Tag Archives: conversion

Knocking on Wood and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity


Informant (L) is studying at UC Berkeley and has lived in the US his whole life.

L: Well, I’m a big believer in knocking on wood.

I: Is there a reason you have a whole knocking on wood belief?

L: Yeah, because like, let’s say hypothetically, it’s not real. But if there’s a chance it’s real, wouldn’t you rather absolve yourself from spiritual anguish? It’s the same as like being agnostic, and your whatever beliefs on religion, it’s like if there’s a chance it’s real, you might as well. So like are you familiar with Einstein’s theory of relativity? When you like you say something, you kinda put it out to the universe, so if you put it out into the universe, “Oh, well I hope I don’t get into a car crash” then it’s out in the universe, so like you influence yourself subliminally to get into a car crash and you can undo that by knocking on wood three times. Or if there’s no wood available, you can do it on your head.

I: On your head?

L: Yeah, ‘cus it’s your head, your noggin. It’s like made out of wood, it’s funny.


I asked my informant about any beliefs or superstitions he had over a phone call. This was the first one he gave, so I asked for further elaboration. 


Knocking on wood is perhaps one of the most common pieces of Western folklore in modern times. I found my informant’s sincere belief (which was further confirmed by his partner) in such a custom interesting, as my previous experiences with this piece of folklore have mostly been done in a joking manner. My informant rationalizes this Law of Contact with a scientific theory as support, which demonstrates the effect of empirical evidence on a belief in a custom. He argues that the physical act of touching something (either wood or one’s head) can undo an action, which is also an example of a conversion superstition. Knocking on wood undos the subliminal influence of what’s been put “out in the universe”, as my informant notes. The immense popularity of knocking on wood is a main factor as to why it still persists to this day, and because of how easy it is to do, people may do it as an extra safety precaution.

Lunar New Year Traditions and Precautions

  1. The main piece: Lunar New Year Traditions and Precautions

“So a lot of the traditions we have are based on earning money and wealth and things like that. So one thing that we do is we get red envelopes right. The reason they’re in red envelopes is because red is a lucky color right. And you put the money in red envelopes and you sleep on them…

“And yeah, so we sleep on the money. And another thing that we do is, uh, we cook the fish and we leave half of it raw, so that it lasts outside the fridge until the next day. Because you’re supposed to keep the fish out from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Day, because there’s another phrase, it’s called ‘nian nian you yu’, and that means every year you will have money.

“So you clean everything in your house and when you sweep, it you sweep out of the house, and you have to take out all the trash in your house. And so on Chinese New Year’s day, you can’t use knives or scissors or even like nail clippers, because that’s like cutting things, and cutting things symbolize cutting your life. Some people eat long noodles that have never been cut, because cutting them is like cutting a lifeline.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Context of the performance?

The informant learned about the different traditions and precautions for Chinese New Year from performing them every year with her grandparents and mother. She somewhat resents how people see it as quaint, telling me instead that some of the preparations and precautions are tedious and mundane. The informant expanded on this by saying, “It’s annoying to have to do all the cleaning and lucky color stuff, but it kind of made me closer with my sister over complaining about it.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

The informant’s traditions and precautions for Chinese New Year involve a lot of symbolism. Sleeping on money and keeping a fish both before and after the new year both seem symbolic of continuing one’s good fortune throughout the year. Cleaning the whole house and sweeping everything specifically outside could be symbolic of starting the year afresh and with a clean slate. The aversion to using any sharp objects, from knives to scissors to even nail clippers, is symbolic of preventing violence and not cutting one’s own life short—this would be an example of conversion magic, or reversing bad luck into good luck. The phrase ‘nian nian you yu’ matches the description of a dite, or a folk saying, because it is commonly said specifically on this holiday to confer good luck.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is an 18-year old Chinese-American female. While she grew up in the southern California area, she spent more time with her grandparents than her parents growing up, and felt that learning their Chinese traditions and language was the main way she bonded with them, while her younger sister never had that experience because her parents were out of school by then.

The Broom of Doom

Richard L Cuthbert was born in Savannah, Georgia.  His father was in the United States Air Force and Richard ending being raised by his paternal grandmother.  He moved to Compton, California with his relatives from his father’s side of the family.  It is here where he met his high school sweetheart, Twesa Cuthbert.  They had two children together.  Richard (now widowed) currently lives in Rialto, California with his daughter, Keesha Cuthbert.


When I was a kid, living down by the swamps in Savannah, I was up doing my chores one morning.  I think I was cleaning up the kitchen … yeah, I must have been because I was sweeping.  Anyway, Grandma Mamie was sitting in her chair and I accidentally swept her foot.  She had a fit and started yelling at me.  I had no idea what she was saying, and I musta looked like it cause she just grabbed the broom from me and told me to spit on it right away so she didn’t get bad luck.  I didn’t get it, but I figured if I didn’t do it I was gonna get it with one of her switches.  So, I hawked up a loogie and spit it on the broom.  I thought she would be mad because it was a nasty one but, instead, she just sat back down in her chair and kept watching TV as if nothing happened at all.  I just stood there confused.  She looked over at me and said, “You better finish sweeping this floor, boy.”  So, I picked it back up and kept on sweeping.