Let’s take a look back — way back — when most folks on Long Island, including here on the North Fork, saw their world in a far different way, and passed down words of wisdom that we call “folklore.”
Folklore was a creative mix of beliefs, made up of customs, omens, legends and tales of all kinds, many brought here from Europe, Russia, Asia and Africa. Some blended with folklore from Native Americans. So let’s distract ourselves from today’s abrasive noise and indulge for a moment in the lyrical simplicity of another time.
Centuries back, family farms, small towns, a few thriving villages, lots of pine barrens and oak forests, and meadowlands, defined the Long Island landscape. Farming became the centerpiece of the early L.I. economy. Hard and often backbreaking work made up the routine for every day of the week. Farms hereabouts passed through families for generations. As a livelihood, when there were no social safety nets, it was a spirited gamble each year from planting to harvest.
There was no National Weather Service or Cooperative Extension, or Soil & Water Conservation District to guide farmers back in the day, and little in the way of newspapers. Each community centered around a remote church, perhaps a general store or a local courthouse. A few actually had a meeting house. There’s still one of those on the old Main Road in Jamesport, restored as a site today for a variety of public events.
During these all-consuming times, there developed a tradition of passing down from the old to the young some sort of rhyme or saying for almost any occasion. Much local folklore showed a heartwarming connection to nature: “If December 25th is a mild day, expect a heavy harvest the coming year,” while others were, by current standards, regarded as superstition: “The chickens will be safe from hawks if a horseshoe is hung inside the chimney.”
Still more offered practical knowledge, such as: “Plant the corn when the oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears,” or “Wind from the east, fishing is least, wind from the west, fishing is best.” One local farmer explained her family’s long standing planting rule: the ideal time to plant root crops (potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, radishes, etc.) is during a waning moon; while it is best to plant crops above ground (beans, tomatoes, corn, peas, etc.) during a waxing moon.
Back then, as today, some received these “wise sayings” skeptically. But many others swore by them. Few were ever written down. Some became well known as nursery rhymes. But if you talk to the descendants of old L.I. families here and about, from our North Fork to the Moriches to the Hamptons, we can still dig up an ageless collection of folklore that we’ll only touch upon here. And what a connection with our ancestors it is!
Weather predictions were a most common folklore theme. Many believed that the first frost would be eight weeks after katydids started their nightly serenades each August, something climate change has likely extended today.
The crescent moon had much to do with rain — the more the crescent was angled in the sky, the more it would symbolically hold the water from falling, and as it became perpendicular, the more likely it would rain.
One Polish farmer in Riverhead took stock in the saying: “Brown dust in March means gold dust at harvest.” Smoke rising fast in thin curls indicated snow, and severe weather was ahead if there was a big crop of acorns, or if a high number of larger than usual wooly caterpillars appeared in late summer.
Rain was a sure thing, within 24 hours, if there was a rainbow in the morning, while clear weather was ahead with a rainbow in the evening. Rain would come if dry blades of corn appear to twist, or if morning fog rises rapidly, or if the sky is misty at dawn in the winter, or if there’s a ring around the moon with no stars inside the ring.
In fact, in their uncertain world, bad luck and good luck advisories were highly regarded, even among the spiritual and religious. Consider this one: a traveler would meet with good luck in finding a horseshoe, but only if the finder spits on it and hangs it on a tree or fence, thus hanging all his bad luck (the bad luck will pass on to the person who removes it). Many a North Fork farmhouse or barn had a horseshoe, with prongs up, hung over a doorway to invite good fortune.
Another homestead farm descendent recalled that it was bad luck to leave a neighbor’s house by a door you did not enter, or to look back at one’s house after starting a trip, or even to place shoes on the table.
On the other hand, good luck would follow if one uses some old pieces of wood in a new building, or places a tree cutting atop the framing of a new house, or finds a cricket in the house, or drops glass without breakage, or if one is followed by a strange dog (no longer likely with today’s leash laws).
Local folklore offered a range of advice about weddings. A widely regarded, and still practiced ritual, is where the groom must not see the bride on their wedding day until the ceremony starts. Also, never sell a wedding dress (it could be given, loaned or packed away). And the bride should never cook her own wedding dinner.
Folklore had it that much good will follow for a marriage if a party of friends visited the newly married couple after dark (called a “Shivaree”). The more noise, laughter and music, the more good luck and prosperity for the marriage. Is this why the cost of wedding receptions today has gone off the charts?
Setting up housekeeping? Folklore covered this as well: be sure to borrow an old coffee pot for three months, but always a new frying pan and a new broom.
Take a few more trips rather than carrying a “lazy man’s load,” and remember, “A fool and his money soon part” recalls another LI farming descendent (i.e. this writer.)
Black-eyed peas were a must for a meal on January 1st. Also on that date, many a farming family placed a dime under their plates. A baby born on that date was certain of a lucky future.
As for days of birth in general, it is folklore in 1500s England, in an area interestingly known as Suffolk, that evolved into such popularity as to become a nursery rhyme, and recalled by one large family of farmers here:
“Monday’s child is fair of face.
Tuesday’s child is full of grace.
Wednesday’s child has far to go.
Thursday’s child is full of woe.
Friday’s child is loving and giving.
Saturday’s child will work for a living.
A child that is born on the Sabbath Day
Will be handsome and good and rich and gay!”
Some of folklore’s health remedies have gone from superstition to good science. A good example is tying a red onion to one’s bed for relieving a cold. The change to a dark coloration of the onion by morning has been found to be caused by harmful bacteria absorbed from the room’s interior as well from the ailing occupant. Likewise with wearing a potato for rheumatism. Swollen joints are relieved after drinking the water in which a cut up potato has soaked.
Folklore had it that a copper wire or bracelet around a wrist or leg worked wonders for pain and inflammation. Today, science can’t explain it, but it works for many.
Whether based in science or pseudoscience, the tradition of these legends and observations shows a sense of wonder about the world that too many of us seem to have lost. Quite a few of these sayings, as with much of folklore, have been lost forever. So try to ask the “old-timers” in your family, or among your friends or neighbors, if there might be family folklore they could share. It will prove to be one of those scarce subjects that should lead to cordial discussion.
Here’s our chance to shed more light on a simpler time, an exercise in recall that’s disconnected from electronic screens. These hidden traditions might be a part of who many of us are. So why not embrace our local and family folklore, with a “grain of salt” here and there, before it disappears altogether?
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