heat in the house is turned up to at least 70°F (this is the one day a year the heat is turned up above 64° in my house). The dough, using specifically King Arthur flour (no other brand is allowed) whole milk, sugar, and a bunch of spices including anise and mahlab (crushed cherry seeds) is made early in the morning. Then it’s covered in every extra blanket, quilt, and wool coat in the house, because if the dough catches cold, it’s ruined.
After the first rise, it’s rolled into balls, and set on baking sheets for the second rise. After that, the balls are padded onto a special homemade ka’ak press made of chicken wire, then set to rise again. They’re baked and cooled, and then they’re glazed in a milk, sugar, and rose water mixture, dried, and enjoyed. We distribute it to everyone in our family and community.
Interviewer – You said the sweet bread version is usually just for Easter. Does your family make it just for easter? Or is there some other cause for celebration with ka’ak? Is “special time of year and a special day” a particular day each year, or an arbitrary day and it is just the recipe that makes the time special?
EM – The ka’ak we make is traditionally the Easter version but we usually make it at Christmas because mom had more time. We don’t make it on a specific day but because we really only make it once a year that day becomes special.
Interviewer – Why a quadruple batch?
EM – We make a quadruple batch because we give it to a lot of people. We even ship some out to family in California (From Massachusetts).
Interviewer – Since even the kind of flour is so strict, and your mother was not allowed to touch the dough as a child, does that mean there is no change allowed to the recipe?
EM – The only change to the recipe is that my great grandmother always used ghee but we use regular unsalted butter.
Interviewer – Have you learned the recipe, or done it on your own?
EM – I’ve learned the recipe, though I don’t know it by heart yet, and have made it with my mom and then with my aunt in California, when I visited and brought the spices with me from home.I got pulled aside at the airport because of them. They didn’t believe me when I said they were spices.
Interviewer – Who counts as community, when it comes to distributing the ka’ak?
EM – We give ka’ak to neighbors, some people at our church, and like I said, family, including those in California.
Interviewer – Do you feel that the recipe is part of your Arab heritage?
EM – Yes this recipe and experience is absolutely part of my heritage. All of my family’s recipes are either in our heads, or in the case of ka’ak and other desserts, the recipe is written down but no directions are given, so the only way to learn to make them is to observe and learn from our elders, making special bonds and memories.

Analysis

This dessert is made only once a year and I did not collect this story during that time. The story was not performed with the actual food but rather in a context of discussing favorite foods.
Ka’ak is an example of food connecting a person to their family and their heritage. The informant has never travelled to Lebanon, and knows only a few words in Arabic, but is proud of their heritage and feels connected when they learn the recipes that are passed down through family, learned by memory, and made with and for their family. The informant is also excited to share the dessert—and part of their heritage—with people outside of their family.
It is also an interesting case when the food itself becomes cause for celebration, because it is very labor-intensive and time-consuming, so the dessert becomes very, very special.