Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Informant: In Venezuela, New Years is a huge holiday. It’s not as big as Christmas or Easter, but it’s still pretty big, and we have a few things that we do that are like really unique to Venezuela. So one thing we do is we grab a suitcase that represents good travels and we run around the block once. This is kind of supposed to represent running around the world and so it’s basically done so that you can travel in the new year. Basically, if you don’t do that, it means that you won’t travel to a different country or somewhere else that’s new. I’ve done it since I can remember, with my family friends. We didn’t have a block when we did it, so we would run up and down their huge driveway. But basically in Venezuela, when it wasn’t… you know… deadly and violent, we would go around the block. We always did it and I always thought that it would come true, and it usually did! I think a lot of people know of it… I don’t know if everyone does it. I definitely believe that there is some truth to it. Because, you know, if you do something then you’ll put it into action. You’ll be like, “Oh, I did that, so now I should probably travel.” But yeah, I think it was definitely a staple part of my New Year’s celebrations growing up.
Informant’s relationship to the item: The superstition is clearly significant to the informant because she started practicing it when she was a young girl growing up in Venezuela. Even after moving to Boston, she continues to practice the superstition at every New Year’s Eve celebration with family and friends. The informant also acknowledges that there is a psychological element to the superstition; she feels that because she practices the ritual, it plants the idea in her head that she should travel and that makes traveling one of her resolutions in the new year.
Interpretation: This Venezuelan New Year’s Eve superstition and ritual serves as a prime example of folklorist Jame George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, particularly homeopathic magic. His theory describes the belief among folk groups that certain practices can be carried out on a smaller scale that then produce major effects on a larger scale, or “like produces like.” An example of a superstition that involves homeopathic magic is the belief that whistling on a fishing boat will encourage the wind to pick up and a storm to start. The act of running around one’s neighborhood with a suitcase in tow in order to have good travels in the new year is very similar. Whether or not the superstitions are valid is a subject of debate, and belief in the ritual’s magic will vary among communities, but there is likely some truth to the informant’s statement about the psychological impact of performing such a specific superstition. Additionally, the country’s current economic crisis has forced more than a tenth of Venezuela’s population to leave the nation in the past few years. Thus, the suitcase ritual now also serves as a reminder of this tragic exodus, demonstrating how the significance of rituals evolves over time.
To read more about James George Frazer’s theory of Sympathetic Magic, refer to:
Dundes, Alan. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, pp. 109-118.