Tag Archives: religious folklore

Milagros

–Informant Info–
Nationality: United States of America
Age: 30
Occupation: Lead Associate of Operations, Chase Bank
Residence: Laguna Niguel, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 4/19/2021
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

Main Piece:

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my co-worker/informant (MR).

HS: So what are milagros?

MR: So they literally mean “miracles”, but from the perspective of my Catholic family, they are kind of like a blessing that we would do in my parents’ hometown. Like not a lot of people would know saints from my hometown. People hear about Saint Jude, you know, or, La Virgen de Guadalupe, but there are also lesser-known saints that are only known in the small towns that they had an effect on.

HS: So what is an example of a saint that was special and important in your town just outside of Guadalajara?

MR: Well in Guadalajara the saint that everyone knows is Virgen de San Juan de Los Lagos, but in my mom’s town of Guanajuato, they all know the miracle baby Jesus.

HS: So what are some examples of Milagros that you have?

MR: So you’d ask your saint, for example, I had a major issue with my car motor that would have cost me thousands and thousands of dollars and I didn’t know what to do because there was no way that I could afford that expensive of a repair. So I asked my saint for a Milagro/blessing to help me with the situation and it ended up costing half as much, and so I promised my saint that when I return to my town I will visit and show my appreciation. Another time, at the beginning of COVID, I asked the Miracle Baby Jesus from my parents’ hometown of Guanajuato for a Milagro to protect me and my parents. Luckily my parents never got COVID so I plan on also showing my appreciation for fulfilling my Milagro when I am home.

Background:

My informant is my co-worker from my job. She is essentially my supervisor and she enjoys helping me to practice my Spanish and telling me a lot about her culture and heritage. She was raised in a Spanish-speaking household by two parents who both immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She comes from a devout Catholic family and has taught me a lot of traditions that I didn’t know pertain to Catholicism, seeing as to the fact that I myself was raised in a Catholic family.

Context:

These religious traditions were brought up while having a general discussion with my co-worker about her culture and traditions. We were discussing a tradition/ritual of crawling on one’s hands and knees to honor one’s saint when she brought up the topic of Milagros. She had told me about these traditions before but I asked her to go more in-depth for the sake of the collection project. We were sitting next to each other on the teller line at work and we would chat in-between customers.

Thoughts:

I found this tradition to be very interesting. Although not discussed in this transcription, my coworker showed me a list of tributes that she planned on giving to her respective saints once she arrived back in Mexico. Included in this list were 25 dollar coins for the Miracle Baby Jesus and some pictures of her family. While researching Milagros, I found a very precise explanation from an online article, a “person will ask a favor of a saint, and then, in order to repay the saint after the favor has been granted, one must make a pilgrimage to the shrine of that saint.” This is a very cherished and respected tradition in the social circles of my coworker, and she emphasized how personal a lot of Milagros get, going on to divulge some sensitive details about how the use of Milagros has helped her family through particularly hard times. I had never heard of anything like this before and found the tradition to be rather beautiful and unique. I also came to the realization that Milagros are a way to keep people who have left their hometowns connected to their community in some way. Because the saints that people make their Milagros to are usually particular to the region that they are from, Milagros provide people with an incentive to come back home after they have departed.

The article where I found a good explanation of Milagros:

https://zinniafolkarts.com/blogs/news/36153281-what-do-milagros-mean

Pidyon Haben

Main piece: The first born son who would have died in the Passover story. If you read the Haggadah on Passover, there’s a tenth plague. The tenth plague is when the angel of death comes down and kills the firstborn male child of all the Egyptians, but spares the firstborn male child of the Jewish slaves. And I don’t know how it got converted to buying back that child as a tradition, but the tradition is you redeem the firstborn son at birth. You give ten silver dollars to a Kohen. Kohanim children don’t have to have a pidyon haben. What my grandfather used to do, because my grandfather was a Kohen at a lot of simchas like that, is they would give him the money and he would give it back to them for the child as a gift. There’s a prayer, it’s a month after the bris. A separate ceremony. They usually have a little party. There’s a blessing, the Kohen gives the baby a blessing. It’s all symbolic, you know, not just like, an exchange of goods. Nobody’s buying or selling the child. 

Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen. He has watched his grandfather and father be the Kohen in the pidyon haben ceremony, and has been the Kohen for one himself. 

Context: A pidyon haben is a Jewish ceremony where ten silver dollars is given to a Kohen in exchange for their newborn son in order to remember/commemorate the work of the Angel of Death in the Passover story, where she killed all the firstborn sons of the Egyptians, but spared the ones of the Jews, whose doors were marked with lamb’s blood (this is also where the practice of putting mezuzahs on doors in Jewish homes originated). The Kohens are one of the twelve tribes of Israel who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohens, so my informant is as well. Simcha is a yiddish term meaning party or celebration, often referred to in religious celebrations, such as weddings or Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. A bris is a Jewish male circumcision ceremony that occurs when the child is eight days old (female children have baby naming ceremonies, where similar prayers and blessings are performed, but no circumcision takes place).

Analysis: When there is a newborn child, historically there is concern that the child will not live very long, and there is pressure from the religious community to indoctrinate the baby into its ranks so that it can be protected both spiritually and by the congregation (this is the purpose of a bris). However, in the talmudic tradition, there remains a threat against first born sons, regardless of age, by the Angel of Death. Although Jewish people still protect themselves with a variant of the lamb’s blood they put on the door during the Passover story (mezuzahs), there is still a lingering want to protect the first born son from spiritual threats, such as the Angel of Death. The number of silver pieces, ten, represent the fact that the Angel of Death was the tenth plague (and also the number ten is important in Judaism, because that is the number of commandments there are and also the number of Jewish persons required to pray – a minyan). Silver in Judaism is a metal that represents both moral innocence and holiness. Since the firstborn is just a baby, the parents offer silver as a representation of proof of their innocence (even if the money is given back). Additionally, a Kohen is a holy figure, so offerings of silver in return for blessings for the longevity and health of the child’s life is a suitable exchange. A pidyon haben also occurs a month after the bris (which happens when the child is eight days old), so by that time it is likely the child will live past infancy. 

The Kohen Joke

Main piece: Man goes to his Rabbi and tells him there’s something he’s always wanted to be. Rabbi says, “What’s that?” He says, “I want to be a Kohen.” Rabbi says, “You want to be a Kohen? I can’t make you a Kohen. Why do you want to be a Kohen?” He says “I’ve always wanted to be a Kohen,” and he offers any kind of contribution that the Rabbi wants. He says “The shul needs a new roof. I’ll buy a new roof.” Rabbi says, “Now that’s interesting”. The Rabbi thinks about it and says, “Well let me see if I can work something out”. So Rabbi calls him a few days later, and says “I think I found a way to do it, and I think I found a way to make you a Kohen. We’ll have a ceremony in the shul, and I’ll say the bruchas, and I’ll bless you and you’ll be a Kohen.” So they go through all of this, and the man buys them a new roof for the shul. And everyone’s happy. A few months later, the Rabbi says “Tell me. Something’s been bothering me. Why all these years you wanted to be a Kohen so badly?” He says, “Well my grandfather was a Kohen, and my father was a Kohen, so I wanted to be a Kohen too!”

Background: My informant is an eighty-eight year old Jewish man from Baltimore, Maryland, and a Kohen himself. 

Context: The Kohanim are one of the twelve tribes of Israel, who historically took on the position of high priests, as they are said to be descendants of Aaron. Kohanim in modern Jewish settings today still perform blessings over the congregation. Tribal identity within the Jewish faith is established through the patrilineal line – my informant’s grandfather and father were both Kohanim, so my informant is as well. Shul is a yiddish term for synagogue, or place of worship, and bruchas are another word for blessings. 

After telling me the story about pidyon habens, my informant said “Well, I know a joke about Kohens too!” He doesn’t remember where he heard the joke the first time, but he thinks it was a friend who made him laugh.

Analysis: The joke here is that you can’t make anyone a Kohen – it’s a position only earned through birth, and the man who wanted to be a Kohen couldn’t be made one because he was a Kohen all along. It’s both silly because the man made a stupid mistake, but also it reinforces the status quo – that in terms of tribal identity within the Jewish faith, you can’t move up or down in the hierarchy, and become a high priest. Kohanim are believed to be descendants of Aaron, who was Moses’s brother, so it’s an impressive and weighty heritage and tradition. Kohen have privileges and opportunities to bless the congregation when other members do not. People could interpret the Rabbi’s willingness to make the man a Kohen for a new roof as sacrilegious or folly, and are scared because the status quo has been disrupted by a holy man who should know better. However, at the end people laugh out of relief because the man was always a Kohen, and the shul still got a new roof. 

Taboo of Discussing the Baby during Pregnancy

Main piece: The idea that you don’t talk about it (the baby). You don’t talk about it, you don’t bring the furniture in the house, buy the furniture but can’t open it, or put it together until the baby’s born. You come home from the hospital and have to put the crib together. In the day, when your father was born, you stayed in the hospital after you gave birth for a couple of days. So you (or the husband) had time. People that weren’t you, giving birth. So probably a month before I was due to have the baby, we went to Hutzler’s, which at the time was a very lovely department store, and we bought everything that we needed. Furniture, clothes, everything. And when the baby was born, Z [her husband] called Hutzler’s and told them to deliver tomorrow or whatever, and that’s why we did. Because you just want to make sure everything is alright. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meise” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fable”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. The baby she is discussing was her first child (of three), my father, who was born in May 1965. 

Context: This practice is customary for Jewish couples. During a celebration for my father’s birthday, my mother brought up a (non-Jewish) co-worker, whose wife didn’t want to know anything about the gender of the baby, or even talk about her pregnancy before the baby was born. My mom then told the co-worker, “how Jewish of her”. When I asked for an explanation, my grandmother interjected with this story about her pregnancy with my father. She takes this superstition incredibly seriously, having heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother.

Analysis: This custom seems to exist to protect the emotional and well-being of couples who may end up losing their baby. As there is a high risk in giving birth, especially prior to the invention of modern birthing practices, having the room set up/furniture ready for a baby that may not end up coming home could be emotionally and financially taxing on expectant parents. With this practice, not talking about the baby or preparing for its arrival home until after its birth creates the illusion of low to no expectations in the liminal and risky space of pregnancy. Over time, this has almost become a superstition like a jinx, that talking about the baby will result in bad luck and potentially riskier birth. 

Dog Guardian or God Watching over the House in the Form of a Dog While Family is on Vacation

Because this interview exchange took place with my sister, I was able to ask in-depth questions about the events and beliefs she discussed in her stories. I remember the day she describes in her interview. We had just gotten home from vacation and a little dusty white dog met us at our car. We don’t own a dog and thought the animal was a stray. I didn’t think much of that event, but this experience had a large impact on my sister, who believes this dog watched over our home while we were away on vacation.

*

My sister said that God works through people and animals, and that during a conversation with our neighbor, she learned that the animal has been seen wandering around our house in the time we were gone. Our parents feared that the house would get robbed while we were away. They prayed that God would keep the house safe and that no one in the community would notice we had left.

My sister described how our parents would hush us any time we mentioned that we were going on vacation. We couldn’t talk about it outdoors, and while packing, we always kept the car closed to avoid showing passers-by a trunk full of suitcases.

One time when my sister and mother were not on vacation but rather at school and at work, the house did get robbed. They arrived home to find the door swung open and an alarm blaring. My sister said that this was a very bad experience, and that at first she couldn’t believe that the house had been robbed. She thought someone had come home early or that someone had left the door unlocked.

My sister said that she was not sure whether the dog was God or a messenger, but she did say that she believed it watched over the house while we were gone, and that she hadn’t seen it since.

My sister also mentioned that she is training for Confirmation, a sacrament of initiation in the Catholic faith that allows high schoolers to reaffirm their belief in church principles. She said that she had not met any other animals or people that she believed had watched over her. She also said that this might be because she considers herself capable and that she wants to take care of herself.

She also said that she did not come to this conclusion right away. It was only years after this event that she came to believe the dog had offered protection. She was pleased to know that God had watched out for the house when the family was away.

*

I do not share my sister’s belief in Catholicism but I do believe in signs. I remember this event and know that the dog made us nervous at the time. It was strange that the dog went right up to our car, and I do believe I saw the animal around the neighborhood after that day. This is an example of religious folklore. There are cannon Bible stories where God talks through a donkey to get his message across, such as the story of Balaam, the donkey, and the Angel ( Numbers 22:21-39 of Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition Bible)

You can find a version of this story here:

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+22%3A21-39&version=RSVCE

This story also relates to conversations about whether animals have souls.

This conversation took place over the phone, and the recording is very bad quality. It is important to note that our house is visited by members of a feral cat colony and other wild animals like squirrels and raccoons. These animals were not mentioned in the interview. The house is also located less than 100 yards from a homeless encampment of about 20 people.

I find it interesting that this is the story that my sister wanted to tell me most. She knows quite a lot about folklore from playing Dungeons and Dragons (see, “How Not To Play Dungeons and Dragons” in the USC folklore archive”) but this is the first story she shared when I asked her to think of a story for this archive.