Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!

Largest Genealogy in the World to be Presented to Library of Congress

The 80 volume family history of Confucius – spanning 83 generations – will be presented to the Library of Congress in special ceremonies in September.

The event will be a ceremony marking a special donation to the Library of Congress of the Confucian genealogy. Ling-He Kung, a 76th-generation descendant of the revered Chinese philosopher, will donate an 80-volume set that documents Confucius’s family tree. Published by the Beijing-based Culture and Literature Publishing House, the volumes record 83 generations (more than 2 million people) descended from Confucius. It is believed to be the biggest family tree in the world.

Born in 551 B.C. in Qufu in eastern China’s Shandong Province, Confucius was a great teacher and thinker whose theories were the orthodox ideology in China for more than 2,000 years.

This genealogical event will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11 in the Asian Reading Room, located in room 150 of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street S.E., Washington, DC.

32 Million immigrants will see their record status changed to permanent in Wednesday Signing Ceremony

Signing Ceremony Permits 32 Million Alien Files to Become Permanent Records at the National Archives – A Genealogy Goldmine.

Adrienne Thomas, Acting Archivist of the United States and Gregory Smith, Associate Director, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will hold a joint signing ceremony between the National Archives and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the National Archives 11:30 am, Wednesday, June 3, 2009.

Their actions will designate as permanent the immigration files created on the millions of aliens residing in the United States in 1944, as well as those arriving since then. These Alien Case Files (commonly referred to as A-Files) document the famous, the infamous, the anonymous and the well-known, and are an historical and genealogical goldmine.

The new agreement authorizes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services/Department of Homeland Security to send A-files to the National Archives when 100 years have passed since the birthdate of the subject of a file. The National Archives expects to receive the first transfer of A-files later this year, and will store the files at National Archives facilities in San Francisco and Kansas City. Researchers will be able to access the files at these two sites, or request copies of files. An index will be available to support research use.

The A-files are a key to unlocking the fascinating stories of millions of people who traveled to the United States in search of opportunity. They include information such as photographs, personal correspondence, birth certificates, health records, interview transcripts, visas, applications and other information on all non-naturalized alien residents, both legal and illegal. The files are of particular interest to the Asian American community because many A-files supplement information in Chinese Exclusion Act era case files (1882-1943) that are already housed at the National Archives.

The signing ceremony is an important first step in the preservation of the 32 million records that were originally scheduled for disposal. At the ceremony, the National Archives will have samples of the alien registration form that was used to create the A-files. The form requests detailed information revealing valuable material for researchers and family historians, such as the alien’s current name, the name that he or she used when entering the country, marital status, occupation, name and address of employer, height, weight, and date and place of birth.
The signing will take place at 11:30 am in Room 105, National Archives Building; 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20408.

Him Mark Lai – 麥禮謙 (1925-2009)

Him Mark Lai – 麥禮謙 (1925-2009), noted Chinese-American genealogist and local historian has passed away.

San Francisco Chronicle (CA) – May 29, 2009.

Edition: 5 star Page: B5(c) San Francisco Chronicle 2009. Reprinted here with permission.

by Carl Nolte.

Him Mark Lai, a noted historian of the Chinese American experience, died at his San Francisco home on May 21 after suffering from cancer and its complications. He was 84.

Mr. Lai was an expert on the history of Chinese and Chinese Americans from the time of the first Asian settlement in California just before the Gold Rush to the present day. He wrote and edited 10 books and more than 100 scholarly articles on Chinese American life – a field that was mostly ignored by non-Asian historians.

L. Ling-chi Wang, professor of Asian American studies at UC Berkeley, called Mr. Lai “the dean of Chinese American history.”

“Him Mark Lai’s contribution to Chinese American history is immeasurable” said Philip Choy, an eminent historian. “He was a pioneer who legitimized Chinese American studies, whose influence will carry on for many more generations.”

Mr. Lai led a complex life, reflecting the racial, legal and political currents of his time. He was both a trained mechanical engineer and self-taught scholar. He was a quiet and unassuming man, but his demeanor masked a fierce devotion to civil rights and to telling the often ignored story of how Chinese Americans fought discriminatory laws to become successful in a new country.

Mr. Lai was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1925, the first of his family to be born in this country. His father, Maak Bing, was born in China, but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, could not legally immigrate to the United States. So he took the name of Lai, claiming to be the son of an American citizen.

These “paper sons” who had adopted false names, were among thousands of Chinese admitted to the United States until the Exclusion Acts were repealed in 1943.

His father, however, gave each of his five children the middle name of “Mark,” an Anglicized version of his own name, to remind them of their family heritage.
Mr. Lai attended Commodore Stockton elementary school and the Nam Kue Chinese School simultaneously, so that he had an education in both American and Chinese cultures.

While at San Francisco’s Galileo High School, Mr. Lai won a citywide essay contest in history; and he decided to go to college. However, his father discouraged that idea on grounds that racism would prevent him from being promoted. Instead, he urged his son to get a blue-collar job in the shipyards.

“San Francisco wasn’t always so liberal,” Mr. Lai said years later.
Instead, Mr. Lai worked his way through City College of San Francisco and graduated from UC Berkeley in 1947 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He then went to work for Bechtel Corp. as an engineer.

He also became interested in the civil war then raging in mainland China between the Nationalists and the Communist forces. His early support for the Communist-backed People’s Republic drew the attention of the FBI and political pressure common in the McCarthy era. His position was complicated by the fact that his father was a “paper son.”
“You had to be very careful,” he would later recall. “You did not want to bring problems on your family.”

However, Mr. Lai’s work in Chinese causes helped give him a new fluency in spoken and written Chinese, and he met Laura Jung, a new immigrant from China. They married in 1953.

In 1960, he took a course at UC Extension about Asian American history, and he realized that whole areas of Chinese American history had never been properly studied.
He began extensive research into what he called an “ignored past” and did careful landmark studies on the Chinese-language press in the United States and all aspects of Chinese American life.

He produced several volumes of monographs called “Chinese America: History & Perspectives.” His most important book is “Becoming Chinese Americans: a History of Communities and Institutions.”

His work is considered seminal in the studies of Asian American history.
He also taught at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley. “Prior to 1969, when we taught our first class at San Francisco State University, ethnic studies did not exist,” Choy said.

“It was through Him Mark’s scholarship, research and collections that these courses now exist at major academic institutions in the country.”

Mr. Lai is survived by his wife of 55 years, Laura Lai of San Francisco.

A memorial service will be held at the Chinese Cultural Center, 750 Kearny St., San Francisco, at 2:30 p.m. on June 20.

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Columbia University puts Tibetan newspaper online

Columbia University Libraries has placed a new digital library of 97 issues of the Tibet Mirror (Tib. Yul phyogs so so’i gsar ‘gyur me long) online for scholars to consult and study. Click here to see this collection.

(Image: Yul phyogs so soʾi gsar ʾgyur me long (Kālimpong : G. Tharchin, 1925-<1963>)

The digitized newspapers date from 1933 to 1961, and offer a total of 844 scanned pages drawn from the rich collections of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library.

This Tibetan-language newspaper was published from 1925 to 1963 in Kalimpong, India, and chronicles the most dramatic social and political transformation to have occurred in Tibet during a time when vernacular writing was relatively scarce, and a Tibetan media otherwise non-existent. Columbia’s holdings represent about 30% of the paper’s full run.

“The recent digitization of large portions of the Tibet Mirror is a welcome and significant advancement in the study of modern Tibet,” said Gray Tuttle, Leila Hadley Luce Assistant Professor of Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. “This Tibetan language resource was a key source of news of the world to Tibetans in the middle of the 20th century. As such, it demonstrates that at least some Tibetans were well aware of international developments, from the spread of Communism from Russia to China to the price of wool in Indian markets.”

“To date, no serious study of the contents of this important resource has been published. Having used the existing collections in the past, I am very excited to see how easy it is to navigate around, read and download from this online resource. The contributors Paul Hackett and Tina Harris, Columbia’s Tibetan Studies librarian Lauran Hartley, and all the Columbia staff who made this beautiful site a reality have made an immense contribution to modern Tibetan Studies worldwide,” continued Tuttle.

The digitized newspaper is a cornerstone of the Starr Library’s “Tharchin Collection,” which features the papers of Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1889-1976), a Tibetan Christian convert and the renowned editor of the Tibet Mirror. The Tharchin Collection, which is being readied for public access this year, was acquired with support from the Columbia University Libraries’ Primary Resources Acquisitions Program. In addition to final and draft publications (in both modern and traditional formats), the Collection also includes correspondence; accounts from 1918-1924, and later years; receipts and financial statements; an imprint of a seal designed for the “Future Democratic Tibet Government;” Tibetan hymnals and bibles; scattered photographic prints; advertising solicitations; a list of cotton licenses; and a “Certificate for Traders, Muleteers and Porters.”

The newspapers were a recent gift to C.V. Starr East Asian Library from Dr. Paul G. Hackett, who donated 75 issues, and CUNY graduate student Tina Harris, who donated 22 issues of the paper. The digitized library was created as joint project of the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, and the Libraries Digital Program Division. For more information about the project, contact Hartley at lh2112@columbia.edu.

The C.V. Starr East Asian Library is one of the major collections for the study of East Asia in the United States, with over 820,000 volumes of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Western language materials, as well as some holdings in Mongol and Manchu, and over 6,500 periodical titles. The collection, established in 1902, is particularly strong in Chinese history, literature, and social sciences; Japanese literature, history, and religion, particularly Buddhism; and Korean history. The Library’s website is located at: www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/indiv/eastasian/.

Columbia University Libraries/Information Services is one of the top five academic research library systems in North America. The collections include over 10 million volumes, over 100,000 journals and serials, as well as extensive electronic resources, manuscripts, rare books, microforms, maps, graphic and audio-visual materials. The services and collections are organized into 25 libraries and various academic technology centers. The Libraries employs more than 550 professional and support staff. The website of the Libraries at www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb is the gateway to its services and resources.

This collection is not on GenealogyBank.