Tag Archives: childhood story

Baba Yaga – Russian tale


“My grandmother told me this legend when I was a little girl. I don’t remember all of it super well but this is pretty much what she told me. Baba Yaga is a woman-like creature who I think had chicken legs and she lives in the woods. She is very cruel and really quite ugly. She would scare children and eat them if the went near her home. I was always really quite scared that would happen to me when I was little. She really is very witch-like. But, she also was very knowledgeable, so if you needed something and you came to her with the right gifts she would help you. But you had to be careful because she would play tricks on people, so you had to think everything she said or did for you because you never know if she is playing a trick or not. I remember asking my grandmother one time what you had to bring to her to receive help and she wouldn’t tell me. I think she was scared I would go looking for her and get lost [laughs].”


I was told this story from L, my grandmother, over the phone. I knew she could tell me this story because she had told it to me also when I was very little. Her grandmother (my great-great grandmother) was the one who originally told it to L. L was born and raised in California, but her grandmother was born in Russia.


Although L categorized this story as a legend, it fits more succinctly as a tale. This is a relatively well known tale in Slavic countries. It teaches you to be wary of strangers and careful when receiving something from someone because their motives for helping you are not always clear. It is also used to teach and scare children away from wondering into the woods alone. L who never even lived near the woods, feared Baba Yaga when she was a child. Adults are not usually scared of Baba Yaga the way children are. It is shares similar qualities of other stories from the tale type index, such as the character Baba Yaga, who like many other tales, is a witch who lives in the woods. It is also interesting to note in the version L shared with me, there are no other characters, nor does it center around a plot. The whole tale is who Baba Yaga is and what she does, yet it is not told through the perspective of other characters, such specific children. Other versions might have more details, which might give a deeper look into the lessons behind the tale.

The Curse Cast on Salt Creek Elementary

Context: Z is a 21 year old Filipino American man. Growing up with a close community of Filipino friends and family. Z went to an elementary school within California. This story was collected over a Discord audio call.

Z: “So near the back of my school, a lot of people would go through there for quick entry to school. There was this bridge nearby and underneath it went this pretty deep valley, and what every kid in that elementary school always noticed all the time, whether they were walking there or driving there, you could always see down into the valley and what you could see was this worn out mattress down at the bottom. Every time. So what we thought every single time was that there was this homeless man, but what we thought was he was actually down there casting some sort of dangerous spell or something like that beneath the school. Cause we found out, and I think it was just a funny coincidence, but you’d find around our school an abundance of holes in the grass area, and we thought that these holes are usually from snakes. We always thought you had to be careful because there were a lot of snakes there because of the old man, like he had something to do with it. It was our little story but we really always believed he was casting some spells.” 

Intv: “And what elementary school was this located at?”

Z: “This was at Salt Creek Elementary, and like every kid at the school knew about it.” 

Intv: “Do you think there was any sort of cultural significance to it being a curse? Thinking back on my time in elementary school in a very western upbringing, I don’t think I was particularly aware of curses as much as I was ghosts or spirits.”

Z: “I think, because among my friends a lot of them at the time were Filipino, so what kind of relation there would be culturally, I definitely think it could be related to this monster my mom always told us about in the dark. She would call it the mumu, or that’s what we called it as kids, I think that’s kinda the relation there, as we never saw him in the morning. So we thought maybe he was only there at night when it’s dark. Cause in the day every time we’d pass the mattress we’d never see anyone, and at the time as kids we just ended up putting it all together.”

Intv: “Can I ask you a little more about the mumu?” 

Z: “Yeah, I think it literally translates to monster in Tagalog, I think it’s like your equivalent to a boogeyman. You know? The whole, like, ‘look out or the mumu is gonna getcha!’ thing. At least that’s how I saw it.”

Analysis: After looking up a translation I can confirm that mumu translates to either ghost or boogeyman. This story speaks heavily on how our folk and specifically our more sinister folklore tends to reside in the dark. Across cultures, as growing up as a child in America I was aware of the mumu, just of a different name. It makes one wonder where the mumu or boogeyman originated or how it transcends cultures. A shadowy figure who targets children is seen often in folklore across the world. 

Jõulu Vana – The Estonian Santa Claus

Informant’s Background:

The informant, in this case, is my mother, M, who was a first generation immigrant born to an Estonian family in the North-East of Canada. Her family had escaped from occupied Estonia, and had settled in Canada before she was born. She moved with my father to Los Angeles, in the United States, to take a job as a university professor. My brother and I were born a few years after.


I mentioned collecting folklore to my mother, who I regularly call on the phone now that I have moved out of our house, and she told me that she wanted to help. I told her yes, and she emailed me the following description of Estonian Christmas celebrations growing up, and more specifically her experiences with Jõulu Vana, the Estonian version of Santa Claus. Her Email was lengthy, but I decided to include the full text so as to preserve her performance of the traditions she grew up on.

Performance (Written Over Email):

M: Estonian Christmas — “Jõulud”, which comes from the Swedish “Jul” (Old English ‘Yule’) — is a pagan holiday, a celebration of the end of the year. When I was growing up in Canada, a first generation immigrant, with two Estonian parents, our holiday celebrations began at the beginning of December, with Advent calendars, and continued to New Year’s Eve, when we melted candles and poured the liquid wax into buckets of cold water, where it became solid again with intricate shapes that were supposed to tell our fortune during the coming year. But the most important day for me and my brothers was the day that North Americans call Christmas Eve, December 24th, because it was on the evening of that day that Santa Claus (Jõulu Vana) would come.
I loved everything about Christmas as a child because it happened so slowly. We woke up in the morning to the delicious smell of the special Christmas bread my mother was baking (“pätsi sai”, a white bread made with raisins and almonds and flavored with cardamom that my mother ground in a special grinder). We went to the living room to admire the Christmas tree. When we were very little, my brother and I sometimes crawled under the tree to look up at the ornaments and the lights which we thought were magical. (When we were even younger, there were real candles on the tree.) After breakfast our parents gave us each one small present; the other presents would be coming from Santa.
The excitement grew during the day until we could hardly stand it. Finally, it was evening. My father, a doctor, announced that he was on duty at the hospital and had to leave. This happened every year, and I never wondered why. Awhile later my mother told us that we should go to the window to watch for Jõulu Vana. We could see him coming from a distance, through the snow, pulling a sled piled high with presents. Sometimes he would seem to get lost, approaching one of the other houses. (We were the only children on the block except for one other Estonian family who lived in the apartment directly below us.) We would knock on the window and call out frantically ‘’ “this way, Jõulu Vana!”
Before he gave us our presents, we had to each sing a Christmas song for him. We had been practicing these songs for weeks, but I remember still being nervous and even a bit scared. He always clapped and told us that we were fine singers. (Singing is a very big tradition for Estonians.) And then, finally, he handed us our presents.
As a child I did not really believe in God – most Estonians are pagan at heart, not Christian. (My mother once told me that she found it odd that Canadians go to church so often, every Sunday. In Estonia, she explained, there were only four occasions for reasons for going to church: to be baptised, to be confirmed, to be married, and to be buried.) But my faith in Jõulu Vana was strong. I must have been a gullible child. I never wondered why Jõulu Vana always came straight to our apartment, rather than the apartment of the Estonian family below us. I didn’t even wonder when I noticed, one year, that their Jõulu Vana was shorter than our Jõulu Vana. And when my Estonian friend told me: “You know, there isn’t really a Jõulu Vana; it is just our fathers wearing costumes from the hospital”, I looked her right in the eye and said: “Maybe your father pretends to be Jõulu Vana. But we have the real Jõulu Vana.”


I’ve always been fond of childhood beliefs in Santa Claus or other versions of the figure. While discussion can be brought up of the commercialization of Christmas by the US, and by companies like Coca-Cola (who created the iconic imagery of Santa Claus we all know today) there’s something very pure and wholesome in the participation on the parts of parents in the myth of Santa Claus. Parents claiming that the presents under the tree are from this jolly red figure is a wonderful example of letting child’s imaginations run wild, and nurturing those imaginations by playing along with them, and I’ve never really understood claims that telling your children Santa Claus is real is actually cruel because they’re going to “discover you were lying” or something. Childhood wonder and magic doesn’t last forever, and I think rather than stamping it out, it’s something that should be protected, loved, and cared for by parents and other adults. I remember when I was a child my father would put on a big boot while we were asleep and cover it in soot before stomping around the house so that in the morning it would look like Santa came down from the chimney and had a wander about the house. Real effort was put into making Santa feel real, and I can see now after reading this from my mother, why that mattered so much to her, and the magic from her own childhood that she was trying to recapture for us in ours. The Estonian tradition of Jõulu Vana, where the father dresses up as the jolly red figure, is a perfect example of how putting in effort into creating this myth and captivating a child’s imagination can lead to wonderful memories that can last a lifetime.

Ghost Story in Primary School

Background: The interviewer and the informant went to the same primary school together in Qingdao, China. Interview asks the informant to retell a horror story that was very popular in their primary school. 

Informant: So next to the gate there was this statue of a woman, she’s playing a harp. And a long time ago there was this girl who stayed in school for longer than usual, cuz you know, she was on duty to clean the common areas in the hall. She was about to leave and she’s the only one left, and when she passed by that statue, she saw the statue woman blink. Then all of a sudden she really wanted to pee, so she went back into the building, to pee of course. Ok she didn’t go into the building, she went to that small restroom near the playground, you know where that is. She got in there, saw a janitor, and that person was wearing a hat and cleaning the floor. She didn’t bother and went in to pee. Then when she’s finished, she couldn’t get out! There was an air wall that blocked her way. Then… she never got out.

Context: This story was really popular in this particular primary school. Almost every student who went there has heard of the story. The interviewer and the informant first heard of the story when they were in second or third grade. Some people heard it from their classmates, and a few heard it from the older fifth and sixth graders. 

Analysis: The statue mentioned in the story was situated near the school gate and near a small school garden. There is a very shallow pool in the garden, and first and second graders are usually prohibited from going into the garden. I think this story serves as a cautionary tale masked with a mysterious, horror element. The physical location of the statue is at a liminal point—beyond the statue is prohibited and possibly dangerous. The girl in the story is in danger when she sees the statue, and when the impact of this terror is translated into real life, young school kids may be deterred by the statue and areas around it. This explains why the story was popular especially among younger kids. For the fifth and sixth graders, the garden and the school gate are no longer dangerous to them. The mystery and threats in the garden lose their attractions, and subsequently the tale is no longer scary. 

The Legend of Saci Pererê: a Brazilian Legend

Informant: The legend of Saci Pererê is a one-legged man who lives in the forest, and he loves to play tricks. He has a magical red cap where he can disappear wherever he wants and reappear wherever he wants. He loves to play tricks and he loves to steal kids’ toys and set animals loose, really he just plays tricks on everything. If anything inside of a house goes awry, it is said that it is Saci Pererê’s fault. Also, the legend says that when Saci Pererê does a spin dance, it is the cause of every forest tornado. The only way to capture him in this swirl is to throw a rosary into the tornado. The legend says that if you come in to steal herbs or destroy the forest, Saci Pererê will come after you with his tricks if you don’t get his permission before you take herbs, as he is an expert on herbs and medicines. The legend is meant to scare away people who came to ruin the forest.

Context: The informant grew up in Brazil and heard this legend during her childhood, which is how the informant felt connected to it: it brought the informant back to their roots in Brazil. This is the way in which the informant interprets the legend: they interpret it in the context of hearing about it and growing up in Brazil. The interview took place in a typical, face-to-face, storytelling situation with the informant.


The Legend of Saci Pererê contains all of the characteristics of a traditional legend: it takes place in our world, in this case, in the forest, it has questionable truth value, and it is about questions about factuality and wondering what is real. This legend has great entertainment value for Brazil: it is a legend that has been passed down through generations in that it is a legend that protects the forest, and the informant even said that there is a National Day for Saci Pererê on October 31; this conveys how popular this legend is in Brazil. However, there is a greater cultural significance for this legend: the legend of Saci Pererê ultimately states how Saci Pererê is protecting the forest through his antics and jokes when people come in searching for herbs. This brings in the issue of bioprospecting, where big pharmaceutical companies hire researchers to go to indigenous cultures around the world, see what herbs and cures they are using, and steal these and put them into their medicine, stealing all of the royalties without giving proper credit to the indigenous cultures. The legend of Saci Pererê is a folkloric way of coping with this travesty: there is a character in the legend who offers protection from this. It is a way for the Brazilian people to offer themselves comfort against the huge pharmaceutical companies who have stolen from them. In this way, it shows how legends can be protective for the people who believe them: it provides comfort, security, and identity for the Brazilian people, and this is applicable to many other legends as well. Therefore, the Legend of Saci Pererê not only has great entertainment value for Brazil, but also offers comfort and protection from the negative effects of bioprospecting.

Annotation: For another version of this legend, see p. 391 of Carvahlo, Leonardo F. B. S., et al. “Teaching Brazilian Folklore through Video Games: a Way to Motivate Students.” Nuevas Ideas En Informática Educativa TISE , 2015, www.tise.cl/volumen11/TISE2015/385-396.pdf.