Tag Archives: fire

Lunar New Year Origins

Context: the informant is a 21 year old USC student with two Taiwanese immigrant parents. She told me that this was the story behind Lunar New Year. I was unable to record her exact words, but I was given permission to paraphrase.

The story goes like this: a long long time ago, there was a village that was attacked on the same day every year by a monster named Nian, which is the Chinese word for year. Year after year, people would die and they couldn’t do anything about it. Somehow, the people found out that Nian was afraid of fire, and so before he came to attack the village that year, they hung up red lanterns, tapestries, and banners outside their doors, hoping the monster would mistake the red color for fire and leave them alone. That year, when Nian came, he saw the decorations and was frightened away; that was the first year that nobody died. Every year after that, on that specific day, they would put up red decorations, hang red lanterns outside the walls, and set off firecrackers at night to make sure that the monster would never come back. During the day, children would also be given red envelopes to put under their pillows for protection. After that first year Nian was driven away, he never came back, too scared of the red colors that he thought were fire. Now for Chinese New Year, everyone wears red and puts up red decorations as a tradition, but this is the way it started.

Analysis: From the definitions we work off of in class, this would be classified as a legend because, while it’s an origin story, it’s an origin story for a tradition rather than a people or a land. It’s clearly set in our world and isn’t necessarily sacred, so if anything, it would be a legend, considering its veracity cannot be verified and it seems like something that, though supernatural, has the potential to be true.

Considering the red is supposed to mimic fire, it seems in theory very similar to some points that Francisco Vaz da Silva made about chromatic symbolism. He argues that the use of the black/white/red tricolor symbolism was “part of a general encoding of cultural values in sensory based categories” and while his argument was in relation to womanhood, I would say that some of might still apply. Red, in his example, was more of a sign of blood or maturation in Europe, but he goes on to reference a paper on African color symbolism that considers red as associated with activity or life-giving, much in the same way that blood might function.

Here, it represents similar concepts — red is a marker of life-giving in the way that it is a symbol of protection and its presence means the continued existence of life. Fire, and by extension, red, are both connected to the idea of life, resulting in an association of fire with vitality. Fire also brings light, driving away darkness and fear, creating another association with life-giving and continued success/safety.

Fire is also among one of the first things children are taught about (usually in the context of safety) and considering few things in nature are that color, I wonder if there’s more association of red with fire rather than blood for children who grow up hearing this story.

Generational Fire

CONTEXT: DM is a current USC student who attended a North Carolina Christian sleep-away camp in the summer of 2011. This is a story that she heard from an elderly woman named Libby. Libby had been raised at the camp, was head of camp for a number of years, and taught Bible Study and Devotional at the camp. DM interprets this story as a personal story based on the region of North Carolina that Libby was from. Different from many of Libby’s other stories, DM does not believe this was explicitly religious in theme.

This was a story that was said to be sort of local, in the area where I went to this summer camp. It was said to be from a long, long time ago, but in these same hills. Like, back when white people, I guess, first came to these hills. And it’s a story about this tiny village and there are these two young people – this young couple – that falls in love and decides to get married. The boy was learning new skills and working overtime so he could afford to buy the things, like the wedding dress and buy the food for the feast, and have a pig ready when the time comes, so they could kill it and roast it and give it to everybody. He was making all these preparations to get his own stuff and learn how to build a cabin because their dream was to go off into the woods and go away together and build a cabin in the woods. She was bartering things so she could get the best white wool to spin her dress with and she spent months and months sewing
her dress together so it would be perfect. The day comes and everything goes wonderfully, and they get sent off into the woods and basically pack up their two backpacks worth of belongings and set off into the woods together. Their first night in the woods they’re along and cold but they were together, and they were so, so happy. And he chops up some wood and builds a fire for her as his first gift of their marriage. They sleep next to the fire and the warmth from the fire and the warmth from their love is what kept them warm. So, the next morning, when they got up to leave to go find a place to build their cabin, the husband scooped up all of the live coals and put them in this pot that he was gifted – this cast iron pot. And she carried around the ashes and coals from the fire all day, and then as soon as they got where they were going, he would start a fire with these coals and then would continue on like that. And the story is for five generations somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains this fire has been kept going by their daughters, their daughters’ daughters, their daughters’ daughters’ daughters, and they keep this one fire going with the original coals and ashes from the people who found this new place to settle down.

ANALYSIS: This story uses a common symbol of embers/coals/fire as a representation of love. If the love of the young couple is represented in this way, both the relationship and the fire are undying, resulting in new fires, and generations of children. The couple nurtures the fire together, with the husband building the fire and collecting the coals, and the wife nurturing the coals during the day as they walked. This could be representative of the life they built together, lasting long after they were gone. The foundational fire and foundational love that they had set them up for future success in their posterity and survival of the fire itself.

Family Ghost Friend


The informant is a USC student who has lived their entire life in a neighborhood near the USC main campus. Their family is of Mexican origin, and this story is about a ghost that has haunted their family throughout the generations. We conducted this interview in the basement of Taper Hall during our shared ANTH 333 discussion section, and so this story is what the informant could think of as a story to tell off the top of their head.


Int.: Okay, I’m recording.

LH: Okay, so basically this story, I don’t know who came up with it, but it like ran amongst like my little cousins and I when I was growing up, I used to live very close to USC campus. And I remember one day, my mom would tell me just randomly like, “Oh, your little friend stopped by your blah blah blah.” And I was like, “What do you mean my little friend?”

LH: I was like, 11 when this happened. I was like, “What do you mean, my little friend?” And the story goes basically that like, in my family, we had an uncle who like died tragically in a fire when they were still in Mexico.

[Interviewer laughs in surprise]

LH: I know this escalates very quickly. He died very tragically as like a kid in a fire and blah blah blah, and everyone in my family thinks that my grandma is cursed. Like, we think that she like dead ass has like something on her, like, witchcraft. And so the story is that once like, my uncle died in the fire, he had been like haunting my grandma like ever since and like following her around.

LH: And so every time we would go to like, my grandma’s house, the vibes were so gross. It was so cold in there. It was–it felt like you were being watched all the time. And my mom would say that, like all the little kids in the family at the time, would have like the same constant imaginary friend whose name was Pablo.

LH: And she was like, yeah, like your little cousin saw your–or like Pablo the other day and I’d be like, “Who the fuck is Pablo?” Like, what are you talking about? Until one day my old–My other uncle he was like, “Yeah, you had this uncle who–” blah blah blah, this and that. And basically like, to this day we tell this story to like the little kids because like, my grandma’s house has always felt so, like, grody and like, weird, like, the vibes.

LH: The vibes have always been off and so to this day, every time we get, like, a new little cousin in our family, or like, someone else in the family would be like, “Yes, you know, my grandma’s haunted but she has like this little boy following her. But yeah, that’s like, pretty much the sum of it.

Int.: That’s crazy.

LH: Yeah.


I love this story for how it reveals the family structure of the informant as one that is strong and large. From a folklore studies perspective, it reveals how folklore often spreads through family structures and reinforces cultural beliefs–such as the belief in ghosts–in the process. The ghost in this story arises from a family legend–that of the boy who died in a tragic fire. It also shows how children influence the folk beliefs in adults, not just the other way around. Because the family children all have similar or the same imaginary friend, it reinforces the belief in this ghost and continues this legend. In a way, it keeps the memory of the boy who died alive. The ghost becomes disembodied from the real boy in terms of actual facts, such as what the boy looked like, how he behaved, and more, but the shared idea of him continues to change as the imaginary friend persists throughout the family.

German Easter Fire Tradition


AH grew up in Westergellersen, a small village in northern Germany and attended these Easter fires throughout her childhood.

Main Piece:

“Leute in vor allem ländlichen Gegenden sammeln Holzmaterial und Buschwerk und türmen es möglichst hoch auf. Es soll weithin sichtbar sein. Es entsteht ein Wettstreit um das höchste Feuer. Am Karsamstag wird es angezündet. Das Dorf versammelt sich dann um das Feuer, es gibt Bier, Glühwein und Würstchen.”


People from all the surrounding rural areas gather wooden material and shrubbery and pile it as high as possible. It should be able to be seen from far and wide. There is a contest for the highest fire. On Karsamstag (Holy Saturday, the day before Easter) it is lit. The village gathers around the fire, there’s beer, mulled wine, and sausages.


This part of the Easter festival celebration in northern Germany seems very useful for promoting unity and connection within a town. Because the villages compete for the tallest fire, the one that can be seen from the farthest distance away, this creates an in-group out-group boundary. Also, since gathering the materials for the highest bonfire takes time and work, the townspeople must work together, as they wouldn’t be able to achieve this highest fire on their own. Then, on the evening before Easter, when the fire is lit, this festival ritual turns into a communal gathering place for the village people. Beer, mulled wine, and sausages are all extremely common foods in northern Germany, and are generally associated with any festivals and gatherings, or seen as something like ‘fair food.’


Context: I heard about the Tokoloshe from my friend who lived in South Africa for two years. His mom is also a professor of South African Art.

The Tokoloshe is a small and terrifying creature that seriously messes with your ability to have a restful night’s sleep. Tokoloshes are a creature from Zulu mythology that inhabit South Africa.

Tokoloshe are described physically in many ways, though a constant seems to be their small size. Sometimes they are described as small humanoid creatures and other times they are described as more primate-like.

These creatures are often malevolent and quite dangerous. They are said to crawl into sleeping people’s rooms and cause all kinds of havoc — from simply scaring them all the way to choking them to death with their long, bony fingers. It seems to particularly enjoy scaring children, often leaving them with long scratches on their bodies. One way to keep the Tokoloshe at bay is to put bricks beneath the legs of one’s bed. This will put them out of reach, and hopefully out of harm’s way, of the Tokoloshe.

As mentioned above, raised beds are an important way to combat the Tokoloshe. Traditionally, many South Africans in areas rife with Tokoloshe myths slept on grass mats encircling a warm, wood fire that would keep them warm during the bitter winter nights. However, sometimes healthy people would inexplicably be found dead come morning.

There is a theory that sleeping close to the fire in their homes may have depleted the oxygen levels and filled the home with carbon dioxide. As it is heavier than pure air, it would sink to the bottom of the home where people slept. Thus, seemingly healthy people and sometimes entire families would be found dead. A parallel was found between elevated sleepers and a lack of death so the Tokoloshe was told as a story forewarning those who slept close to the ground (and the fire). While it might not be an actual malevolent creature, what kept away a Tokoloshe would also keep away death from carbon monoxide.

This is a fascinating example of the use of folklore to create tangible changes in the lifestyles of people. Although the Tokoloshe might not actually exist, the introduction of this creature in Zulu mythology ultimately resulted in a positive impact on communities who believe in it. It has saved people from becoming ill and has prevented deaths, as well as indirectly educated children about the potential dangers of sleeping close to a fire indoors. Even people outside of the intended audience of believers of Zulu mythology can benefit from the knowledge that the Tokoloshe exists in case they find themselves sleeping near a fire source within an enclosed area, and I am sure I will keep this in mind if I encounter a similar situation.