10 Strange American Traditions

By: Jessika Toothman & Melanie Radzicki McManus  | 
Groundhog day
Based on the size of the crowd gathered, you might think Phil is some major celebrity. But alas, he's just a groundhog who's about to predict the weather. (More on Phil below.) Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

How do you plan on celebrating New Year's Eve this year? Will you run around the neighborhood, chucking old dishware at people's front doors? If you live in Denmark, you might do just that. Or perhaps you'll pick some famous person or event that made a splash in the news during the year, construct an effigy, then light it on fire and watch it burn. Doesn't sound like you? It might if you are Ecuadorian.

Traditions vary widely around the world, and the ways of one society often seem downright wacky to others. American culture and traditions, thanks to the hard work of Hollywood and other arms of the nation's media multiplex, have become well-known in most corners of world. But that doesn't always mean people in other countries find some of these customs less bizarre than Americans consider theirs.


Let's look at 10 traditions Americans celebrate without even considering how strange the rest of world consider them.

10: Throwing Tailgate Parties

Tailgating is serious business, especially for college football fans like these at Florida State University's Doak Campbell Stadium before a home game against Syracuse University. Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock

When Americans attend sporting events — football games in particular — it's often not enough to simply show up and take their seats. These fans need to arrive hours in advance to properly prepare for the experience of seeing the game live and in person. Emblazoned in team colors, tailgaters crowd the stadiums' parking lots, grill food and sip cold adult beverages.

Many tailgaters take their setups very seriously and even haul along TVs, sound equipment and satellite dishes to enhance their experience. (Have you ever seen the infield of a NASCAR race?) When it comes to how early fans arrive to start tailgating, well, the earlier the better it seems. Some fans even camp out the night before the game to get the best spot. Talk about die-hard.


9: Supersizing Food

supersized food
Nobody quite supersizes food (or drinks) like Americans. Okinawa Soba (Rob)/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In the U.S., fast food and packaged food often comes in sizes that can be described as large, really large and, well, supersized. The practice dates to the 1970s, when fast-food restaurant marketing directors realized customers would buy more of their food and drink if it was sold in larger sizes that were value priced. That is, if the restaurants charged less per unit for larger portions. And with that, the practice of supersizing was born.

While supersizing food has seeped into other countries, it's definitely the most prevalent and outrageous in the United States. To wit: McDonald's cup sizes vary around the world, with the U.S., Canada and Singapore at 30 ounces — that's nearly a full liter (0.88 liters). McDonald's cups in Japan, in contrast, top out at 20 ounces (0.59 liters).


8: Tipping

tip jar
Tips aren't just appreciated by American workers in the service industries, they're expected. Catherine McQueen/Getty Images

You've always need extra cash on hand when dining out in the U.S. That's because tipping is expected — and sometimes mandated — for servers and bartenders. Tips are also expected in other service industries, including hair stylists, taxi drivers, tour guides, porters and food delivery drivers. Not only that, but consumers are even instructed how much to tip. Wait staff, for example, expect tips of 15 to 20 percent of the total bill, while bellhops generally receive $1 per bag that they carry [source: Greig].

What's up with the tipping custom, which is prominent in some countries but frowned upon in others? Much of it can be traced to the fact that in the U.S., eateries are allowed to pay their wait staff less than the minimum wage, so tips are expected to make up for that and possibly more. But before this was codified into law in 1938, Americans had already flirted with tipping in the mid-1800s, a custom the wealthy brought back from Europe to seem more sophisticated [sources: Greenspan, Horowitz].


But the public wouldn't have it, and protested so much that their outrage was felt overseas and helped squash Europe's tipping culture. In the U.S., tipping disappeared for a while, then reemerged after Reconstruction as a way to discriminate against Black people. The railroad and restaurant industries, where many Blacks found employment, paid their employees $0, with the understanding that guests would tip instead. Today, tipping is so entrenched in U.S. culture, it may be here to stay [source: Greenspan].

7: Holding "Trials of the Century"

trials of the century
Fans of both Johnny Depp and Amber Heard lined up daily at the Fairfax County Court House in Virginia where the defamation case was being held to gawk and hope to get a glimpse of one of the celebrities. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Americans love sensationalism and the U.S. media is happy to give it to them, couched in familiar and impossibly exaggerated language. That's why, for example, every couple of years a new "Trial of the Century" takes place in America. All past "Trial of the Century" court cases are collectively forgotten, as the new one proves to be so much more distasteful, repugnant, abominable (insert appropriate adjective!) than the last.

Often these trials involve celebrities themselves — this is true from Fatty Arbuckle and O.J. Simpson to former President Bill Clinton and most recently Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. But oftentimes the trials make celebrities (however willing or unwilling) out of ordinary citizens. Casey Anthony's 2008 trial for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter is a good example of a "Trial of the Century" that launched a regular person into the intense glare of the media spotlight. Although ultimately acquitted of the murder, her bizarre and suspicious behavior during the trail brought her "fame," mainly via public shaming on social media sites. Chances are, though that a few years from now, the stage will just be set for the next "Trial of the Century" to commence [source: Ott].


6: Baby Showers

baby shower
A baby shower is a rite of passage for a pregnant woman in the U.S. Not so much in other countries. LordHenriVoton/Getty Images

The custom of celebrating a new child has been around forever and is part of most cultures. In the U.S., however, it's honored differently: with a baby shower. (Don't even get us started on gender reveals.)

The current iteration of a baby shower began during the 1950s, when the post-World War II baby boom was in full swing. It typically involves an afternoon party for the mom-to-be attended by close female friends and family. During the event, the guests "shower" the mom with much-needed gifts for the baby, which she opens for all to see. Often, the guests play baby-themed games, and there's always plenty of food [source: C&A].


But this kind of bash would be verboten in other countries. In China, for example, you'll never find a pregnant woman being feted at a baby shower, as it's considered unlucky to celebrate an unborn child. Instead, the parents and new baby are honored after the birth with a formal banquet dinner, where guests bring money for the family. And in France, the birth of a new baby usually isn't celebrated until its first birthday. When it's time for the party, both men and women are invited, and guests bring gifts for both mom and baby [source: Huggies].

5: Trick-or-Treating

trick or treating
How in the world did taking candy from strangers on Oct. 31 become commonplace? Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Many cultures have strong historic traditions like dressing up around the time of Halloween and exchanging various forms of food, but few of these involve children going door-to-door asking for candy with the words, "Trick or treat!" That strange practice is believed to be American in origin, but perhaps the people who find this most baffling are the pintsized rookies being paraded around the neighborhood. Typically, their parents would forbid them from talking to strangers, begging for candy and roaming the streets at night. But all of a sudden they change their tune and support such shenanigans on one magical evening each fall.

But here's the catch: They only receive these precious goodies by parroting out the magic words, "Trick or treat." And heaven forbid if the giver of candy should request a trick from one of these poor, confused newbies — what kind of trick are they supposed to do?! But after a few years they catch on and trick-or-treating becomes a tradition they couldn't imagine October without.


4: Presidential Turkey Pardons

turkey pardon
It was just another Thanksgiving when U.S. President Joe Biden pardoned the turkey "Peanut Butter" as his grower Andrea Welp (center) and chairman of the National Turkey Federation, Phil Seger (far left) looked on. Of course Peanut Butter was glad to get his pardon. Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

Thanksgiving in general seems to mystify those not steeped in American traditions, but perhaps no part of that quirky turkey fest seems more bizarre than the annual ceremony during which modern presidents grant an official pardon to a live turkey presented to them by the National Turkey Federation. Interestingly, there's also been a great deal of confusion among Americans concerning the actual origins of this strange tradition.

Although the NTF has been gifting presidents with turkeys annually since 1947, the whole idea of "pardoning" them by sparing them from the stove didn't occur until years later. And even then, when it did occasionally happen, it certainly wasn't with anything as grandiose as a declaration of an official presidential pardon.


The first bird to receive a formal stay of execution in the mode of an expressly stated presidential pardon wasn't delivered to the Rose Garden until 1989, when then-President George H. W. Bush started this act of official benevolence that's now become an annual American tradition [source: Hesse].

3: Black Friday Shopping Sprees

black friday
People in the U.S. have no problem lining up before the sun even rises to cash in on blockbuster deals on Black Friday. Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Just hours after millions of unpardoned turkeys are devoured in the United States on Thanksgiving each year, armies of shoppers head out to get a start on their annual Christmas gift list. Black Friday sales traditionally launch this national weekend shopping bonanza, which continues with Small Business Saturday and wraps up with Cyber Monday, two more recently minted traditions that have grown in popularity.

Traditionally, most of those shopping on Black Friday arrive at their chosen stores at a civilized time, but many diehards take the tradition a step further and start the day at a gruelingly early hour. In rare cases, riots or deadly stampedes have even broken out among shoppers desperate to snag a certain deal or a particular product. More recently, many Black Friday sales have occurred online, although a certain percentage of shoppers refuse to give up the brick-and-mortar experience.


2: Groundhog Day

 Groundhog day
Remember Phil (Punxsutawney Phil to be exact)? That's him being held by groundhog handler (there's such a thing?) AJ Derume. Phil's claim to fame is predicting the the weather — or not. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

Leave it to Americans to make their warm-weather travel plans based on the machinations of a reticent rodent. Each year, groundhogs around the country — but most notably Punxsutawney Phil of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — are paraded out to predict how many more weeks will transpire before spring is on the way.

It's either six more weeks of winter or an early spring, depending upon whether the little critter in question sees his shadow or not. This tradition has been going on since the 1800s, despite (ahem) modest advances in weather prediction since that time. And speaking of measuring stuff by strange means, we've got one last weird American tradition for you next.


1: Refusing to Go Metric

imperial system
Let's face it. Measuring things remains a mess in the United States as this speed limit sign at the Nighthawk–Chopaka Border Crossing on the Canadian-United States border shows. Nalidsa/Shutterstock

It's perfectly acceptable to use the metric system in the United States — Congress originally authorized it in 1866, and has repeated those sentiments in the years since — but tradition tells a whole other tale. Although the government now requires metric use in some public sectors and strongly encourages it in many private industries, the American public never really took to the system and largely dismissed it, making the United States the only industrialized nation where that's the case [source: Benham].

In an effort to move the matter along, Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act of 1975 and set up a U.S. Metric Board to take care of all the planning for the desired transition. But they apparently didn't empower the board with enough authority, and the American people preferred to continue on with their miles, pounds, ounces and all the rest. Similarly lackluster efforts since then have done little to get Americans to change their ways.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

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