Sometimes, there are things we do as part of a tradition without really considering where the practices may have started. It's easy to forget that many of the rituals that we automatically take part in today had their roots in something entirely different -- and sometimes surprising. Why does a wedding party include a best man? What's the purpose of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe? Do birthday candles have any special meaning, or are they just fun to blow out? Why do we make New Year's resolutions?
Let's take a look at these and some other seemingly normal practices that may have unexpected origins. You'll never look at your favorite traditions the same way again!
A Wedding's Best Man
Commonly the groom's brother or best friend, the best man stands beaming next to the husband-to-be. Sometimes he even cries. But yesteryear, he would've held a sword. You know why he stands so close to the groom? So he can intercede with his blade if needed. So where does that "best" part come in? He was literally the groom's best swordsman.
This tradition hails back to the day when a wedding was a financial transaction -- and as we all know, sometimes financial transactions can go bad. Should the bride's father have second thoughts or a lovelorn rival spring from the rafters, it was the best man's job to ensure the deal went down as planned.
If kidnapping became necessary, the best man was the muscle. Later, he stood guard outside the nuptial bedroom.
Kissing Under the Mistletoe
The Ancient Celts used mistletoe as an animal aphrodisiac, or more specifically, to increase the fertility of sheep. Such became the mythic power of mistletoe that in addition to bringing a lamb-ful spring, mistletoe was hung over doorways to ward off fire, lightning and evil spirits. But despite its protective properties, mistletoe couldn't shuck its fertile past, and even though it was hung in people's doorways, it seemed as if something romantic should occur in its presence.
Thus the kissing.
Did you know that mistletoe's power runs out? Every time a man steals a kiss under the mistletoe, he must pay by plucking one of its berries. When the berries are gone, no more smooching.
Who hasn't, at some point or another, made a pinky swear with a best friend or a child? The pinky swear is the highest of all promises, an unbreakable oath -- and, in fact, what you're saying with this oath is that if you break it, the wronged party may cut off your pinky. The gist of the custom (if not the bloody follow-through) is a recent immigrant to the United States, having originated with the Japanese mafia, or Yakuza.
The Japanese roots of the pinky swear are evident in its common use in anime films, where it is known as yubikiri or "finger cut off."
What celestial body does a round, iced cake most resemble? If you said the moon, then you agree with the Ancient Greeks, who first put candles on cakes offered to Artemis, goddess of the moon. Some historians think the candles were used simply to lend the cake a moon-like glow. Others think that when the candles were blown out, their smoke was supposed to carry the birthday man's or woman's wishes skyward to the goddess.
Whatever the case, candles cause more than 15,000 residential fires every year [source: Candles.org]. There is no data describing the presumably uncountable annual toll of birthday candles on kids' hair and eyebrows.
New Year's Resolutions
When the calendar flips over to January 1, we start to make promises to ourselves. This year, we'll lose weight. We'll be more organized. We'll spend more time with our families. But why is this the time for resolutions?
The Roman god Janus had two heads -- one that looked forward into the future and one that looked into the past. And while many Roman rulers made a land grab for the months of the year -- see August, October and July -- Janus stood strong at the beginning of the year. This is January. And on the first day of January, we look back at the year past and then ahead at the year to come.
The Detroit Red Wings Octopus
In 1952, it took exactly eight wins -- two best-of-seven series -- to win the Stanley Cup. And so it seemed only natural that fishmongering brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano threw an octopus onto the ice at the beginning of that year's playoffs, each tentacle symbolizing a needed win. In 1952, they got them -- all eight in a row, sweeping the playoffs and solidifying the enigmatic cephalopod's presence on playoff ice from that point forward.
Notably, during the 1995 playoffs, fishmongering co-workers Bob Dubisky and Larry Shotwell threw a 50-pound (22.7-kilogram) octopus onto the ice during the national anthem before the conference finals.
Flipping the Bird
As any driver of freeways in California or New Jersey knows, an extended middle finger is a gesture of recognition from one driver to another, a way of saying, "Thank you for sharing this short time on the path of human individuation with me."
In fact, this heartwarming gesture has roots in ancient Rome, where the digitus impudicus, or "impudent finger," was a sign of disdain, much as it is today. Specifically, the Roman historian Martial writes, "Laugh loudly, Sextillus, when someone calls you a queen and put your middle finger out."
So, if you were somehow transported back to the time of Julius Caesar, rest assured that you would have at least one means of communication.
The low-five grew out of African-American cultural tradition and was firmly established by at least World War II. When exactly the low-five went high is up for some debate, as detailed in a very entertaining article published by ESPN the Magazine. The gist is this: Despite his claims, it's very unlikely that Magic Johnson invented the high-five while at Michigan State. More likely, it's an artifact of the women's volleyball circuit, circa 1960.
But most likely is that it was, in fact, invented by Cincinnati Reds manager Dusty Baker upon reaching the home plate of Dodger Stadium after hitting his 30th homerun of the season on Oct. 2, 1977. On the other end of the high-five was outfielder Glenn Burke, who after retirement from baseball was the first gay baseball player to come out of the closet. His frequent use of the high-five in San Francisco's Castro District helped make the gesture a signal of gay pride.
Ketchup on Hotdogs
What's more American than ketchup on a hotdog eaten high in a ballpark's stands in summer while singing the national anthem? Nothing, that's what. That this national condiment traces its roots to late 17th-century China shouldn't matter at all, should it? It was in the 1690s that a sauce of pickled fish and spices name koe-chiap gained popularity.
One hundred years later, it had migrated and morphed into an English staple and then an American one. An 1801 cookbook by Sandy Addison called "The Sugar House Cookbook" prints the following recipe:
- Get [the tomatoes] quite ripe on a dry day, squeeze them with your hands till reduced to a pulp, then put half a pound of fine salt to one hundred tomatoes, and boil them for two hours.
- Stir them to prevent burning.
- While hot, press them through a fine sieve with a silver spoon till nought but the skin remains, then add a little mace, three nutmegs, allspice, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and pepper to taste.
- Boil over a slow fire till quite thick, stir all the time.
- Bottle when cold.
- One hundred tomatoes will make four or five bottles and keep good for two or three years.
Does it seem a bit random that the United States votes on a Tuesday in November? Why not, say, a Saturday in May, which seems a much more civil pronouncement?
Blame it on our agrarian past. In early November, most of the crops are in, yet the dirt roads remain dry enough to travel over by horse and buggy. And in the time when these things were being decided, polling stations weren't yet as ubiquitous as coffee shops in Seattle. Commonly, it took an overnight trip to reach a polling station at the county seat. One couldn't travel on Sunday, so Monday was ruled out as Election Day. Likewise, most markets were held later in the week, so after voting early on Tuesday morning, farmers could quickly reverse course to make it home in time to sell their recently harvested crops.
For more articles on culture and tradition, check out the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks travels to England to find out just how fried fish and chips got together and became so beloved in the U.K.
- Blue Star Equiculture. "Election Day -- Why Tuesday?" (July 30, 2011) http://www.equiculture.org/election-day-why-tuesday-.aspx
- Detroit Red Wings. "Legend of the Octopus." National Hockey League. (July 30, 2011) http://redwings.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=43781
- Mooallem, Jon. "The history and mystery of the high five." ESPN The Magazine. July 29, 2011. (July 30, 2011) http://espn.go.com/espn/story/_/id/6813042/who-invented-high-five
- Thompson, Jenn. "Bizarre origins of wedding traditions." CNN Living. June 27, 2008. (July 30, 2011) http://articles.cnn.com/2008-06-27/living/wedding.traditions_1_wedding-gowns-wedding-party-white-wedding-dress?_s=PM:LIVING